Elementary, my dear…
Is it really the short-agos that are hardest to remember?

A stack of history books such as these may have been required reading once upon a time. Are such books read now? If not, should they be?

By Sydney Stevens

One of the great truths I’ve been trying to come to grips with lately is that time is the enemy of memory. I’m not talking dementia or Alzheimer’s here. Or, at least, not only that. No, I’m talking about memory in its broadest sense — institutional memory and generational memory as well as the more personal individual memory.

Partly, it’s the kind of memory that philosopher George Santayana meant when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I wrestle with that thought every evening when I turn on the news and see what’s happening in the Middle East. Pete Seeger sings in my head, “When will we ever learn…” Wouldn’t you think that we’d remember the ravages of war and, by this point in the development of ‘civilized’ people, we’d stop repeating them?

The other day I listened to a pleasant-sounding young woman on a local radio program describe Woody Guthrie’s “Roll on Columbia” as “a commercial for nuclear power.” (I didn’t need to see this woman or hear her age to know she was young. Very young. )

Guthrie wrote that song in 1941, years before the production of nuclear power on the Columbia River became a concern (and, I might add before the word “commercial” became a synonym for “advertisement.”) “Roll on Columbia” was one of 26 songs the Bonneville Power Administration commissioned Guthrie to write in an effort to gain support for federal regulation of hydroelectricity. Just plain old electricity. “Nuclear Power” wasn’t a part of our vocabulary yet. The young radio DJ provided a perfect illustration of our generational memory — or lack thereof.

The who or why of “Roll on Columbia” probably isn’t important. My concern is with the cumulative effect of living in the “now” and with the current attitude that geography and history and even the humanities are of little importance. In many schools they’ve been replaced by “the basics” and by something called “the Common Core.”

Elementary school teachers struggle to find time in the day, even once or twice a week, to teach social studies, once the mainstay of ‘an integrated curriculum.” At the secondary level educators grapple with public pressure to drop the old history/geography standbys and teach real-life skills (like balancing a checkbook) instead. Perhaps those are more practical in the short term, but what of the long term and that prospect of continuing to repeat mistakes of the past?

And speaking of memory, a few years back I had an experience that I hope I’ll never forget. My mother was up at the nursing home (in the days that we had a nursing home.) She had severe dementia, though no doctor ever diagnosed her with the A-word. We were picking her up to take her home for dinner — a little outing that we hoped would please her.

It was pouring rain so Nyel pulled up as closely as possible to the front entrance and I nipped in to get mom. The nurse’s aide had her bundled up in a hooded raincoat and standing ready by the door. As I led her out to the car — literally two steps away — she was in the rain for just an instant. She began to cry and then to wail and was all but immobilized by fear. I kept urging her forward, telling her that it would be okay when she got in the car. And it was.

But it was an interminable few seconds for her and what I realized right then and there was that without memory there is no way to anticipate. Without a memory of past rains and without an understanding of shelter, my darling little mother could only feel trapped in the now of water cascading down unpleasantly on her. The entire concept of past, present and future was totally lost in the now. Sometimes I think about that when I hear that term “the now generation.” Scary.

“It’s not the long-agos that are hard to remember; it’s the short-agos,” said a 4-year-old friend of mine. Most of us “of a certain age” couldn’t agree with him more. But it’s all the agos that we need to be remembering and revisiting and retelling if we are to find our way to a better future. Of that I am certain.

Writer and historian Sydney Stevens and her husband Nyel live in her family’s ancestral home in Oysterville.

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