Born in April of 1925, my dad turned ninety-two years old this year. (In 2015, we did a risky thing and threw a surprise birthday party for a ninety-year-old man with a history of heart disease. Thankfully, the whole thing worked out.) My dad lived through The Great Depression and World War II, participated in the Baby Boom (and as a good daughter, I tend not to usually phrase it that way), and has a collection of opinions and perspectives that were born entirely out of the vast number of years he has lived on this earth.
At some point in the past year, I realized what incredible privilege I have in being so close to a man who has lived through the history of my family, my community, my country, and my culture. Over the past two months, I have been gradually interviewing my father, piecing together his stories, his relationships, his experiences, all to create a patchwork that tells me more about him than what my history books have taught me, than I have gleaned incidentally over the course of my lifetime. I hope to one day turn my interview notes, organized as they are now into a chaotic Word document, into something fit for other eyes. I hope to talk to other septa-, octo-, and nonagenarians and weave their stories in with my father’s to create a more detailed, wholistic view of all that has come before me.
But that eventuality still feels like little more than a fever dream, a naïvely dogged undertaking of what feels like a simultaneously important and enormous task. For now, that chaotic Word document, adorably titled “Questions for Daddy.docx,” is still incredibly personal and anything but wholistic.
For instance, I never met my father’s mother, Viola Julia Warren Healy Sadler. I have come to learn that she was a single mother during the depression, put herself through college by running a boarding house, and single-handedly started up New Castle, Pennsylvania’s high school home economics program. My father tells me that my grandmother was raised by her aunt and uncle because my great grandmother, Julia Judd Warren died in childbirth and “a man [my great grandfather, Earnest Warren] couldn’t raise a child in those days.”
Viola Warren married Rufus Healy in Ohio in 1924 and, after giving birth to my father, un-married Rufus Healy as directly as possible. In later years, when my father would go to visit Rufus periodically, “a man [still] couldn’t raise a child in those days,” so my father was frequently passed off to his aunt and cousins. His cousin Emily Louise, or Emmy Lou, was one of my dad’s closest relationships. “We had all kinds of adventures,” he says about his time with Emmy, outlining rowboat outings across Glen Lake, evenings spent learning to horseback ride, and more stories fit for a set of early twentieth century serial novels. “I have lots of fond memories of Emmy.”
One of my older sisters is named Emily. When I asked my dad if Emmy Lou had anything to do with that, he said he honestly didn’t know. I can’t say exactly why, but that feels like a little pearl of history that might have been lost to time if my dad and I hadn’t stumbled upon it together during a Skype call.
But our discoveries have not all been exciting, or even generally positive excavations. Over the course of his ninety-two years, my dad has built a legacy of intelligence, of thrift, of discipline, and of thinking before you act (though maybe not always before you speak). He has a lot to be proud of, and I think mostly of those things when I glance through pictures of him.
Nevertheless, my dad is a man. And as wonderful as he is, and as many little pearls of personal history we uncover together as we sift through his memories, there are things about him I don’t want to be true about me. There are beliefs and understandings I don’t agree with. Some of these things are silly, or at the very least, more cosmetic than structural. But some of them feel like impasses, like barriers to understanding, like whatever the opposite of a pearl is.
Interviewing my dad has made something clear to me, something which probably should have been clear before, and maybe was, but I ignored it. From the fascinating to the painful, history books, documentaries, and other informative media about the past are easy to engage with. Even the painful ones, the ones that strip away the veneer of the melting pot, the ones that leave scars on the brain and smudge the lens of understanding you use to see the world. Because for the average human, even the very worst realities of history are untouchable inevitabilities. We may long for them to have been different, but there is a morbid comfort in knowing there’s nothing we can do to change them.
But history is not made up of books, documentaries, or any kind of media. History is comprised of people and their actions. Perhaps people are the only true primary source. And people are connected through history by invisible webs of love, interest, respect, and coincidence. The more we engage with the webs that specifically entangle us as individuals, the more those webs begin to feel like extensions of ourselves, stretched out over time and space, leading with the forcefulness and inevitability of a river to our own existence.
And from the fascinating to the painful, history, as a structure built out of the life and love and pain and progress of thousands of souls, is a demanding thing to have to face. There are moving moments, like the fearlessness of Viola Julia Warren Healy Sadler who became a single mother and survived the greatest economic downturn of our country’s history. There are sparklets like my sister’s maybe-namesake, Emmy Lou, the adventuring cousin who grew up to marry an Austrian man and spend her life training Lipizzaner Stallions. And there are people like my father who delight and motivate those who know him.
But history is human. And humans aren’t simple. Humans are at once beautiful and disappointing, empowering and terrifying. The more you extend yourself throughout time and space among the humans you have the privilege of knowing, the more you open yourself up to the unsettling complexities of their humanity. And the more you must admit that you, too, are beautiful and disappointing. You empower, and you terrify. One day, a young person may come to you and ask you questions, and they may not like all your answers.
The true pain of history is having to live through it, not knowing what it all, and you, amounts to in the end.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.