For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

All this happened, more or less.

My grandmother was born when the US was collectively trying to either overcome or ignore the pain and terror of The Great War, just before it found itself in a crumbled heap at the bottom of The Great Depression. Her family called open country in Missouri their home. They prided themselves on their faith, on their perseverance, on their clan-like families, and on their self-sacrifice. They had needed all of those things to come to Missouri from the penal colony of Jamestown, Virginia after generations of hard work, a little luck, and other forces that can’t be adequately named.

On October 30, 1929, the day after the end of the world, my grandmother, her brothers, her parents, and her friends all woke up and began the struggle of survival. Growing up in the country had always forced the family to be resourceful and thrifty, but now more than ever before my grandmother learned that she could not afford the cost of waste. Every scrap of food was eaten, because any leftovers were given to the hobos riding the rails who would come to the back door in the evenings. The faith, perseverance, kinship, and self-sacrifice that had brought them safely this far took on new forms in this new landscape.

The US eventually emerged from The Great Depression, but my grandmother did not. The country became filled with luxury goods, disposable incomes, and the promises and hopes of a safe and peaceful future. But my grandmother had been nurtured by The Depression. She had come into herself among tightened belts and anxiety about tomorrow. The home she lived in with her husband and children may have had a dishwasher and no hobos at the back door, but she couldn’t turn off the survival tactics she had practiced for so long. She saved and reused everything from baby clothes to sour cream containers to wrapping paper. And she taught her six children to do so, as well.

All this happened, more or less.

My mother came during the middle of the baby boom. She went to public high schools, played in marching band, and went to college to learn vocal performance. Her father was able to give her her first car, and her sister obsessively straightened her hair with empty Pepsi cans. My mother was only a teenager when the first human set foot on the moon.

But she was also still living in The Depression. When she went out to eat, she simply had to finish all of her food or get the leftovers to go. When she had children, she bought their clothes second hand or received hand-me-downs from cousins, neighbors, even relative strangers. She used her faith, her perseverance, her family’s close bonds, and her self-sacrifice to live beneath her means, to waste not, to survive the phantom of tightening belts and a looming anxiety about tomorrow.

All this happened, more or less.

By October 30, 2013, soon after I moved out of my parents’ house, my kitchen cabinets were filled with empty sour cream containers, my closets were full of a collection of broken down boxes, and my Christmas gifts were wrapped in last year’s paper. This is not the best or only way to live, but it is the only one I know.

I did not see the moon landing. I did not see the Dustbowl. I did not see The Great War, and I did not see Jamestown, Virginia. But living inside me are the skills and habits my family built up over generations to survive those events. They feel as necessary to me as they did to my young grandmother, though I can’t articulate why.

I have my own memories, memories of boy bands, of the Internet’s infancy, of the world before and immediately after September 11, 2001. And I carry with me the echoes of memories of events I did not live through, memories that belong more to the collective identity of my family, of my people, and of my country than to me individually. Those echoes of collective memory have shaped who I am today as much as my memories of safe, suburban, affluent Chicagoland.

As with all memory, the memory built into my body after generations of life is imperfect. It deals only in the perspective of one group of people, passed down over time through imperfect means. And in the case of many of these memories that are simultaneously mine and not mine, they were not elaborated on, explained, or even spoken about. The baton was quietly passed without any acknowledgement.

I am not my grandmother, but I carry her with me, and she still teaches me how to survive the phantoms of threats she endured.

All this happened, more or less.

My family, my people, and my country have known suffering, loss, fear, and pain. My family struggled and overcame and made the slow, grueling climb to the mountaintop I now stand on. It was not easy, and that struggle is a part of me.

But in the past five generations of my family, we were not slaves. In the past two hundred years, we were not driven out of our homeland by invaders. Our bodies were not used as science experiments of people who would become famous from our pain. Our discoveries and inventions were not taken by someone else to reap the rewards. Our stories were not prevented from being told and we were not discredited simply because of who we were and what we represented. We were not isolated from the rest of society as if our very existence was offensive. We were not told every human being around us that we were subhuman, valueless, degenerate. My people were scorned, mocked, mistrusted, and misunderstood, but after enough time passed, we were swept up in the mainstream of the American Dream. My great-grandmother was only sometimes able to serve food to the desperate people who begged for it, but I am able to get a graduate degree and not lose sleep over where my next meal will come from. The collective memory of my people generally arcs towards prosperity, and we can look back and say that our faith, perseverance, family love, and self-sacrifice was all it took to get us here.

But not everyone can say that.

All this happened; more for some, less for others.

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