Late Summer 2021
The Pull of the Past
I recently read an article written by a man in honor of his deceased brother. It was a touching tribute, one that brought tears to my eyes.
The words were humble, simple, honest; no punches were pulled about the memories, tender and trying, that those two siblings had shared, albeit in different ways. As much as I was moved by the love that those two brothers held for one another, I was even more moved by the love of their father, a quietly brave man who strove to ensure such a strong bond between his sons would endure beyond his time on this earth.
This man had been born in the early part of the 20th century, and he grew up in the Jim Crow South of the United States. The timeframe was about 50 years after the end of the Civil War, or the War Between the States. He did not permit the pull of that past to keep him back there; the pull of that past did not drown him. He’d swum tenaciously, and perhaps too wordlessly, away from it, in the currents that brought him to the shores of his future: the wife and children who would define his life.
The indignities and cruelties that he’d suffered in the post-Civil War American South undoubtedly left their marks on him, his heart, his soul, his sense of self. His sons were not always apprised of those harrowing emotions, and, for many years, they paid a price for that ignorance of their father. It took them the better part of a lifetime for them to come to know, to rightly know, the underpinnings that had produced a toughness, a responsive toughness, in this man called Father.
It must be extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, for the richly blessed Americans of today to fully comprehend the world — good and bad — that their forebears called their own a century ago. The reasons for that shortsightedness reside not entirely with the quick comforts and contentments of the present “generation”, nor with the wearisome regrets of the very oldest individuals among us. Experience determines so very much of what a person comes to know as the baseline of his reality, of her ingrained truths. The facts, and facets, of one’s experience, personal and profound, are not always freely given expression from one human being to another.
I believe that the liberating power of confronting the past comes from the choice of the individual to process those moments for himself, in his own way, in his own time. Only then can he have a chance of discovering the blessings amidst the abominations, the benedictions within the condemnations. For that miracle of memory to take place in any person, time and freedom are required.
The hectic pace of life, of starting once again to put that life back together, as witnessed by millions during just this past year — that haywire turbulence gets in the way of a sane and sound existence. The crazed bigwig fools at the top of the power pyramid live that berserk way every day, and they care not a jot or tittle about the lives of the little people whom they trample with their clodhopper feet.
There is no civilized reason on God’s green earth for any decent human being to take part in their madness, to join them in their decadent dingbat world.
The more charmed a life a person lives, the less he is capable of easily understanding the cross that another person must bear. Perhaps that distance between any two human hearts is part of why a false empathy can be peddled so readily nowadays. Words don’t get it done, though. To walk a mile in the moccasins of another person, you have to first put on those shoes, and then tread carefully her path.
It was often bemoaned by the Baby Boomer brats that their fathers refused to speak to them of their war ordeals, sometimes until that parent was nearing death. Having dealt one-on-one with some of those brats, I can discern the valid reasons for the palpable and unbroken silence between father and child. More likely, however, that deep silence was imbued with the sense, and the commitment, from those emotionally battle-scarred men to remain steadfastly loyal to those with whom he had shared unspeakable sorrows. A sacred alliance had been forged between and among those men in combat, and those women in the armed services, to keep sacrosanct their moments of truth, their points of no return, through a vow of silence regarding those terrifying souvenirs.
The war, or war itself, was blamed by a rather infantile group of adults for the emotional distance that their fathers kept from them. Those childish progeny of heroes could not even summon the kindness to grant their valiant parents the right to privacy, that hot-button issue the jackanapes would pound into the ground for decades, until we presently have very little privacy because of their two-faced hypocrisy.
Those combat survivors of war had returned to civilian life after turning points that no one on the home front could fathom. It was a burden for the veteran of yesteryear, this traumatic bonding that he could not openly share with even the love of his life, or his offspring.
In the same way that those battle-scarred heroes returned home from war, the men and women, who prevailed over the vicious racism of America during the pre-Civil Rights era, persevered in putting the past, and the pull of the past, behind them. I know, from tender experiences, the steadfast refusal of descendants of American slaves to permit a single excuse to slip from their lips because of bigotry or poverty or a paucity of education and opportunity. Theirs was a dignity of self to which I hoped, and still hope, to aspire.
A person who chooses to remain silent about past griefs and traumas does not consciously deprive his loved one of knowledge about him or his life. The decision is usually made without the person even being very consciously aware of it.
It’s not a resolution or a determination; it’s a natural continuation of being, a mode of existence, a drive to survive, a passion to soar. Such a muted offering of self is not a pull of the past; it is the lure of the future.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish novelist, essayist and poet, wrote, “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” And it is inescapably true that the mindful intent to withhold part of your self from a beloved is, in itself, contrary to love. It is also unavoidably true that the most heartfelt love is often given silently from one person to a beloved. The cherished recipient might not even apprehend the totality of that gift, or its very essence, during those voiceless moments.
There are times when privacy, particularly for an artist, is a necessary tool in life and in art. The men and women who had to surmount the horrors of an evil humanity ought not be expected by any humane person to try to impart any recollection that words cannot express. The pull of the past is then a force that the survivor, of any persecution, must fight and conquer, alone, in order to arrive at that new day, the dawn that shines with radiance, beyond the tears of that anguished yesterday.
In rearing my own two children, I was often faced with ripe opportunities to disclose information about my younger life that I knew my youngins would not yet be able to draw meaning from; their own life experiences were not up to the task of offering them insights into my life, and into their own.
The pull of the past thus accelerated me along a rather dynamic avenue to my future — because of the purpose and the perspective that my memories bestowed upon me, upon my life, my art, my loved ones. The pull of the past can present to any person either a pathway to build a life, or to destroy it. If the future is what we make of today, the past is also what we make of it, and from it.