My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
January 1, 2005


I was just listening to that old favorite, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," and for the first time I really heard what the words were saying. The song was about the sorrow of losing loved ones, and the longing to close the circle by reuniting with them eternally. But I'm not sure any of us would truly want an unbroken circle, since that would mean no one left behind in sadness, no one left to carry on the family line, no one at all left to remember.

Kind of like what happened when the tsunami swept through southeast Asia, in fact.

When entire families, three and four generations deep, were swept away together, there was nobody left who could even put names to the broken bodies. Entire towns vanished, their homes and temples and monuments and libraries wiped out at one blow. Nothing but old maps and photographs proved the towns ever existed at all.

That's not what I want for me, and not what most other people want, I would guess. I want the people I love to keep on living, and I jolly well want them to be sad that I'm gone. I want them to tell their own children stories about me, just as I tell them stories about my mother and my sister and my grandmother (who, in 1915, tooled around the country in her model-T, with a hammer and a can of red pepper beside her for protection).

Biologists may think that the urge to reproduce is all about the determination of every species to pass its genes on. Maybe so, but I know it's not my specific genes I'm interested in passing on (unless, of course, curiosity, optimism, and a love for words and books and ideas are genetic). Why would I want to stick my hapless grandchildren with my genes for crooked teeth, bad vision, and fine, flyaway hair?

No, what I want to pass on through my son is the knowledge that I was here and I mattered. I think that with our kind, that, even more than genes, is what we want to keep alive in the world.

Some lucky few will be remembered, with or without descendants, because they changed the world, but most of us are not Napoleon or Picasso or Jane Austen, nor do we wish to be. Some of our names will survive in yellowing newsprint or electronic bytes, for organizing a local charity event, perhaps, or winning a raffle, scoring the game-winning three-point shot, running for city council, rallying against a war, or writing a weblog.

But for most of us, our names, if they survive at all, are just that, names listed in birth or marriage or death announcements, real estate records, voter rolls, or census records. Anyone who cares can trace the names and events -- he was born in Amarillo, married in Cincinnati, died in Grand Rapids. Those bare events say nothing, nothing at all, about the whys and hows of that life. Why did he make those journeys? How did he meet his wife? What did he care about? Was he a happy man? How did he make a difference in the world? Only the ones he left behind could tell you.

What our kind is made of is those whys and hows, the stories that explain us. Some of us do what we can to tell those stories in some form that has a chance of outlasting us -- diaries, letters, home movies, or even columns like this. But for most of us, we survive when, and only when, people who loved us tell our stories.

These are the heritage we leave our family. The admiring stories tell children what qualities their family values; the stories grownups tell only when they think the children aren't listening are the cautionary tales. As children, we can find parts of these people inside ourselves. We can pick and choose among them for our heroes and villains, among their stories for models of possible ways to live in this world.

The perfect, unbroken circle of the song would be like an anthology of stories written in a language nobody knows how to read any longer. All that would be left is the sad sense that there was once a heritage here, lost to the world as completely as if swept away in a tsunami.

May our circles be broken. Please. May a long tail dangle down from all of our circles, made up of generation after generation of stories told and retold.

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