My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #4,
February 11, 2001


My ex-husband has been struggling for his life for the last few weeks, after two heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and too many defibrillator shocks to count. There's not a whole lot I can do but sit and hope and wait for news, and think about my memories of him.

It's important to hold on to the memories, to tell them, write them down, pass them on, because to a large extent we exist in and through other people's memories. Because his present wife and I remember things about him that he's forgotten (just as he knows things about me that I don't recall), we are keepers of his history, even his reality. Her memories of him are what remind the hospital staff he's far more than an inert body with machines pumping stuff in and out of him, and what preserve him as a unique and valuable person, Bob Block.

Sometimes, of course, our memories may be wrong -- we may believe firmly in events that didn't happen, get the details wrong, and filter all our recollections through our interpretations of motive and character. But we organize our memories, wrong or right, into a sensible whole, a picture that matches our idea of who we are, and who others are as we have known them.

If someone someday tries to reconstruct our lives, their challenge will be to take all those stories about us and make sense of them, putting them together with our letters and diaries and e-mail, wills and tax returns and checkbooks, clothes and packed-away mementoes of trips and proms and evenings out. These are the stuff of which history is made.

You see, we all are part of history, no matter how insignificant we seem, pieces of a puzzle whose grand picture we won't ever see. We can't even know which part of the pattern we fit into, which corner of the puzzle we fill, though we may guess -- women pioneers, writing in their journals, must have had some sense that they were contributing to the history of the west.

History is two separate things, really: small history and BIG history. Small history is what you see in historical journals and dissertations, articles with titles like "George Washington's Expense Account." It's made by studying small things -- household account books, parish records, tax court cases or lists of insured items -- to understand how people spent their lives, and what they cherished. Small history is about remembering, about every detail counting.

BIG history, though, is about forgetting -- about putting together lots of bits of small history, paying attention to the commonalities and ignoring the specifics, taking our little splotches of color and seeing them only as part of larger patterns -- oooh, look! that piece is part of the lion's mane! And the nice thing about big history is that one person's puzzle pieces can fit into so many corners of the grand design.

Bob's pieces can fit a lot of places. He could be a bit player in the story of the bands that played bar mitzvahs and weddings in Chicago in the fifties -- the only rock and roll recorder player, known for a nifty "Swinging Shepherd Blues." He and I are part of a history of weddings at City Hall in Chicago -- at least, if the drunken judge who married us remembers that when he told Bob it wasn't too late to back out, Bob told him, "I let them stick a NEEDLE in me and take a blood sample so I could marry this woman!"

He's part of the history of Iowa City, and bound into the history of the University of Iowa's school of music, for over twenty years a player of recorders, krumhorns, cornettos and other medieval instruments for the Collegium Musicum. We and our friends were the unknown culprits who doused the rocks near the Old Capitol with mustard to keep the evil spirits in -- the ones some puzzled maintenance workers were wondering about when we hear them saying, "But why mustard?" -- and were among the many students forming a human chain to protect university buildings the night after Kent State inspired arson on our campus.

We're part of the history of our campus radio station, too, where we and our friends created the first annual St. Gildas Day Festival, where the Iowa Peasant Dances were first performed, and put on a tribute to the little known Friedrichsen, composer of the Concerto in the Polish Manner and the Rolfshire (a string quartet based on a hog call). Bob may also be a not-so-fondly remembered part of the history of nearby fraternity houses, the guy-who-calls-the-cops-for-noisy-parties. (I always kind of thought he'd die at the hands of a drunken frat rat.)

Because he never managed to get into any pre-med courses, and took music courses instead, Bob never became a psychiatrist as he'd planned to be, but he was a counselor nonetheless, part of the history of many shy,awkward young people who blossomed into confident adults because he listened to them, believed in them, found value in them that others had missed. I know, because I was one of them, a smart, funny girl, all insecurities and prickly defenses, until he convinced me I was lovable and turned me from porcupine into "were-spaniel" (as our friends jokingly called me).

I hold his small history for him, at least large chunks of it. But he holds just as much of mine. How much of myself will I lose, if he doesn't make it through?

We are hoping for the best, of course, taking each 24 hours that go by without a crisis as a sign that he's recovering. We know he will be a lousy invalid, antsy to be up and about, unable to understand why he can't hop on his bike and go on about his life. It will be terribly hard for him to sit still. But I have a project in mind for him. I want him to tell his stories, write them down, pass on his small pieces of history to our son, to his wife, and to all the other people who love him.

You didn't think this was just about Bob, did you? We are ALL keepers of history, our own and each other's. Go tell your stories. Don't take for granted that there will be time for that later. Do it now. If not -- well, as the song says, "The tales of my family are fewer now that fewer are left to tell them."

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