By Elof Carlson
For the past four years I have participated with a writing group at Indiana University’s Emeriti House, where old-timers like me gather and once a month discuss what we have written. I much enjoy listening to the stories told.
A Norwegian opera singer described his youth near Oslo on an island in a fjord and how that idyllic childhood was shattered by the Nazi occupation. A linguistics professor discussed what it is like to eat with one’s hands in Kathmandu where table manners are very different than the world of knives and forks or chopsticks. A Spanish teacher described her adventure learning how to chop wood with a wedge. A journalism professor described sailing a boat alone from New England to Florida and back. Along the way we learned that some growing up experiences were frightening, especially those who were refugees during WWII in the Baltic states.
A different opportunity arose recently when my daughter Christina located the granddaughter of my Uncle Charles Vogel. I had seen him a few times as a child when my mother would visit him at his home in Brooklyn. He sold clothing door to door and he gave me about a dozen ties so I could wear them to my high school. My mother said he sold to gangsters. I never knew if this was part of my mother’s psychotic beliefs or real, but I downloaded this previously unknown relative’s manuscript called “Charlie’s story” based on a 1985 interview she had with her grandfather. It turned out he sold men’s clothes to Al Capone, Gaetano Luchese, Lucky Luciano and Albert Anastasia. He also survived a disastrous childhood accident in Bound Brook, New Jersey, when he was hit by a car that had him hospitalized for a year. Later he ran away to join the Barnum & Bailey Circus until his father located him. These family stories are usually oral and then forgotten after a couple of generations. But if someone types them up after an interview, they can be part of the delight of tracing our ancestors and seeing how things change over several generations.
Social history decays rapidly, and many of us have only scattered memories of our childhood. We know virtually nothing about our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ lives. If we have our DNA examined for selected genetic markers, we can identify different ethnic components (Asian or African or Middle Eastern or Native American). Each person who has a European ancestor is related to virtually every person in Europe if one goes back 2,000 years (something difficult to do for those who do not have a royal lineage).
All Native Americans in the western hemisphere are related to ancestors who lived in eastern Siberia about 15,000 years ago. The genetic crumbs of information of this past ancestry tell us little about who these people were and what they did. But what we preserve as memoirs can last for many generations delighting our descendants. Every time I open up a volume of Samuel Pepys’ diary the world of the 1660s shifts from history to eyewitness narrative.
Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.