As my family returned home from Grandma and Grandpa’s house one fine day several years ago, where my kids had been royally spoiled (a grandparent’s prerogative), I was trying to explain to them how things had changed since I had been their age. Soda pop, for example, was a rare treat, maybe once every month or two. At our house it was usually served with pizza, another treat.
Furthermore, in the “olden days,” we either watched a TV show when it was scheduled or we missed it. There was no videotape or TiVo. There were only three stations, and no cable. We went to see movies at the theater (although we watched The Wizard of Oz on TV once a year, as long as we were home that night) because there weren’t films on VHS or DVD. There were no personal computers; in fact, I can remember my mom buying my dad one of the first handheld calculators for his birthday. It cost over $50 and was several times the size of an as-yet nonexistent iPod Touch. We had no cell phones or even cordless phones.
There weren’t even music CDs yet, much less MP3 players. We listened to record albums and cassette tapes. Our Christmas or birthday wish list might have included a battery-operated transistor radio. My older brother had an 8-track tape player in his truck. That was pretty cool, I told the kids, because I only had an AM radio in my Ford Pinto. My son was incredulous at this bit of information. “Mom,” he exclaimed, “You mean it only worked in the morning?”
After the laughter died down and I explained what an AM radio is, I got to thinking about how much can change over a lifetime. Take, for example, Laura Ingalls Wilder. We know from her books that the Ingalls family crossed the frontier in a covered wagon. She describes the trials and tribulations of everyday pioneer life — how to build a log cabin, boil down maple syrup, braid straw hats and butcher a hog (complete with instructions for headcheese). Laura witnessed the building of the transcontinental railroad, and described a trip on the train in By the Shores of Silver Lake. Later she traveled again by covered wagon with husband Almanzo and daughter Rose to Mansfield, Missouri, where she would spend the rest of her life.
During Laura’s lifetime the telephone, phonograph, incandescent light bulb, Kodak camera, gasoline-powered automobile, airplane, television and atomic bomb were invented. She died in 1957 at the age of 90, just a few months before the launch of Sputnik I ushered in the space age.
In her books, Laura Ingalls Wilder left behind a rich written record of her frontier experiences. It’s likely that someone you know also has an interesting history. My eldest daughter’s great-grandmother was acquainted with (but did not much like) Charles Lindbergh. She also drew pen-and-ink images for 1920s Famous-Barr ads published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. My husband’s father went to Europe as a young MP just after WWII ended, and among other experiences, delivered war criminals to Dachau just months after its liberation. My great-uncle was friends with Walt Disney and was honorary mayor of Disneyland when it opened.
I find reminiscing with older family members and friends more interesting than contemplating the changes that have occurred in my lifetime, probably because I take my own experiences for granted. But that conversation with my kids reminded me how important it is to take the time to talk to family, friends and elderly neighbors about their lives. Like the Little House books, their memories can bring history to life.