I like to think the gaps between generations are not defined (in the U.S.) by technological changes, but so they are. My adorable, 94-year-old Cousin Eleanor teases her 40-something gynecologist that she not only remembers radio and newsreels but pre-radio. He looks at her like a freak of nature, a totally alive fossil. For my sister and me growing up in the 1950s, radio brought us the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up, Little Susie” and Elvis crooning “Treat me like a fool, but love me…” and whatever preceded that. My father sat at a card table in the living room, scratching his receding hairline, correcting papers, and listening to the World Series on the radio. Yes, by that time, we had moved across the Cooper River Bridge from Charleston, to the tiny town of Mt. Pleasant, and we had a TV. But we watched it only on Sunday nights when my mother set up TV tables in the living room and we were entertained by the Ed Sullivan show where Elvis would shock the nation with his gyrating hips.
All that seems very long ago. Yet something of the same phenomenon exists today. Recently a student wrote in some concern about the waning of oral history. He opined that with the advent of handheld electronic devices, the young and younger generations would lose the ability to listen. Even the ability to manipulate a magazine. He heard about a pre-walking baby who’d been given a handheld device and quickly learned to “flip” the pages by touching the tiny screen, yet when given a magazine, and finding that touching the cover brought no response, the baby began to scream. Hmmm, will our hands quickly evolve (like the constant up-ticking of greenhouse gases) into stumps?
Unlikely. An interest in family and community history, which can best be told by those who either lived it or heard it from earlier generations, usually does not appear until age thirty-five or forty. We have to live a certain amount of time ourselves, and develop the perspective to realize that we have vivid memories of childhood, before we become alert to the stories of our elders. N. Scott Momaday’s wonderfully evocative memory dream of his Kiowa people, The Names (1976), reaches deep into the collective knowledge of Kiowa arrival: the coming-out people who emerged through a hollow log until a pregnant woman became stuck and thus stopped further generation. In early morning dark, when my mind swings far and wide, I imagine that this genesis is as mythic and meaningful as the story of African ancestors who spread through eons of time to every inhabitable place on the globe, changing their skins and tongues as they go. What is deep and narrow for the Kiowa is wide and slow for believers in evolution.
Momaday’s account of his tribal and family arrival in Oklahoma–from Montana on his Kiowa father’s side and Kentucky on his mother’s Anglo-Saxon and Cherokee side; their eventual removal to the Jemez pueblo in New Mexico–brings up another American author of the middle west and southwest, Willa Cather. Her novel about the first bishop of Santa Fe, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927, made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best books in the English language.
As Momaday writes, “It is a principle of their lives that the pueblo people move ever towards the center.” And “Water is a holy thing in the pueblos. You come to understand there how the heart yearns for it.” And “The Roman Catholic churches…seem to be appropriated by the culture and to express it in its own terms.” Cather shows this last most emphatically in the story of two French priests who attempt to oust their Spanish predecessors and in the process realize it is the native people themselves whose resist like the land.