When books make you cry.

It can take seconds, but books have an emotional impact well beyond their weight. I get up, walk from the living room, see a hardback version of a favorite book— I’ve left it out from sorting my shelf. 

It’s filled with poems about a war (doesn’t matter which one, the truths are all the same, merely different uniforms). I flip it open, read. I sit down. I read. I think of the losses, and what the author was feeling. I’m not sure I can know, but I can try. I think of family funerals, and rain. I think of the chill of a grave and the life left over, forced to live in a place not of my own choosing where there’s enough pain that I am compelled to write the poem I hold in my hands. The book creaks as I close it, and I notice that there’s glue on the back from an old sticker.

The book has traveled, just like me. The poem is one year older than me. The pain is raw as the day it was written. I don’t know the author. Should I go type my own words now, freshly shorn by the ragged edge of a single page– the scent of someone else’s blood funneled into my own narrative? It feels like theft, kind of, but then writers are emotional vampires, building stories from borrowed hurt and joy.

I wonder if the author is still alive, and then decide I don’t want to know. They are alive to me, as certainly as if they were standing next to me, reading their poem and watching from the corner of their eye, just to make sure I’m listening.

“What are we watching?” I ask my son, averting my eyes. He’s nine, and I’m not sure I can explain how second hand pain works. Not at this age, and not yet. Maybe someday he will read something I’ve written and ask how someone like me could write something so bleak, and then we can discuss what it means to be an adult, but not right now. I look at the television and think of muddy fields and missing sons, and who wrote it down so that I could be thankful for the room around me, free of rain and fear.

Who do you think you are?

Do you know who you are? What’s your genealogy? Who are your people? Where did your family originate?

Do you know, or do you think you know?

I write books and teach history, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective. In the case of writing, it’s mostly a joy. In the case of teaching history, also a joy.

But knowing history? That’s something entirely different. I read constantly, and yet, I’m still surprised by the inhumanity that existed– and still exists. Conversely, I find great kindness and love in the strangest places, often related in small historical accounts of greatness in the face of what we can only call pure evil. Therein lies the challenge of history, and by extension, the love of it, too.

Sometimes, we think we know our family. It’s a curious mix of truth and myth, not unlike history in the wider sense. Case in point- my handwriting is almost identical to that of my father, although he’s right handed and I’m a lefty. I’m tall like him, laugh like him, and even speak in the same syntax. I have the same skillet-shaped hands, and yet–

I look like my mother, and look exactly like my grandfather.  I’m fortunate in that my family tends to be the saving kind, squirreling away photos from a time when sepia tones, hats, and ladies in pearls were the norm.

My grandfather was a big band leader in the 1930s, but then he was called away to war. Everyone was called away for that horror show, and yet, in the midst of it, his people– my people– managed to survive, mostly, and return home to a very different world.

Maybe my age is showing, but to my students, those pictures are history. To me, it’s where I came from, and who I am. It’s who my son will be, and perhaps his children.

I think that’s why it’s important to save the past, because a simple glimpse tells us that it isn’t the past at all. It’s now, it’s us. It’s who we are and where we’ve been, and something to show our children, drawing a line between the distant horizon and the possibilities ahead of them.

I think it’s worth saving, so I will.