How much should we dredge up the past, reexamine old views and intimate history, sift through painful memories, for the sake of our children?
Sure, we want them to learn from the mistakes of their parents, but sometimes shouldn't we let bygones be bygones?
These questions came to mind recently when I talked to a friend whose grandfather (who died a few years ago) was one of the German rocket scientists brought to the United States after World War II to work on the Apollo manned space program.
A recent article in the New Yorker, followed by a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of a new biography of Wernher Von Braun, drew my friend's attention to his grandfather's likely experiences during the war.
The Jewish Virtual Library has this account:
“Until the spring of 1944 the prisoners [over 60,000 slaves, who were brought in to work round-the-clock on the V-2 rockets] lived underground... The sanitation was totally inhuman. There were no toilets and there was no water. The temperature was eight or nine degrees Celsius (46-48 Fahrenheit) and humidity was 90 percent. They died like flies.”
An estimated 20,000 prisoners died building the rockets.
Wernher Von Braun and the other scientists who were there, spearheading Hitler's V-2 rocket program, certainly saw the prisoners, and certainly saw their corpses stacked up for disposal.
What did my friend's grandfather do or think?
Should my friend (a person with a very strong moral sense) pursue this further? Should he talk to his children about their great grandfather's past?
He believes that it is his obligation to do so, and he is beginning to research it and prepare the groundwork for that conversation.
I can see that learning more about his grandfather's past, whatever it turns out to be, will provide an amazing opportunity for him and his children to reflect on history, on morality, on courage, on career choices, and on the complicated nature of love. Certainly it will teach his children something about the importance of living examined lives, even in the face of their inevitable failings and regrets.
But in a way, his case is an easy one. After all, his grandfather is not here anymore.
When the past is still alive, however, things can be different. What do we do then? In those cases, attempts to reexamine the past can a lead a person into dangerous territory.
I speak from experience. Here's an example of how it can go wrong:
One night about 6 years ago, for my father's 60th birthday party, my dad, mom, sister, brother-in-law and I gathered for a celebratory dinner at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. It was a treat, and we all enjoyed the meal.
Just as we were finishing our coffees and spooning the last bites of gelato from the dessert plate, I raised my glass to make a toast.
"I want to make a toast to Dad," I said, and I turned to him directly. "In many ways, we have all changed a lot since the years that we lived together in our house as a family. And the world has changed too..."
He nodded in agreement, his eyes flashing with emotion.
"When I think of the socially accepted roles for men and women during the 1970s and early 80s, I sometimes think of 'Captain Kirk" from Star Trek. I mean, it was absolutely natural that the Starship Enterprise would have a man in charge -- no one questioned it. I certainly never did!"
The toast was going on longer than expected; Dad took a sip of wine.
"And it seemed natural too," I continued, "That he would sit in a leather-padded armchair in the center of the cockpit -- what did they call it? the Bridge -- and from that position decide the fate of the whole crew.
"Dad, in many ways you were the Captain Kirk in our family. In many ways, you were the traditional dad. I always knew that you would have the final say on things... You held our fate in your hands!"
A zone of silence seemed to separate our table from the rest of the restaurant.
"What I want to express to you today, is that even though that traditional role of father, as unquestioned "head of the family," has changed, you were truly great at it. I always knew that you would be fair and impartial. I always knew that you had our interests in mind. You were the best Captain a son could ever have asked for!"
Tears welled in my eyes. I finished the remaining wine in my glass and looked around the table.
Well, as you may have guessed by now, it didn't go over well.
Dad glared at me and said simply that I was wrong. He insisted that he and my mother were always equals. With his voice showing unusual irritation, he indicated that he didn't like being described as the "last of the dinasaurs."
Turning to my mother with a defensive chuckle, I expected that she would back me up. Instead, I found that she was hurt -- and near tears herself. "You make it sound like I wasn't even there! As if I was a nobody!" she said, her voice shaking.
I didn't know what to think. "Well," I sputtered, "I'm... I'm surprised." I looked to my sister and her husband. At least the younger generation would get the picture. I half expected them to wink at me.
"Don't you guys at least agree with me? I mean, you don't have the final say, do you?" I pleaded with my brother-in-law.
He gave me a steely look.
"I'm not sure what you're getting at, exactly," he said without affect. My sister said nothing.
"Fine," I said, after taking it all in for a moment. My heart beat in my ears. "You can all fuck off."
I could hear my mom place her wine glass down on the table.
"I was trying to say something true and loving. But if you don't want to look honestly at your past, if you don't place any value on self-examination, then I guess I can't do that!"
Someone got the check, and we left in awkward silence.
This wasn't a major event. I'm sure that even an hour later, we were all chatting amiably. But it taught me a lesson.
The narratives of our lives are important to us. We tell (and retell) our own narratives constantly, and we resist other people's versions of these narratives.
If you believe that it helps you, or your loved ones, going forward, to go over the past together, then by all means, damn (or, as the case may be, research!) the torpedoes.
At the same time, my own experience that night at Chez Panisse taught me that I shouldn't expect agreement or the same kind of enthusiasm about reexamining the past from those close to me.
As for my children, I'm sure over time they will hear about the darker episodes of my past and my family's past (particularly my own mistakes as I was growing up). But I will keep in mind the guiding rule that these conversations work best when they are directed towards the bright, bright future which lies ahead.
Forget that old expression "the past is present": the past is future.