Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Lifetime Of Change

My great aunt, Bertie Ardelle Lee, was born in 1880. She died in 1974, having lived a full life of 94 years. Over the years, I have often thought about what her lifetime encompassed, the vastly different experiences she encountered, and the extraordinary changes that occurred in America and the world – all bookended by the dates on her tombstone.

She was born into an era of Conestoga wagons and horse-drawn buggies, and sailboats and paddlewheel ships. The railroad had only recently connected the two coasts, bringing a new option for travelers and the distribution of agricultural and manufactured goods. Combined with the telegraph wires running alongside the train tracks, intra-national communication could now be accomplished in days, rather than months.

In Aunt Bertie’s childhood years, the telephone would arrive, allowing real-time conversation across ever-increasing distances. As a young married woman, she heard about human beings flying in the air, and watched silent movies (“flickers”) in awe. As a fulltime mom, she sat in her living room listening to the squeaking sounds of news and entertainment out of a box they called a “radio,” or scratchy music playing on “the Victrola.”  Electric lights replaced the flames of candlelight and the dangerous gas and oil lamps; automobiles replaced horse-drawn wagons, thereby displacing most blacksmiths and wagon-manufacturers.

In her middle through late ages, she lived through the prosperity and excesses of the Jazz Age, the economic collapse and poverty of the Great Depression, followed by the greatest expansion of middle-class economic growth and distributed prosperity due to the post-WWII boom recovery. The big changes of her early life moved into their 2nd- and 3rd-generation product cycle: silent movies became “talkies”; expanded automobile ownership led to new roads crisscrossing the nation; rotary dialing phones replaced switchboard operators. Television almost bankrupted the radio and movie industries. Air travel – begun 20 years after her birth – went from novelty solo flights into airlines moving passengers great distances in short timelines; five years before her death, two men landed on the moon. Over the course of her life, she also lived through five American wars.

Perhaps the biggest and most affecting change for Aunt Bertie came in the arena of social change, and the push to expand true civil rights and equality for all. Born in northern Alabama, the daughter of a Confederate Civil War veteran, surrounded by a post-Reconstruction / Jim Crow segregated culture and legal system, she was steeped in the ways of the Old South. As a young bride, she moved to western Arkansas with its familiar system of African-American segregation in schools, housing, public accommodations and services, along with limited voting and legal rights. She became a local leader of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization dedicated to preserving “the old ways” and glorifying “the Lost Cause.” I had left my hometown by the time the various civil rights movements (e.g. African-Americans, women, gays) exploded into the nation’s consciousness in the 1960s, so I never had an opportunity to talk with her about whether she had moved away from her cultural heritage. Besides, these were not conversations that one tended to have in family social gatherings – Jim Crow being nurtured by a conspiracy of silence. Regardless of what her thinking might have come to be, I suspect that an African-American being elected President 35 years after her death would have been beyond her capacity to even envision, much less comprehend.

I have written often about constant change being an inherent and unavoidable aspect of the human story. Little today is what it was yesterday, nor what it will be tomorrow. The only substantive discussion is how different the change will be, and how prepared one will be to respond to it. Some changes are self-initiated by an intent to alter the specifics of our life and to proactively move toward those alterations. Others are brought on by outside agents of change: nature, social convention, the aging process, cultural movements, decision-makers, or the spiritual Universe. Some change happens due to our being part of a larger group; others are personal to us individually. Whether sourced internally or externally, our reactions can be either positive and welcoming, or negative and defensive, yet are often fearful when anticipating as yet unknown outcomes. At times we simply dig in our heels and adopt a “stand pat” posture – a bulwark of resistance to the impending change – either because we disagree with the change calling to us, or this latest change is just one too many to take on.

I have seen many changes during my lifetime. But my changes pale in comparison to what Aunt Bertie experienced. From Conestogas to the moon, the world she was born into seems irreconcilable with the one she left behind a lifetime later. The reality is that each living thing, and all civilizations, move over time. The lifestyle, cultural environments, and beliefs we are so enamored with today will virtually disappear within a few short generations, so we should not unduly be held captive by them. Our changes can be cumulatively dramatic; some prove to be minor blips. Prioritizing the changes we take on; letting the little ones go by; keeping our life structures flexible and adaptable; remembering that all life is fleeting. These are tools that help us steady the boat as we navigate the windstorms of our life Changes. This fundamental movement of Change is simply the inherent way of things. So at any given moment, towards what will we choose to redirect our life?

©   2019   Randy Bell   


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, Randy, wisely thought and felt. Thank you once more.

Anonymous said...

Incisive, philosophical, engaging, thought provoking. And all in one short piece. I am putting on a hat so I can take it off to you … I was extremely moved by what the life of your auntie encompassed. Such challenges/invitations to grow and change. Some taken, some not I expect. Your heart touching piece will remain with me beyond the time I can recall the details.

Anonymous said...

This one is wonderfully written. The future is always uncertain and not all risks are knowable. be flexible and adaptable - change is inevitable - solid message.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was born in 1889 and was one of the first to ride in a horseless carriage in her home county in far NW Nebraska. She often marveled at all the leaps humankind made during her 100 years.

Jane K said...

Lovely ode to Aunt Bertie and how she has informed your life. Made for heart warming reading this morning as I depart rehab for home. Many thanks.