September, 12, 2012

Abstract Relations

I love when people put things on their stoops for others to take. At least, this is what happens in Brooklyn, New York. You’re walking along, and suddenly you see a little pile of books or a piece of clothing hung over a wrought-iron fence. Sometimes a kitchen appliance, and a perfectly good one at that, sits there waiting to be picked up, considered, and taken home with you.

This evening, as I walked home from work, I noticed a small book propped up again someone’s fence. It was leather-bound, and the late evening sun caught its golden embossing. It was a special book. I picked it up and tilted it slightly to read the spine: Roget’s Thesaurus. On the copyright page, I learned it had been published in 1946 by Pocket Books. It felt good in the palm, so I took it. Sitting on the bus, I began flipping pages.

Words. They can be like honey.

The pages did not proceed in single-file order, instead they denoted entry numbers. I found myself reading entries “113-117,” which listed synonyms related to “Abstract Relations.”

114. [Estimation, measurement, and record of time] CHRO-

NOMETRY. –N. Chronometry, chronology,  horology.

          almanac, calendar; register, registry; chronicle, annals, journal, diary.

          timekeeper, clock, watch, repeater; chronometer, timepiece; dial, sundial, hourglass.

And then a little farther down…

116. PRIORITY – N. priority, predecessor, precedence, preexistence; precursor, antecedent, forerunner; the past, etc. 122. V. precede, come before; pre-exist, forerun; go before, lead, head; presage, herald, usher in, introduce, announce.

It was “usher in, introduce, announce” that got me. Very often in our work at StoryKeep, families come to us because they want to record the “old stories.” They want to document their father’s past, their mother’s roots. They want to capture anecdotes that tell something about who they are and where they come from. I love all of this, the nostalgia and the romance. But tonight, I remembered something I already knew. I remembered how our families don’t just root us in the past, they “usher” us in. Our grandparents’ lives are equally, and perhaps more powerful, because they introduce us, they announce us, they make a path.

A few months ago, I was in the midst of conducting a series of recording sessions with a ninety-four year-old man. As he said during our first meeting together, “You know what that means, it means I’m old.” Over the course of a few months, I also conducted recording sessions with his children. I learned about their careers and a few details of each of their lives. Every last one of them was well accomplished and socially at ease. This man had been their forerunner. I learned from his grandson that this man had been one of the first Jewish law students at Harvard. Opening a yearbook from 1939, his daughter read aloud some statistics: “There were twelve Hebrews,” and then later she noted, “…and there were over 200 Episcopalians.”

Unfortunately, the gentleman passed away before our delivering of his “Audio Life Chronicle.”

117. POSTERIORITY. –N. posteriority; succession, sequence;

following, continuance, prolongation; futurity, future; successor; sequel, etc 65; remainder.

Are we the “futurity” of our forerunners? I think so. We are their continuance. We are their better sequel, we hope. We come in sequence, following and remaining. We are not, as the Thesaurus entry title would have us believe, “Abstract Relations.” That’s the antonym. We are concrete, actual, real.

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