Right now we’re living inside a blip on history’s timeline, a unique moment whose immediate tsunami-type impact will ripple through decades to come. But our experience of this pandemic, what it actually felt like—for those of us lucky enough to get through it safely—is likely to fade in our minds. And before you know it, babies born later in the year 2020 will have grown into adults who have no direct feeling connection with the pandemic whatsoever. It won’t be real for them because they didn’t live it. It will become less real for the rest of us as we move farther away in time.

It’s already like that with 9/11 for Gen Z. The fall of the twin towers is something they know only from documentaries and history books, just as the memory of it has subsided, except for a few iconic images in our heads, for those of us who were not in New York on that day. The same goes in spades for the fall of the Berlin wall, the whole of the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, all of which I was around for. With the obvious exception of the war, what I remember at each of these moments comes down to just two things: the jolt I felt hearing the news and where I was when I heard it. For JFK’s death, I was a kid trying on a dress near the Berkeley campus when I heard one sales clerk say flatly to another, “The President is dead.” Out on the street was a strangely euphemistic newspaper headline, no doubt meant to cushion the unthinkable news: “Shots Heard in the Vicinity of Dallas.”

The Vietnam war, however, was considerably more than a moment and felt like a lifetime. It was a stinking miasma with no clear start or finish. Carnage over there, social upheaval back here, men and women coming home with their lives forever shattered. Yet just as people born later feel disconnected emotionally from this war compared to those of us who lived through it, it had also failed to register fully on a previous generation. When these folks said “the war,” they meant World War II; Vietnam was only a secondary conflict to them. Today if you say “the war,” most people are likely to think you mean the Iraq war. Or even the Gulf War. Generation to generation, there’s never a shortage of “the war.”

I wasn’t around for World War II or the Great Depression either, or even the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, so I have no feeling connection with any of these giant episodes in our history. But my parents and grandparents did. They lived in the Arkansas Ozarks, where the Depression hit hard. My mother’s father had to sell the 200-acre farm she was born on for $500. Long after the Depression was over, her mother still hoarded bagsful of string, carefully rolled into balls. Sometimes, to my mother’s extreme embarrassment, she went through the neighbors’ garbage cans for all the perfectly good stuff they threw away. 

I think about how these events ripple through generations of a family, mirroring in tiny ways the big societal ones. Long after there was a need to, neither of my parents spent an extra dime if they could help it. Ancient toasters and other defunct appliances were worked on obsessively; I think of my father on the kitchen floor with all the rusty parts of the old dishwasher spread out before him, one of many repair attempts that ended up costing more than simply buying a replacement. Now I look at favorite dishes in the cabinet that I’ve glued back together after they were broken. In the present moment I also look at my CVS Extra Bucks coupons and debate whether saving eight dollars is worth risking my life. (And yes, it’s a debate!) The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

My other grandmother lost my father’s only brother as a baby to the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Growing up, my brother and I were made to wash our hands after handling paper bills or coins because, we were sternly told, money carries germs. Wipe the mouth of the Dr. Pepper bottle with a cloth before you put our lips to it, same reason. Wash your hands before every meal. Wash your hands always after using the toilet. This last habit was cause for comment from my college roommates.

I quit washing my hands after handling money as soon as I left home, however, and felt as incurious about this old family custom as those descendants of the Spanish conversos in the New Mexico hill towns do about the secret Jewish rituals of their ancestors they imitate—lighting candles on Friday night, wearing hats to church on Saturday, not eating pork—with no knowledge of why they do it.

Now, during this strange hiccup in history, I wash my hands for 20 seconds after I have taken dollar bills out of my wallet and smile at the rueful memories of childhood. But along with them comes, for the very first time, a whiff of something darker—a sense of family-transmitted fear, trauma, and death that might have kicked off this practice a hundred years ago.

And so I wonder. In the year 2120—if we may be so bold as to imagine it—will there be legions of great-grandchildren singing “Happy Birthday” twice as they wash their hands who half-think to themselves: Why so ridiculously long, and why this dumb jingle?

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Victoria Nelson

Victoria Nelson is a fiction writer and essayist, author of two books of stories, a memoir, and the award-winning critical books The Secret Life of Puppets and Gothicka. She is also cotranslator of Letters, Drawings and Essays of Bruno Schulz. Her screenplay adaptation of a classic English thriller will be produced as a feature film in the UK. You can see more of her work here: “Stephenie Meyer and the 21st century Vampire Romance” (YouTube at the Claremont Graduate School for Writers in Action); A BESTIARY OF MY HEART (podcast from City Lights Bookstore); “Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco” (podcast).
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