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My grandfather and I had a number of secrets between us. Most of these, I can't tell; the salient feature of a secret is not the matter contained within the secret, but the trust implied.
But I'll tell you one secret, because I think it's important, and because I think that my grandfather won't mind. It's a little secret, without much drama to it: My grandfather once told me that he would have liked to have been a history teacher.
Like I said, it's a little secret. It's a little dream. But ever since he told it to me, four years ago now, the image of my grandfather in front of a class, teaching history, has stayed fixed in my memory. It is something that seems right and true.
Part of this may have to do with the fact that, in a very real sense, my grandfather embodied history to me. I have only just now come to that point in my life where time has loosed itself from its moorings, and memory has begun to develop an appreciable depth. But to me, my grandfather always seemed to have that depth.
We can all remember asking our grandparents about their lives; it's fascinating to a young person, because here is someone talking about a time and a place that never existed or could exist for that young person. Here, before you, is someone who has traveled through time.
And as you reconstruct the past with a grandparent, you also reconstruct the person. My grandfather had always been my grandfather: Older, balding, and grumpy. But he was also once a child, who didn't speak English until he was five years old. He was a teenager who used to play baseball. He was a young man who was dragged to a USO dance by a buddy, there to meet the woman he would marry. There's a richness of a life that can only be told though a recitation of its history. My grandfather came truly alive to me when I knew his life.
A place and its history are meaningless unless there is a context in which to place it. The proper context for my father was within his family. Families are also the embodiment of history: The individual elements change as the men and women of it pass though time, but the family remains. My grandfather told me that in the little Italian town from which our family came, there is a book that lists the names of our family back hundreds of years.
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But it is easily lost. On my mother's side of the family, there is a box that contains the portraits of a dozen or more of my relatives who lived during the 1850s and 60s. All we have are those photos; names and knowledge of them simply does not exist. I know nothing about them. The photos stare back at me when I look, but they do not speak.
Grandpa spent countless hours telling me about the Smiths and their kin and their friends, reaching into the past and bringing it forward into the present day. I didn't know why it was so important to him that I know about you all, many of whom I am meeting today for the first time as an adult.
But I think I understand part of it now. Your family is more than a historical context. It shapes you and colors you and binds you. You can feel the tangible connections between us, linked through time from the past and fading into the future. My grandfather wanted me to know about those who had acted within his life, because they would play a part in my life as well, if only indirectly, as their attractions pulled at my grandfather during his path through life.
Grandpa loved his family deeply, although he did not always understand it. There is much that my grandfather has done that he knew was wrong, much concerning the route the path of his life took through his family that he wished he could change or alter, some pains he wished he could take away. You must believe me: At the core of my grandfather's soul was love for his family. It is simultaneously his greatest pride and disappointment, and he loved you all with a mixture of love and resignation.
What a small dream my grandfather had, but what a powerful dream as well. I look at most of you now through my grandfather's eyes and memories. Who you are to me must spring from the foundation of knowledge he gave me, from the sense of history that he tried to instill within me, about you. It is a good foundation, a good history, and my grandfather's life was a good life.
My grandfather was a teacher of history, although he did not know it. It is a history that is still living, as we compose its elemental parts, as we create our world in our own time, linked together and stronger for it.
I thank my grandfather for his lessons, I love him, and I honor him. And as befits a teller of history, I shall not forget him.