A Slippery Grasp on History

We were in Buffalo, New York;  we had a little extra time after our last museum exploration–after standing in the room where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, hearing the sonorous, recorded voices of re-enactors creating the scene for us–and before we were due at the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub for dinner.

“Hey,” I said, “I wonder where Perkins Place is.”

I pulled it up on my cell phone. The house–29 Perkins Street–was only six minutes away. I hit ‘go’ on the directions tab, and Siri took over. Mark followed her instructions, and suddenly we were there, stopped on a skinny, cluttered street, avoiding the eyes of gaunt and angry-looking people who stood in their front yards, arms crossed, and stared at our idling car.

It was a small house next to its neighbors, with a kind of faded taupe siding. The windows were boarded with wood gone gray. The aging plywood over the door sported a garish, spray-painted, red ’29.’ The tiny front yard was littered with cigarette butts and bunched-up papers and shards of plastic grocery bags.

We sat in silence for a minute, and then Jim took his ear buds out and asked, “What is this place?”

“This,” I said, “is where my mother lived when she met my father.”

“Yikes,” said Jim, and he put the buds back in his ears and looked away.

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“The first time I met your mother,” my father often said, “she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”

He was working then,–at a dockyard, I think,–with a couple of Scottish boys named Innes. And one night they brought him home to the house they shared with their siblings. And there my father met my mother, who was indeed, she would always agree when the story was told, washing the kitchen floor.

He was in his early twenties; she was right out of high school. It must have been just about 1940. They had both lost one parent to death and the other to one kind or another of abandonment. They were each one of seven siblings, although my father knew his seven half-siblings, too. My mother’s father had disappeared, and she wouldn’t realize she had half-siblings herself until after his death, twenty-five years later.

The details of what happened after that first introduction are sketchy. Was it love at first sight? Was there wooing and pursuit? Did one shy away while the other knew–just knew, bone-deep,–that this, THIS one, was the partner for a lifetime?

Whatever, however, the die was cast in that moment of meeting, and a love, a partnership, a bond was forged–one that would shudder from, but survive, war and separation and unimaginable loss. I trace my history back to that moment.

And the sadness of that blank-eyed, neglected little home tumbled that history toward me.

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“I feel,” said a new colleague not so very long ago, “as if this was meant to be.” She had stumbled on just the right opportunity at just the right time, she said, applied, breezed through the interviews. She’d gotten a job doing exactly what she hoped to be doing at this point in her professional life.

“I believe that,” said someone else. “I believe things happen when they’re meant to happen, that someone is watching out for us.” People around the table nodded solemnly.

I smiled and kept quiet.  I am not so sure fate is quite that settled. What becomes history has so many variables. The storm clouds could have lingered, the game been postponed, and then the home run–well, it might never have happened.

Maybe that stupendous success was a simple matter of placement in line, or of what big-shot the family happened to know.

What might have happened if, say, they’d decided to take the long way ’round instead on that memorable day?

What if, what if, what if.

What if Dad hadn’t gone home with those particular buddies–if he had gone instead to another friend’s house, met another friend’s family? What if he’d gone to a bar that night, had one too many, gotten into a fight? Would the moment of meeting have just been postponed, the introduction taken place at another, later day, and the forging of that partnership begun as it was meant to, just a little further down the line?

Or could life have been completely different?

History is slippery, I think, not iron-cast.

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The story teller at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial site told us that Teddy had been very concerned for the widowed first lady. President McKinley had died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. (And what if Czolgosz had never gotten close enough? What if someone bumped him in line and felt his gun, or what if his trolley had been late?) McKinley was laid in state in another Buffalo mansion, and government officials hurried to find Teddy, who was staying with his friends, the Wilcoxes.

Those  officials wanted him to come back to the house where McKinley lay and be inaugurated immediately, but Teddy said no. First, he said, he would go and pay his respects to the slain President, and to Mrs. McKinley.

Then he would come back and be sworn in as president at the Wilcox mansion. He did not want to deflect from the solemn vigil at the other house with an inauguration.

So they did it Teddy’s way: respectful, solemn, considerate of a widow’s feelings and the concerns of a nation.

But it didn’t have to happen like that. I think of photos of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on a plane, Jackie Kennedy propped beside him, glazed and grieving in her blood-spattered suit. Johnson insisted on that in-flight inauguration, they say, on having the slain Kennedy’s widow by his side, and he wouldn’t wait for a different venue.

If he had insisted from the beginning on respecting Mrs. Kennedy’s grief would Johnson’s presidency have started–and continued–entirely differently? Or would it have been the act of a different man to defer to a widow’s public, aching sorrow?

Whatever. Both TR and Johnson, I think, were controversial, but one was also wildly popular, and the other widely vilified.

There were many other variables in their presidencies, of course, but so much history, so much understanding, pivots on a choice. And choices, once made, cannot be undone.

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It could always have been different. What if someone hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm, if the weather had changed, if a person had acted altruistically instead of selfishly? There is a literature built on this, on what life might have been like, say, if the South had won the Civil War, if Kennedy had not died. If the kick had been good. If the verdict had been different.

When things work out just perfectly,–when we get the job, meet the man by happenstance, pick up the lottery ticket at just the right time and place,–we feel, sometimes, as if we were chosen by fate, singled out for blessing: beneficiaries of what was meant to be.

And then what-ifs are the stuff from which we weave regrets. If only I’d kept my mouth shut! If only I’d stayed home that night! If only I realized how sick he really was…

Maybe then it is easiest for me to believe that history has a meant-to-be trajectory, that things were rolling along–lumbering along–propelled by the heavy weight of all the things that came before, heading exactly to where they had to go. No course deviations possible. Or that events were guided by the hand of a higher power, making my choices and mistakes, or the choices and mistakes of those much more powerful and meaningful than I, irrelevant or inevitable.

This moment, though, will be history one day. And I have my choices right now.

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My younger brother Sean, who works in Buffalo now, had texted me a picture of 29 Perkins Place, so I knew what it had to look like. The reality was somehow, though, different from the knowing.

How could the little house look so sad, so neglected? Didn’t people know that an important little bit of history happened here?

What did I want?

Maybe a plaque by the door that reads, “Here, on an ordinary workday in 1940, James met Jean, insuring that, one day, Sharon, Dennis, Michael, John, Pamela, and Sean  would come to be…”

Maybe for the house to be a cherished cottage with curtains at the windows, a freshly painted front door, children playing, a neatly mowed yard.

But that house, that neighborhood, has its own history. There are no do-overs, history-wise. (Think of the literature on that theme–de Maupassant, Stephen King, The Butterfly Effect… We firmly believe, it seems, that going in time back to undo the bad creates horrible repercussions, and that history is not a thing to be messed about.) The shuttered windows do not detract from the truth: an event happened once, in that sad and shabby house, that made my being possible.

Maybe it could have been different, the moment skewed differently, and the whole existence of myself and my siblings thrown into jeopardy.

Maybe that moment of meeting was graven in time, meant to be, written by a celestial hand.

Chance or fate–the what-ifs behind the history–do not matter. Unchangeable, events have brought me to this now, this time when my choices are important, when my actions can be done or left undone, when a word can be swallowed or spoken. In the messy, mutable now, we may be encountering things that are fated, but we still have the choice of how we’ll react. And how, then, we’ll shape history.

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It fascinates–the chance, the happenstance, the slipperiness of history. What if, what if, what if…

But if I dive too deeply down that rabbit hole, I just may detract from now. I’ll deal with the effects,–wonderful, tragic, and all shades in between,–with which my history pummels me. And I’ll pray, and work, and angle for the mindfulness to fully live my now.

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