By Samuel Lieberman
A few weeks back, I sat down with my grandmother and asked her to recount some
childhood memories (which you can read on History Chip). Her stories about life in Arlington,
Mass circa the 1940s and 50s struck me, as cliche as this sounds, with both a sense of distance
and recency. Reading and listening to oral histories (referring to history that living individuals can recount) notion that the past both resembles life today
and exists as a separate world.
The old adage says that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and reading
stories about the past just confirms this. Some of the details my grandmother told me about the
suburban Massachusetts of 65-80 years ago shocked me. The street she grew up on, just fifteen
minutes out from Boston, was a dirt road in her early childhood. She has real memories of World
War II, which to me seems so distant. And yet, the details of her youth, from walking to school
with her friends to begrudgingly shopping with her mother, could just as easily be from my own
childhood. Our discussion of WWII segued into this essay’s broader topic: during my
grandmother's youth, survivors of the Civil War and former slaves were still alive. The past is
more recent than it seems.
Technology, material conditions, culture, and political realities are always changing.
However, the core fundamentals of human life generally remain the same. Recently I read
Annalee Newitz’s excellent new book Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age,
which chronicles the rise and fall of four cities from across the world. Newitz conveys the
striking similarities between life in Çatalhöyük, a city in modern-day Turkey that existed roughly
7.5-9 thousand years ago and cities around the world in later epochs. While the language,
customs, and crops are different, people are always motivated to promote the safety and
prosperity of their family and community.