On a recent trip I found myself sitting on a plane next to two young professional men. Both were from Michigan, both were moving away. One was in construction. Work had dropped off and he had taken a job in another state. His wife was searching for a job in the new locale so they could complete the relocation. The other had seventeen years at GM but was flying home from an interview he was feeling hopeful about. If it panned out, his wife would also begin a job search and they would move.

When Ruth and I pulled up next to that truck hauling scrap metal in the Colorado rest stop, we noticed immediately the bath towel-sized rag hanging from rope attached to the back of the cab. We had to get very close to recognize it as an American flag, since the mud and grunge had all but obscured the stars and the stripes. It had been there quite a while too, since the trailing edge was pretty ragged.

 

My grandmother was born in 1891. She and a number of her nine children have lived well into their eighties and nineties. Her oldest son, a ninety-four year old widower, has lived alone until just recently. Time however, does catch up. In 2006 and 2007 I lost my father, three uncles and two aunts.

I always loved the discussions, stories and reminiscence at holiday gatherings and other family events. Particularly in a big family, there was lots of fodder about who did what. Aside from being entertaining and funny, the stories by their nature were embedded with the reality of the times and made history come alive.

Although I fell towards the younger end of twenty-nine grandchildren, my grandmother and I were close. I visited as often as I could. When she died I remember feeling the loss not only of her, but of my personal connection with a totally different era.

She was a teenager in 1907. Looking at government statistics for that year, only eight percent of American homes had a telephone and our average life expectancy was 47 years old. There were only 8,000 cars in the whole country and only 144 miles of paved roads. Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa and Tennessee were each more heavily populated than California which boasted only 1.4 million people and ranked 21st in state populations. Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska weren’t yet part of the country. The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was 30.

The average U.S worker in 1907 made between $200 and $400 per year - sugar cost four cents a pound. More than 95% of all children were born at home. There was no Mother’s or Father’s Day. Crossword puzzles, canned beer and ice tea hadn’t been invented yet. Two out of every ten adults couldn’t read and only six percent of Americans graduated from high school. It was a different world.

Nowadays I’m sensing the same feeling of loss with the next generation slipping away; history on the move. My parents, aunts and uncles were and are part of the “greatest generation” - my own parents being married in 1940. Their stories span World War II, the invention of jet airplanes, space exploration, television, calculators, interstate highways and air conditioning. I don’t like having to say goodbye and it feels a little foreign to slowly transform into being the next older generation. You wonder if you listened well enough. It makes you cherish every remaining member.

Now in my fifties, I catch my own grandkids listening with amusement to stories in my own life – of milkmen delivering milk and me being pushed through a milk chute to unlock the door to the house because I was the only one little enough to fit. Or the birthday in the 1970s when my husband delighted me with an FM converter for my car so I could listen to FM as well as AM radio. The eyes rolled at that one.

The pace of change seems to continually quicken. Looking at changes in the past twenty, fifty or a hundred years, it’s hard to imagine what daily life will be like in the next twenty, fifty or a hundred years. It’ll be a totally different world. I can’t imagine.

In 1899, Charles Duell, Commissioner at the U.S. Office of Patents stated, “Everything that can be invented has been invented”. He was wrong.

It has become another end-of-year event for many retirees. Amid the shopping for gifts for grandkids, the decorating, and the preparing for happy family dinners, many older Americans now undertake the annual review of Medicare drug coverage and the effort to avoid as much as possible the upward spiralling costs of drug insurance.

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