On the Subject of History
Among the many words one could call my father, whether it be “immigrant” or “doctor,” the most appropriate will always be “storyteller.” I picture him hunched over the big wooden table at our old country house in Quogue. We have his famous mussels in front of us; the smell of Quantuck Bay breeze mixes with the aroma of the spicy broth he has stewed. We lap up the broth with fresh cut sourdough bread and discard empty shells into a communal bowl. When the summer sun catches them, they shine like onyx. My father takes a long sip of white wine from one of those stem-less glasses my mother favors. He begins to formulate a story; I can see it in his face. His faintly blue eyes squint, and he straightens his spine against the back of his wicker chair. I often wonder if he thinks in his native tongue, Slovak, and then translates to project his slightly offbeat syntax.
See it doesn’t matter what language you speak, simply put my father is an expert at communicating. His humor is quirky, a little dark as to be expected after growing up in the Eastern Bloc, but never mean-spirited. His delivery, while unorthodox, is always enthusiastic and concise. The first and last line of every story my father has ever told are the same. He means to implant this nugget of wisdom, what I lovingly call a Georgism, into your brain. He leans back in his chair and takes another sip of wine to ready his voice. The creak from the shift in his weight echoes through the trees. With this impromptu drumroll, he is ready to begin.
“History…Sammi…it is like wind forever blowing all directions and changing often, but will always be there. When I was boy in Bratislava, I would sit in history class bored staring at clock. On all walls, pictures all over of the big hotshot of communist party.” He pauses to scratch his sun-spotted skin; it looks like polished brown leather shining in the Hamptons sun. He sits solely beneath its warm rays, while my mother and I cool off shaded by a striped umbrella. My father has always seemed his happiest in the heat. “I forget his name, some cold man with serious face always standing front of Czechoslovakian flag, We supposed to read all about him in books for class. But I just uh…dilly-dally through. So one day there is big hubbub and no school. There had been overthrowing of current regime. Next day we go to school, same pictures on walls with flag but there is new man with straight poker face. They take all our textbooks and throw them to bottom of ocean.” He chuckles, lightly pounding the wooden table with his fist as his robust frame bounces jollily. “Never seen again, disappeared like never happened. Following day, new books with pages on pages about new elected.. HA yeah elected…big shot man in government” Again, he pauses, but this time it is for dramatic effect; as I told you, this guy knows how to sell a story. “So both these powerful dictator men, in the course of history, they are just leaves. Seasons change, sooner or later they are brushed away by wind. But while right now I’m drawing zero on their names, while I am still alive, they live in here.” He points to his left temple just under the thin wire of his bifocals. “History, it is like the wind forever blowing all directions and changing often…but will always be there.”
Now sure, his metaphor wasn’t the most poetic, but what he lacked in literary prowess, he more than made up for in heart. Nature seemed to agree, considering the coincidental gust of wind that caused the umbrella to rattle the table nearly knocking over the jar of beets, but the man still has a point, and luckily there would be no deep red stains on the deck today. Only more mussels ladled into our bowls and digested in our bellies, while the grandeur of history slowly fell off its pedestal, shattered, and eventually settled into a thick cloud of dust that hung heavy in some corridor of my mind. History isn’t some shining testament to the human race, bound in supreme truth and etched in permanent ink. It’s just the human twist to the passage of time, inevitable because we remember. We sit in classrooms and learn about our collective past as the species that dominates this earth. Yet that exercise, while bolstered by embossed capital letters nailed to the front of classroom doors, is limited by the small scope of our educational canon. We learn just as much, if not more, from listening to the experiences of the people around us. Whether it’s the front seat of a New York City cab or your usual spot at the dinner table, there is history to be shared. So as my family toasts to the end of our bottle of Chardonnay and another family dinner at our second home, I officially add the label “historian” to my dad’s burgeoning list of titles. I think it’s right up there, competing neck and neck with “storyteller.” But on second thought, they are just one and the same.