27 May 2024

Yikes, I'm History!

I turned 80 last month, and it's a quarter century since I first heard part of my lifetime categorized as "historical" (literary) and my age as "geriatric" (medical). I was outraged by both at the time. While I prefer the term "aging," I have come to appreciate the fact that I can remember times and experiences that are vanishing quickly or already lost in our throwaway digital age.

I dreamed one night that I was hanging out with Robert Downey Jr and Leonardo DiCaprio. I raved about Downey's Oscar-winning work in Oppenheimer as Werner Heisenberg, and to get over the awkward moment with DiCaprio (not nominated), I said one reason I enjoyed Oppenheimer is that I lived through that era and understood the context.

I asked if they knew who Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were. Leonardo, who'll turn 50 this year, had never heard of them. And I was off and running with the whole story as known to the child of a Jewish family growing up in Queens in the 1950s, in a family very much like the Rosenbergs except not so far to the left, though I had aunts and uncles who were. That, as much as the rush to judgment, was what made the Rosenberg execution so shocking.

"I knew kids who knew their kids," I told the movie stars. True. 

The dream ended with bureaucratic types coming in with paper files and old-fashioned fingerprinting apparatus. This suggests that like the Rosenbergs' story, my mother's dictum, "Never sign a petition—it could ruin your life!" is still kicking around in my unconscious. Like most young people, I ignored my mother's advice. The state of the world today demonstrates how much good signing petitions did, so my mother was right about that. But my life was never ruined, and I hope it's too late now.

I'm two years older than the oldest Baby Boomer. My family lived without a car till I was nine, without a TV till I was ten. I first rode in a plane when I was sixteen. As an adult, I didn't have a computer in my home till 1984 (a Commodore 64), when my son was in high school, and I didn't learn to use one (a Mac Classic II) till I was forty-seven. I still have dreams about using an old rotary phone and having to dial over and over because for some reason my finger can't make it all the way around. I remember when you couldn't get pecan pie, maple sugar candy, or croissants in New York. If you wanted them, you had to go to Florida, Vermont, or Paris.

I remember when a college-educated girl (not woman) had to start in any field, including publishing, as a secretary and had to wear a skirt to work. The skirt had to be rehemmed, up or down, every year as fashion dictated. No such thing as wearing whatever length suited you until about 1970. I remember pantyhose, and before pantyhose, stockings and a garter belt. I even remember the dreaded girdle back in the mists of time.

Like the Boomers, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot: at college, in my off-campus apartment waiting for a friend who was due for a visit. She arrived two hours late. When I opened the door, she said, tears streaming down her face, "Oh, Liz, the President is dead."

Until that moment, I'd never been touched by assassination. No terrorism. No school shootings. Beheadings happened back in the sixteenth century, in Tudor times. Tsunamis happened on a distant side of the world, when there was a distant side of the world. Earthquakes happened only in Japan and San Francisco. Tornados happened only in Kansas, and they led to the Land of Oz.

On the one hand, we're not in the Land of Oz any more. On the other, I remember the Suez Crisis in 1956. On a rainy afternoon when I was twelve, I heard that the British and French had bombed Cairo. Once World War II (which we still called "the War") was over, the British weren't supposed to go to war. I was afraid that World War III was about to start. I remember thinking, "I'll never get to go to college." Wrong.

If you keep going even when nothing turns out the way you expect, I've found that every wall you hit turns out to be another bend in the road. And if you live long enough, you get to be history.


  1. I remember JFK's assassination, but the year that broke my heart was 1968: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., both assassinated, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement with all the bitter violence against non-violent protesters.
    I remember my first Vietnam protest in 1970, and running like hell when the police started lobbing tear gas at us, because we all remembered what happened at Kent State...
    I too remember having to wear skirts at work until finally, somewhere around 1974 (?) we could start wearing polyester pantsuits. But I also remember, we could all smoke anywhere and everywhere, including in the office, in the airport, in the hospital...
    Yes, we are history!

  2. I remember visiting a dear friend in Sloan Kettering in 1998 and having to make my way past smokers puffing away just outside the front doors, still attached to their IV apparatus. Neither the new laws nor terminal lung cancer could stop them from smoking. I also remember having to change a scene in which staff were offering patients cigarettes in their beds between manuscript and those long paper galleys (remember them?) because that changed in the many years it took to get my first novel published. They were alcohol detox patients, btw, and yes, that was common practice in the 1980s.

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn27 May, 2024 13:34

    Wow, Liz, I can hardly remember my dreams at all. I was in 7th grade when JFK was shot. My family didn't have a car from when I was 8 until I was 20, mainly because we lived in the D.C. suburbs, which had very good public transportation. We had a black & white TV which was kept in the basement & I was only allowed to watch by prior arrangement. To this day, I decide what I'm going to watch & turn the TV off when the show is over. I can't stand channel surfing!

    Old age, it ain't for sissies. Having worked in medicine, I know an "elderly" primigravida is a pregnant lady 35 or older.

    So my grandmother was born in 1900 & told me so many of her memories, that I _almost_ consider them my own.

    1. Our TV was in the basement too, as was the encyclopedia ("Look it up!"), and the basement was COLD!

  4. This was a very fun read, Liz! I'm in the back half of the boomer population, but I relate more to your childhood than that of people 15 years younger than me. Oh, you brought back a wonderful memory about not being able to dial the phone all the way around! But it was this line that made my heart leap and not in a good way - "Beheadings happened back in the sixteenth century, in Tudor times" - Oh Liz. How you have summed up the sorrow that I feel about the world today, vs the world of my childhood, the 60s. What a powerful post this is. Melodie

  5. Mel, that's how I feel about it too, as you know.


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