As my parents grew old, hints and echoes of their histories began showing up in their conversations with me. As I grew older myself, I became aware that our unsatisfactory relationship was rooted in the fact that I simply didn’t know their stories.
Not wanting to be one of those who are still twisted by teenage resentments in their dotage, I set about trying to discover their complicated histories.
They had spent their entire adult lives telling themselves (and me) that the future was what counted and the past was “water over the dam.” They thought they could put the past behind them. They couldn’t. None of us can.
My mother’s grandmother, Hannah Oliphant, was orphaned at a tender age and put into service as a scullery maid in one of England’s grand country homes.
My father’s grandfather, Cornelius Knapp, was also an orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another until, in his early teens, he ran off and went west. When the Civil War began, he joined the Second Colorado Infantry.
And that’s as far back as I was able to go. But what I discovered was that Cornelius and Hannah played a much more important part in shaping the character and personalities of my parents than I could ever have imagined.
Mary Ellen and Herb Knapp came of age during the emergence of the American middle class as people moved from small towns and farms into cities. This social movement also accounted in large part for who my parents wanted to be and in fact became. I have written about their journey towards the achievement of the American Dream in a dual biography—Hunting for the Plot—whose publication is eminent.
I have finished my biography of my parents, and while waiting for it to be published, I lost my mind and changed the title from “Hunting for the Plot” to “Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class, 1832-1999.”One of my daughters mentioned casually that she liked it better the other way and KAZAM! I saw at once she was right. What got into me? That new title makes the book sound like another unreadable, boring textbook written by some pretentious professor. It’s not like that. It’s a story—the story of my hunt for the plot linking the lives of my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. So, having come to my senses, I changed it back.
Once I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about my parents and urged him to write about his. He said his parents weren’t “that important.” But “Importance” is beside the point. I have lived long enough to be able to make a list a mile long of people who were “important” in my youth who are now completely forgotten. What’s that song about making people happy? “Fame, if you win it, / Comes and goes in a minute. / Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?” The real stuff is what is personal.
The generalizers in the media and the academy can’t be bothered with individuals (Uncle Harry, Auntie Mame, etc.). They would have us all think in terms of stereotypes: white racist males, and offended blacks, of stay-at-home moms and liberated women, of students in elite colleges and those in junior colleges and trade schools, of white collars, blue collars, and pink hats. And we are supposed to assume that all the people in any category are pretty much the same so we don’t need to “know” them—which is to say, to learn their stories. But when we reduce people to stereotypes,” everything fits neatly into its slot so there’s no “real stuff” to cling to and we drift apart.
My parents wanted our family to be seen as an example of the perfect middle class suburban family. We were all surface; there was no depth to us. I always knew there was more to my parents than they let on. But they weren’t talking. They were afraid that we, their children, would think less of them if we knew their stories. The exact opposite is true. Stories are what tie families (and nations) together. Categories and stereotypes are what keep us apart.