Grapes I cut in half for my kids when they were pre-schoolers: 6,439
Average life expectancy for the general population in America in 1902: 49.2 years
Average life expectancy for the general population in America in 2003: 77.5 years
“Everything has changed. Everything.”
I was interviewing a woman in her 90s a couple of days ago. She went to college and was a career woman starting in 1943 and for the next 70+ years. She has worked for the state and helped train rural communities in how to preserve foods, even leading the effort to put some of the meats and vegetables in tin cans and ship them overseas to the soldiers there. And she’s still volunteering her time with the state.
I asked her what was the most notable change over the course of her career, and she couldn’t even answer, other than to reply, “Everything has changed. Everything.”
What has changed, and what do we even have in common with our predecessors?
There’s this semi-creepy photograph hanging in my parents’ dining room. It’s my great-great grandparents on my mom’s side. The woman has pronounced cheekbones, with the skin stretched taut across them. She doesn’t look like someone you might ask to borrow a cup of sugar. She gives the distinct impression that if she got pregnant again, she might mutter, “Oh, heck. Another mouth to feed?”
Her husband looks like a cherub, with rounded cheeks that look rosy even in black and white.
I imagine them going out to pick cotton or cure tobacco or kill a chicken for dinner and hearing about my choice to run… for a few hours. For no specific purpose. I’m not earning money. I’m not producing a crop or rounding up cattle or even sprinting to a distant town to communicate a dire message (and then dying, a story that my mother knows just well enough about the first marathon, and which she told again and again with great relish prior to my own first marathon).
How bizarre we would seem to our ancestors, who came over to our country, many as slaves or indentured servants, and who didn’t have any reason to believe they would live much beyond my current age.
I think about how sentimental we are about our children, how we cut their grapes in half so they don’t choke and brush their teeth and make them wear helmets to ride bikes. A couple of kids on our street keep on wearing the helmets even while they’re not riding their bikes.
And all of us parents think: Cool. How wonderfully safe of them. High-five, good buddy. Look at all those other kids (including mine) who are going about their playing business, like hide-and-seek, without a helmet on. For shame.
How crazy is this brave new world, where kids have too much to eat of all the wrong things, and we desk rats must strap on bottles of water and gelled food just to get enough exercise to be healthy?
Sometimes I walk by that photo of my great-great grandmother and wonder if I’m imagining a disapproving eye. Or is it a little bit of jealousy?