Thursday, February 20, 2014

Touchstones of Time (1790-2172) and Beyond

I am about to celebrate my 70th birthday in a few weeks.  I don't usually feel that I am that old (see my other post on this point).  I still have all my faculties and I am still fairly well put together physically (well, I have most of my faculties, and most of my physical parts). And I can still do most things with agility.  Not to say that I haven't had a few bumps in my life along the way -- I have.  But, there are those mornings lately when I wake up, and it's not that I am aching or anything, but I am just more aware of the fact that a great deal of time has passed since I was a youth. A great number of world events have occurred during my lifetime -- 'out there', and also in my more immediate family world around me -- 'down here'.  And technology has changed, oh so much, during my watch here on earth. Just reading this blog I hope you can see the huge changes.

But, the most striking image that I have come up with to put this passing of my life through time into perspective is this one:
I imagine for a moment that, on the one hand, I am sitting with my grandfather when I was a little boy and he is holding my hand, and he, in turn, is holding in his other hand the ghost of his grandfather when he (my grandfather) was a young boy.  And I also imagine that, on the other hand, I am holding the hand of my grandson, and he is holding in his other hand his yet to be born grandson at some time in the distant future.

Let's just go through that again from a different perspective.

My grandfather was born in 1862, and died when I was 7 years old in 1951.
My grandson was born in 2009, and, with any luck, will live as long as my grandfather did, or until about the year 2098.
Now, I don't know about my grandfather's father, and I know even less about my grandfather's grandfather. But, I have to guess that if he lived long enough that my grandfather's grandfather was in his 60s or older when his grandson (my grandfather) was young.  That would put my grandfather's grandfather's birth sometime before the end of the 18th century, say around 1790.
Similarly, if my grandson marries at about age 30 and his child marries around the same age, then my grandson's grandson will be born about the year 2072, and may just live until he is about 100 (assuming that life expectancies continue to rise) and be alive in the year 2172.

So, here is the picture of the imaginary scene I have created so far: On my left my grandfather's grandfather (1790?-1870?) is holding my grandfather's (1862-1951) hand. He, in turn is holding my hand (1944 - 2020?). Then, I, in turn, with my other hand am holding my grandson's (2009-2098?) hand; who, in turn, with his other hand, is holding his grandson's (2071?-2172?) hand.

I have described five people holding hands, the oldest born around 1790, with three people in between, and then the youngest living until about the year 2172.  The span of time is approaching almost 400 years.  The changes in the world during that time are almost unimaginable, and yet, there are only three people between my grandfather's grandfather and my grandson's grandson, who, in all likelihood, will have, in reality, really held each other's hands.  And if not theses five individuals, then five individuals in some other family.  It is awesome to think in those terms. It is like spanning the time since Columbus discovered the New World (almost) being described in the lifetimes of five individuals whom have all touched each other personally.

I can't look back and see a picture of my grandfather's grandfather when he was young (photography didn't exist yet). And I can't see a picture of my grandson's grandson (he doesn't exist yet). But I can give my grandson a picture of my grandfather for him to pass on to his grandson. And, I can imagine grandson's and grandfathers reaching forward and backward in time forming a chain from the first man of humanity onward.  Michelangelo even went one step further in his painting at the Sistine Chapel when he showed the hand of Adam touching the hand of God.

I don't want to appear to be a male chauvinist. I could have used grandmother's for the example, but since I have only one grandson, and he is a son, I decided to use the men of the family.  Besides, while I do have pictures of one of my grandmothers, I have pictures of both of my grandfathers.

Come to think of it, I am going to give my grandson pictures of all of them along with these comments. Maybe, when he is old enough it will be interesting enough for him to give it a moment of reflection, and the impetus to pass along the pictures to his grandchildren.

"The farther you can look back, the farther forward you are most likely to see."   --Winston Churchill


  1. George (Arlington, TX)February 26, 2014 at 7:01 PM

    What an incredibly novel way to look at the passage of larger amounts of time and indexing it with a sequence of related people who pass through it. I suppose the only time I have thought of such a long sweep in one family is with the Royal families who go way back. Never thought we could all do that. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for the very interesting reply. I hadn't thought of the British Royal family as an example, but, in fact, we do 'index' time with this specific sequence of individuals: Elizabethan, Georgian Victorian, Edwardian eras, and so on. I suppose that we do that because this is based upon history, and not like the abstraction that I wrote about.
      To make the comparison between the timeline of the British Royal family and my family, Elizabeth II's grandparent was George V (1865-1936), and his grandparent was Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Note that while Elizabeth II was born 18 years before me, her grandfather George V was born only 3 years after my grandfather. Victoria was born in 1819, and I do not have a comparable date for my family, but have estimated it to be around 1790.

      Looking forward, Elizabeth II's grandson is Prince William (1982-??). William has already had a son, Prince George (2013 - ??). It would not be unreasonable to assume that Prince George's son could be born about 2043 and live for about 100 years to about 2143. So the comparable estimated dates for the British Royal family would be 1819 - 2143, a span of 324 years, as compared with the estimated 1790 - 2172 span in my family being 382 years.

  2. Arlene (Tempe, AZ)March 1, 2014 at 7:36 AM

    Absolutely beautiful. Keep on writing like this.

  3. Shirley (Northumberland, PA)March 1, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    There is hope in this world after all. What a wonderful post. If only people could see the continuity of life clearly the way you presented it, and that everything we do affects the ones we love, they would try harder to make this world a better place for all.

  4. Sid (Boston, MA)March 1, 2014 at 4:44 PM

    Gee Whiz. Sounds like a great family you have. Any room for an adopted son or daughter? I sure wish there were more families like yours.

  5. I am very honored to be one of those hands.

    1. And, I am very honored to hold your hand in this incredibly beautiful mosaic of life.

      While writing the original metaphor I knew that I had to include only grandparents and grandchildren in order to make the point of the personal touch and yet get the breadth of all those many years with the fewest number of individuals. In reality, though, you are inextricably one of those hands woven into the fabric of our family. If not for your being, I would not have had the honor of knowing and loving you and the honor of having a beautiful grandson, which gives me the ability to pass along this story.

  6. In continuing the discussion in this thread I have consolidated the comments of Shirley and Sid into this comment.

    Shirley's comment introduced the concepts of emotional attachment and love into the matrix. While I had not expressed any of these ideas in the original post, she has, rightly so, touched on this important component of the family ties that I described.

    Sid has also ascribed very positive attributes to my family, to the point where he wanted to know if we are adopting. Cute. While I would probably agree with Sid that I have been very fortunate to have a 'great family', I have reread the post numerous times and find no comments in there that would really say one way or the other, what any attributes, positive or negative, about my family might be. I happen to agree with them that I could 'read into' the post that there was something very positive being expressed, but the exact part that does that eludes me. It would be interesting to know from both Shirley and Sid how they came to their conclusions.

  7. Shirley (Northumberland, PA)March 10, 2014 at 5:35 PM

    Thanks for commenting on my reaction to your post. I think that I must explain that I did not base my comment on only your post about Touchstones of Time, but rather on the collection of posts that you have made through the years.

    I initially found all your posts relating to the Joseph Priestley House and then found your post about your visit here to Northumberland, PA to visit Priestley's home and gravesite on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his death in 2004.
    Obviously, you have given a lot of thought to the important issues that revolve around life, humanity, love, etc. Somehow, when I read the post on Touchstones it all seemed to come together and make a complete picture of a very loving man who appreciates the meaning of life and the importance of the family around him, including prior ancestors, currently living relatives, and the one's you have not yet known and will probably never know directly.

    I may be wrong, but I'll bet that you have a very special loving relationship with your family and have fostered that attitude on your children and their families as well. I just saw the comment from your son and your response to him also. Your family is very lucky, indeed.

    Oh, by the way, happy 70th Birthday!

    1. Thanks for the kind words and the congratulations on my recent birthday. Last night our family celebrated the event, and a good time was had by all.

      Just one more passing thought. I realized when you referred to our visit to the Priestley gravesite in Northumberland in 2004 that it might tie in with the storyline here in a very small way. My grandfather's grandfather, who I estimate to have been born in about 1790 would have clearly been alive well before Joseph Priestley's death in 1804. Had the two been in geographic proximity with each other they could have literally held each other's hands.
      I came up with an alternate way to express the distance between myself and Joseph Priestley -- my hand to my grandfather, my grandfather with his grandfather, his hand holding Joseph Priestley. In this example there would theoretically be only two individuals between myself and Priestley. This is almost a blink of the eye in historical terms, and yet eons of time in scientific terms. An interesting perspective indeed!

  8. A somewhat related post that is very interesting can be found here: