The world of history is deeply intertwined with the world of memory. Part of the reason I’m so passionate about saving history is that I witness how easily it can be lost forever.
I’ve written previous blogs about the three Fs that can cause history to disappear permanently: floods, fires and forgetting. All three of those are able to be mitigated, to some extent, if you take certain preventive measures. One thing that cannot be prevented, however, is the type of forgetting that results from Alzheimer’s and other memory-impairing diseases.
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and I cannot think about Alzheimer’s without thinking of my father.
My father, Mack Gwinn, was career military. He met my mother in middle school, joined the Army at 17 and went to Vietnam with the Special Forces before the U.S. was officially in Vietnam. He returned to the U.S. early in the conflict and married my mother. In typical military fashion, he tended not to be emotional and was hard to get to know, but he adored my mother like a puppy. He loved to say, “I wanted brains in my family, so I married them.”
I take after my father in many ways. We’re both stubborn and curious, we both read incessantly and we both respond with sarcasm when trying to avoid communicating. And we both love history — I absolutely got that from him.
In fact, my father is the person who got me into history. I was fourteen and did not enjoy the high school history classes I was taking. His military status allowed him to take courses at the University of Maine, and he loved his U.S. history professor in the night class he was taking, so he started taking me with him.
He was diagnosed around the age of 60. I was in my mid-twenties. I wasn’t living nearby at the time, so I hadn’t seen it coming. He’s really personable and funny, which meant it was easy for him to mask his symptoms, especially during the first several years. Over time, as his memories were stolen by Alzheimer’s, his early childhood memories from Germany and Alaska stuck with him. Recognizing my mother was the last thing to leave him. Except for Vietnam, that is.
It is extremely painful for me to talk about my father. At the same time, his situation is a huge part of the inspiration behind my mission to save history. History is in the stories. Watching what happens when a person loses who he was makes me think about it on a larger scale. If that happens to us as a society, we’re really screwed.
If your parents or grandparents are still alive with their faculties intact, ask the questions you’re curious about. Record their answers. My mother recorded several conversations with my father, and they’re absolutely precious to me. Don’t wait until it’s too late. You never know how much time you have left with them.
In many ways, I’m not who my father wished I would be. I am, however, a risk-taker, an entrepreneur. I know he’d love what I’m doing now. He’d be bragging in a bar about our work preserving the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It wrecks me that he’ll never know about that.
This November, in honor of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, take steps to preserve some of the history that matters to you. Reach out to a loved one to hear more about their life, and record it in some fashion so that future generations can benefit from it, too. Don’t let this cruel disease steal any more from us than it already has.