No More Single Stories

I have read this wonderful book, called The Book Thief. On the pages of such book I have learned about Nazi Germany, a girl named Liesel (a.k.a. the book thief), a family, a Jew in hiding, loss, friendship, war and books. This story told by death, and how death perceives us, humans. If you happen to love books as much as I love them, add this title to your “must read” list.

I’m not going to ruin the story, I hate when people spoil a good book by sharing too much. I’m mentioning the book because of all the thoughts that have crossed my mind while reading it. It made me think about the way we learn history at school. There is a feeling of detachment when learning about war. We learn about horrible things, but as this historical facts seem to have happened so long ago, they might not have the impact they should have. There is great emphasis on the economic impact war has. But, where are the voices of the people who lived through such harsh times?

History has mostly been written by those who have won or were in the comfortable place of telling history in their best interest. There is a tremendous exclusion. I don’t remember ever reading an account by an Inca woman who raped by Spanish conquerors? Those accounts have been out. History books are not written by Native Americans, nor Incas, nor slaves.

Every country teaches history in a way that it can instill national pride in its students. To me history is best learned, when you hear it or read it from the people who were actually there. Personal accounts are also biased, as that person’s experience and knowledge influences their perspective. However, those are the stories that are human, those are the stories that matter most. The more you read about other people’s histories, the more you realize that everything that happens in our world is blurred by ambition, hatred and prejudice, but also by forgiveness, acceptance and love.

My father’s mother was born in 1920, that makes her a lovely 92-year-old grandmother, who lives in a home for the elderly near Arnhem, here in the Netherlands. After so many years of being alive, her daily activities involve a lot of looking out the window, remembering, and a great emptiness as her husband isn’t growing old with her. That’s the thing that hurts in old age, she told me, not that your children are grown and have left, not that you are old, but that emptiness left by the person you love the most. She has been without him over 25 years, but that empty chair next to her has never been filled.

I didn’t grew up in the Netherlands, I could speak little Dutch when I was younger, and back then all I wanted to learn from my *Oma was how to make and flip pancakes. Last time I visited her, with a bit more practice in the language, I asked her to tell me something about her time during World War II. The youngest of six children, she recalls that there was never enough food. She said, “if the coffee or the tea ran out, they ran out and all you could do was drink water. If food was finished. It was finished. Period.” There was no complaining, that is how it was for everyone, and for some even worse. “There was no eating out, no vacations, no buying new dresses.” This is mostly what I managed to get out of her. While I’m fascinated by the past, I forget that not everyone likes to talk about it.

We did discussed how much the world has changed, and how people seem to care less and less about others and helping each other. There is this new great technology, but very few members of her family seem to remember to call her. People are busy, busy, busy… but she remembers being busy too. She had a shop to take care off, four children to look after. It just seems that people are busy with a lot of things that seem important, but in reality are not that important. She recalls that going out for dinner was a luxury, something saved for an extremely important event. Life was not about things, and owning things. Life was different.

I feel that there is so much that we all can learn from the people who walked before us, and sometimes I get the impression that few have interest in the elderly, but I know that behind every person there is a story waiting to be discovered. We walk this earth, and the things that we do have an impact, not only in our lives but in the lives of others. If we took the time to get to know people more deeply, regardless of their age, gender or religions, we might be able to build a world that includes more than one single story.

*Oma is grandmother in Dutch.