I tell my students that history is what happened before you were born. Last Thanksgiving, I realized not one of them was alive when John Kennedy was shot. They write history papers on Vietnam. V-J Day, marking victory in the Pacific, is ancient history to them. All days before August 14, 1945, were dark and cold. In frozen twilights we ate murmured meals around tables far too spacious. We sat with the adults and were too young to understand the jokes or the history. Grandmother's parlor window glittered with gold stars, just like the ones my aged great aunt thumbprinted onto my music lessons. We peeked at stars through pinholes in shades rolled down tight against the sill to cut out light reflection on the snow. War buzzed at the rim of life, but never shattered the quiet Pennsylvania mountain mornings. Tuesday, August 14, burned awake. No dew or breath of wind disturbed the powdery dust piles I heaped into miniature volcanoes at the bottom of the lane. On the back porch, my mother did the washing in two tubs. Being a good historian, I know Monday was washday. But my mother's birthday was August 13, so laundry waited until Tuesday: hot white soap in one tub, cold blue slime in the other with the ever-dangerous, finger-chewing wringer perched between. Today a radio crackled on the floor by her feet. "You can sit on the well cover if you don't step on that cucumber vine to get there," she said, and sorted clothes into white heaps of shirts and blue heaps of overalls. "Watch your brother," she said, and stood still inside a bubble of sound floating above the radio. "Keep David out of the cat dish," she said. The cat. Where was the cat that lazy noontime? I hunted Skippy in all her favorite sunny spots and hiding bushes. When I found her, she had five wet lumps she found much more engrossing than my proffered slip of tangled string. "Mommy, look what Skippy caught. Shall I throw it away?" And then I found out about kittens. All afternoon, in the shimmering heat, I peered into the cardboard box. Skippy rasped away, intent on tasting each squeaking clump of matted butterscotch. Were they like lollipops? They had little strings attached. Why did they squeak? Did she push a button on their stomachs? My doll could say "Ma." But Skippy wouldn't let me touch her babies. I was the eldest of a family just large enough to keep my father beyond the reach of the draft. While my brothers napped, the breeze came up, swirling my dust volcanoes into tiny mushroom clouds. On the shaded front porch, mother folded diapers, hot from the afternoon sun. The radio, straining at the end of its cord, crackled in the doorway to the kitchen. And the bells started. We were a mile from the blacktop, 30 miles from a state route number. No sirens, no car horns, no bells except the church bell in the stee ple of the one-room church on the ridge.
That bell rang 10 pulls on preaching Sundays. I had never heard it any other time.
At the first peals we ran, barefoot in the warm dust, up the lane and stood, my sister and I, hand in hand, listening. Ten, eleven, twelve. We went for mother when the bells pealed 50. We counted to 100 and stopped counting. At supper the radio crouched among the plates, but the bells were all we heard. As the breeze cooled the grass, we caught fireflies. Finally, Skippy drank her milk, the delicious butterscotch kittens clustering in sightless faith against her. She lifted her head and looked toward the bells. Our nearest neighbor had 11 sons: five in Europe, three in the South Pacific, three scattered across the country. That August Tuesday, he pulled the bell rope 100 times for each. I tell my students, a good deal of history happens after you are born, too.