Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Saving Private Wetzel

I got the chance to reminisce with my cousin Jeri, who I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. Sadly, our families had been estranged for all that time. We spent the evening trying to piece together the reasons behind the split. Each of us contributing bits and pieces of family lore hastily whispered to us as children when we asked the adults uncomfortable questions. Like a pastiche, we hoped our layers of story would form some sort of clearer picture of our family situation.

Jeri brought with her all sorts of family pictures and memorabilia that had been entrusted to her as the oldest “child” on her side. The most interesting piece was my grandfather’s WWI discharge papers. He was an ambulance driver in Veneto, Italy. The English major in me sighed with disappointment when we couldn’t find Ernest Hemingway’s name on the thin onion skin paper listing the men in his company.

Then came the question, “Did he ever talk to you?” Of course the answer was, “No.” (Can you hear the buzz of my W.A.S.P.y roots?) Over the course of dinner with my parents, we peppered my father with questions about his father. We came away with little.

We got fragments of information like, “He was really respected at work.” “I think there is some sort of plaque on a maintenance building at Temple University.” (My grandfather was the head of the campus Buildings & Grounds department.) One bit of family lore was that when Grandfather Wetzel retired it took TWO men to replace him. (We Wetzels are hard workers).

Of course my cousin and I resolved that our families would be different! They wouldn’t have to hunt and peck for the basic details about their ancestors. Our children would have a strong sense of the individuals in their families. But I realized that they will anyway, because my generation will leave a strong digital footprint.

My grandchildren will only have to look at my Facebook, Linked-In pages and my Twitter feed to get a sense of whom I was. (Although I do hope to make more of a personal impact on them when they arrive – hopefully not for at least another 10 years).

In a way, social media has made it easier for more of us to leave an indelible mark because there is the potential for someone to hear and know us for generations to come. With social media, the answer to the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” is a resounding, “Yes”.

Social media enables us to create our own, “Fifteen minutes of fame.” We don’t need mass media to do it for us. Nor do we have to rely on sketchy memories as in the case of trying to piece together the man my grandfather really was. We can create our own rich pastiche of our words, our pictures and our interactions, giving generations to come at least a fighting chance of understanding who we were.



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