“My name is Jeanne Greenfield and I was born in a red house in Silverdale, Missouri.” That is what my Aunt Billie had written on the back of a drawer in my grandmother’s old dresser. She wrote it in 1946 when she was fifteen years old. The drawer was removed because my mother is moving from her home to live with my brother. The dresser has been with us for well over fifty years and no one had ever seen the writing until now. It is funny to contemplate my Aunt Billie, now deceased, writing her “autobiography” at fifteen. Aunt Billie’s autobiography, written on the back of a drawer, reveals things about her. I knew her as an adult, a bit careworn from the job of raising a family of children and then grandchildren. I never knew her as a teenager but like most of us, she must have been experimenting, looking for her own identity, trying to create something to be remembered by. She was able to do this by some words scribbled in pencil on the back of a drawer.
Words are a powerful medium. They last much longer than these “bits of stardust” our minds (and souls) inhabit. They reveal things about us to future generations. Flannery O’Connor made carbon copies of every letter she wrote, realizing that someday they would be read by countless others, long after she was gone. Her letters are revealing, they show a woman of intelligence, faith, humor, and, sometimes, a woman too caught up in the present moment to understand the historical implications of events occurring during her lifetime (such as the Civil Rights Movement). Other letters by other people reveal things that are often surprising. They show a surprising humanity in philosopher William Godwin, otherwise known for his cold, observations; they show the heart of Albert Einstein when he encourages a young girl to “not mind” that she is a girl; they show the compassion of a Lincoln, the wit of an Austen, the selflessness of a Dorothy Day, and the vulnerability of a Thomas Merton.
These beautiful relics from the past that show us the heart of the author will not apply to the current generation. Instead, we have the anonymity of facebook where we can spew vitriol without thinking about how the future will reflect upon us. I have a friend who lovingly wished a group of young, innocent, African schoolgirls well. She was verbally berated by a man in a way that I am sure he would not have done had they been face to face. But the internet gives us this lovely buffer where we can be as rude and ignorant as possible. There are entire pages devoted to hate and ridicule. There are conservative pages and liberal pages and the most distasteful I ever heard of, a page called “kill obama.” Is this the way we want to be remembered by future generations…as a group of screaming ideologues who could never get anything done because we were so busy shouting at one another we could never hear?
There is an old saying, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think, before your little fingers begin their dance across the keyboard you should apply that same saying to what you type. When I found my Aunt Billie’s autobiography it made me laugh and smile and remember, with love, a remarkable woman. When future generations find your facebook posts, how will they remember you?