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A Wrinkle in Time, A Blink in History

May 27, 2009 by · No comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: Athena’s Pix

Three events conspired to make me write this essay: First, I recently spoke with an old friend who is soon to be ninety-eight and still going strong. Second, I’m teaching a class of college first-years and they all seem so young! Third, I’ve just had a birthday. I’m old enough now to find the annual event occasion for reflection.

I’ve been blessed to know many elders who have inspired and believed in me. Their insight has guided me; their friendship has been a true gift. One of them was a woman named Ada Pullen whom I met in England in 1971 when she was well on her way to a 90th birthday.

Mrs. Pullen was born into a still largely agrarian world that would have been staggered by the thought of economic globalization. She lived through two World Wars and a good many other frightening conflicts. Educated only to the sixth grade, today’s technology would have overwhelmed her. It is staggering to contemplate all the events and experiences, personal and collective, that she lived through. (I prodded her to talk them into a tape, but she never did.)

At the other end of the age spectrum, I asked my sociology students recently what political and social changes had occurred in their lifetime, and what they thought they might live to see happen. They stared at me as if I’d asked them a question in Swahili. I probed with questions about the fall of the World Trade Towers and the election of a black president. That yielded a few “Oh, yeahs.” I guess you have to be post-fifty to find epic events in your lifetime intriguing, let alone important.

Since I am over fifty now, I do find the history and milestones of my nearly six decades incredible to ponder. On the day I was born, for example, the local newspaper ran war news, ads for synthetic rubber and quality asbestos, and promoted the movie “Girl Trouble” starring Joan Bennett and Don Ameche. “Miss Ruth Hutton entertained at her home” and someone else sought “reliable white woman for housekeeping.”

I actually remember picking up the phone and telling an operator what number I wanted. The dial phones that soon followed were a fabulous invention; later, push button Princess telephones put us over the moon. Then we landed on the moon! I recall with utter clarity the day our first (black-and-white) television was delivered. Howdy Doody and Willie-the-Worm provided live entertainment for kids after school while adults were glued to Armstrong Circle Theater, Ed Sullivan, Loretta Young and Milton Berle in the evenings. Ipods, ha! We listened to 45 rpm records of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw!

In the 1950s, when our annual vacation meant driving to Toronto to visit my father’s relatives, there were no interstate highways or Holiday Inns. We drove the rural roads of America, ate at Howard Johnson’s, and slept in motels with chenille bedspreads if they were AAA-approved. Remember those pictures of kids ducking under their desks when the flash of white light meant atomic attack? I was one of them. Oh yeah, I also remember polio, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and the Suez Canal crisis, not to mention the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s.

Like everyone else, I recall exactly what I was doing when I learned that JFK had been assassinated — and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. I was working in New York City as a medical secretary when my boss’s nephew, Andrew Goodman, was gunned down for trying to help blacks register to vote in the south. I was in Times Square along with (literally) millions of other people to protest the Vietnam War and I was “there” when the Kent State killings took place. I am proud to say I was really there when the women’s movement took off (and relieved to be there when The Pill became available.)

I have lived to see the Berlin Wall fall, the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the real possibility of having a woman president in the U.S. I’ve flown the Concorde, mastered computers, and can hope that a cure for at least some cancers is near.

At the same time, I’ve lived through alarming milestones that are defined by climate change and environmental degradation, ongoing wars and multiple genocides, global terrorism, and the real possibility of worldwide economic collapse. I have no doubt that life as I’ve known it is about to change dramatically if not drastically. I worry for my kids, as no doubt, my parents worried about theirs during the dark days of World War II and the Holocaust.

As a friend of mine said recently, “I’ve no plan to leave this world anytime soon,” but when I do, it will be amazing to look back upon all the events – personal, political, economic, social, cultural – that will have shaped my life and that of my contemporaries. My presence on this earth may be, to use Madeleine L’Engle’s term “a wrinkle in time,” or the blink of an eye, but what a wrinkle and blink!

Such thoughts are enough to make me wish I’d be around when my young students look back upon their days forty years from now. I’m sure they will. Old friends, long-gone teachers, and birthdays have a way of ensuring it.

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Elayne Clift is a writer in Saxtons River, Vt.

For more about her books and workshops please visit

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