May 2005


Every age keeps secrets. Sometimes those secrets are rediscovered. Sometimes they are gone for good. History is a lottery and what gets remembered changes over time.

When my grandfather and grandmother got married, they went to Europe. My grandfather had been invited to a medical conference in Vienna. It was 1912. I always remember my grandmother talking about that trip. Everything was so bright, so old, so beautiful. She described the young servant girls in their quaint dresses skating through the halls of the palaces, waxing the parquet floors with sheepskin moccasins. Everything was lit by candle light. A horse-drawn carriage met them at the railway station and took them in style to the grand veranda of their host's house. There were two impeccably white marble staircases and nowhere in the house was there a particle of dust.

That last part I'd find really hard to believe, even if you had an army of quaint servants -- all of Vienna was heated with coal and wood. There's no way that some of that didn't find its way indoors. But grandmother was by then in her mid 80s and always had a large tumbler of gin at her elbow, at least after noon.

They didn't see the rotting tenements. They didn't see the dispossessed multitudes of Slavs. Beggars were not allowed on the streets of Vienna or Belgrade, at least in more fashionable districts. University students wore uniforms. The ubiquitous secret police did not. In a time when even trifling offenses were capital crimes, the jails were all full.

"Don't you remember, Henry?" she'd say, looking at her husband, sitting in his overstuffed chair growling into his newspaper.

"What?" he'd say, "Oh, Vienna, yes, Lura, I remember. It sparkled in the moonlight and everybody was happy."

"Do you know," she'd say, to the room in general, "I was one of five sisters. Emily was the pretty one. Jane was the talented one. Martha was the funny one. Anne was the smart one. And I was the other one." And she'd laugh, as though she'd just newly made up the joke. We all laughed, too. She'd had a hard life and only one of her children survived her.

After the second world war, my family lived in Vienna. Among other things, my father worked to raise money for a company that made artificial limbs for people who couldn't afford them. I have pictures of the place. It was in beautiful hilly country -- a new building, like a gymnasium from some high school built in the 1950's. Everything was like that in Austria -- either it was new or it was a ruin.

I remember looking at the pictures of the stacks of artificial limbs when I was very young and asking why the legs and arms in one section were smaller than in other sections. It was explained to me that they were for children. I hadn't thought of that before. Children didn't, so far as I knew then, fight in wars. All the hundreds of thousands of crippled men, women, and children aren't found in history books, they get left out of the stories.

When my sister was 6 years old, she was struck by a car in Vienna, and was terribly scraped and bruised from the cobblestones. She could not walk after the accident. It was not a physical problem, it was a condition called hysterical paralysis. Our grandfather, the orthopedic surgeon, arrived in Vienna just after the accident, and stayed for a few weeks to attend a medical conference. He checked out my sister in her bed on his first visit. He came by the apartment every afternoon and read to her. On his fifth or sixth visit, as he got to the exciting part of the story, he paused and asked her to go get his pipe from the living room. She did.

That was the story that taught me what really being a doctor was about. It was an enlightening tale. There is too little in history, as conventionally taught, that allows people to come to an understanding of the people and places they study. Quite often, after the people who were there have died, so does any real understanding or meaning of the time or place. That is sad. There is so much to be known and understood and we are much too frivolous in letting it slip through our fingers.

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