Learning Matters: Historic milestones come with personal stories

Ever since a former Glendale mayor held a “Find the oldest sidewalk imprint” contest, I’ve found myself looking down as I walk, especially here in Milwaukee, where one of my main activities has been pushing a stroller with our twin grandbabies.

Much of our daughter’s neighborhood was developed a century and more ago, and most of the sidewalks have been repaved over the years, so there’s a wide range of dates.


Some years appear frequently — indications perhaps of good years for street repairs — while others stand out for their age. What strikes me now, probably because I’ve been thinking a lot about family stories, is how I tend to relate the sidewalk markings to my own life.

1955 shows up a lot. That was the year my brother started kindergarten, nearly two months before he turned 5 years old.


Also, 1985, the year our second child (and first son) was born.

I’ve seen a few 1997 imprints, reminding me of our younger son’s kindergarten start after an “extra” year of preschool.

With year-round school in those days, he could have started in 1996, three months before his 5th birthday, but I yielded to the sage advice of our then 15-year-old daughter.

“Mom, he’d do fine in kindergarten, but you don’t want him being the youngest boy in seventh grade,” she said.

As it turned out, he eventually ended up with the classmates with whom he could have started, but that’s a topic for another column.

2012 was a good year for paving companies here. It was also the year our daughter got married on the day after a hurricane-force wind called a “derecho” blew through their Virginia wedding venue.

There were power outages from north of Washington, D.C. well down into the South, but the wedding went on without a hitch (so to speak).

A few days ago, I came across the oldest sidewalk marker I’ve seen here, and a somber one in my family history: 1919. That was the second year of the Great Flu Epidemic, which killed my grandmother and nearly took my then 7-year-old mom.

I know I’m not alone in seeing life in personal terms. Our 4-year-old granddaughter, Piper, demonstrated the natural inclination last week when she suggested we tell stories rather than read them for a change.

“And I’ll go first,” she said.

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Piper,” she began with a big grin, “and she had a brother, and then she had two sisters. It’s our family story!” she exclaimed. “Now it’s your turn.”

Luckily, thanks to my mom’s penchant for telling her stories, I was able to tell Piper about her great-great grandmother, Guenn, who, with her older sister, Grace, rode in a pony-drawn cart to a one-room school in Nebraska.

Like Piper’s, it was a short story, but I hope, with enough retelling, it might be one she will remember and relate to, expanding her own experience into a wider historical perspective.

Each of us has years that stand out in our lives. Some years are notable for chance encounters (like the meetings of husbands and wives), others for larger historical events outside our own lives.

I’ll be going home soon, leaving our grandchildren and these sidewalk stories behind for a while. But I’ll keep thinking about how we mark the years and the stories we share with our children.