We Can Touch History

Tomas Transtromer, in his collected poem, The Great Enigma, writes:

“My maternal grandfather, Carl Helmer Westerberg, was born in 1860.  He was a ship’s pilot and a very good friend of mine, seventy-one years older than myself.  Oddly enough, the same difference in age existed between him and his own maternal grandfather, who was born in 1789: the storming of the Bastille, the Anjala mutiny, Mozart writing his Clarinet Quintet.  Two equal steps back in time, two long steps, yet not really so very long.  We can touch history.”

I love the words, We can touch history.”  My own father was 40 years older than me.  He was born on December 27, 1921 (though his birth was recorded as January 6, 1922).  If he were still alive, we would be celebrating his 90th birthday next month!  He was a natural-born storyteller and the stories of his youth “back in the old country” brought to life a Sicily that no longer exists: a time when all farm work was done with a mule and calloused hands, when a shovel, a pick, or an ax were the greatest of tools, a time when food was so scarce that meat was a luxury, to be fat was equal to being rich, to go to” l’America” was the greatest of dreams.

I loved my dad and I loved his stories.  Through descriptions of his youth,  in my mind I could imagine the cobbled streets of the home village, Grotte, the fields of wheat, the olive, fig, and almond orchards, and the vineyards well before I saw them with my eyes for the first time in the spring of 1972.  I never met his mother, Mamma ‘No, nor his paternal grandmother, Mamma Luigia, but I feel as if I knew them.  I carry these  women in my heart. Dad’s stories brought them to life for me.  I could see my Mamma ‘No (his mother) wearing dreary black her whole life because one by one, year after year, her family members died and custom dictated that she had to wear black for each family member for at least one year.  I could see her hungry eyes, her overworked body, her bitter smile, and I could see the fierce, protective love she had for her children.  She was the type of mother who would make mincemeat out of anyone who so much as threatened any of her children!  Everyone knew that fact!  She had fainting spells when she became overly agitated and she was very sensitive to gossip.  She hated gossip and walked away from it.  She had very few friends and lived for her children.

Mamma 'No (Dad's mother, Onofria Terrana) visiting Aunt Lily in Gary, Indiana in 1957

Dad’s stories also brought to life his paternal grandmother, my great-grandmother, Mamma Luigia.  She was sweet as sweet can be.  All I have are two faded photographs of her and some stories.  She had deep pockets full of hard candies which she doled out to my dad and my aunties.  She worked the land and toiled from sunrise to sundown. My dad had never seen a harder worker than his paternal grandmother.  From the well to her stone hut in the countryside, she carried water in a huge ceramic pot balanced on her head.  She occasionally had to take the train to another village to see her relatives and she took this trip quite seriously.  If the train was to depart at 10 a.m., she would be at the train station (la stazio’) by 7 a.m.  She was teased mercilessly about showing up so early for her train, but she would explain again and again, that the worst thing in the world would be to be LATE and MISS the train.

My great grandmother, Mamma Luigia

Though the photo is faded, Mamma Luigia's smile and sweetness can clearly be seen and felt!Mamma 'No (Dad's mother, Onofria Terrana) visiting Aunt Lily in Gary, Indiana in 1957

I know how my grandmother and great-grandmother lived, how they embroidered and knit, washed laundry by hand outside in the courtyard in a large basin and hung it up to dry on lines stretched between the houses, across narrow, crooked, lava-stone-cobbled medieval streets.  They cooked, made their own sauces, aged their own cheeses, and rolled out their home made pastas ( li cavatti), baked their own bread, and had baby after baby.  I like to imagine how they pulled out their simple caned chairs in the late afternoon after all the house chores were done, and sat outside their doorways, watching life go on in their little cortile (courtyard).

My Mamma ‘No had my father late in life and she was born way back in 1880! As for my paternal great-grandmother, Mamma Luigia, I am not completely certain of her date of birth.  What I do know is that her son, my Grandpa Gallo (Mamma ‘No’s husband and my dad’s dad), was born in 1877.  That could put Mamma Luigia’s birth around 1847-1857.  That was so long ago and, yet,  I can imagine the old Sicily she grew up in.  It is as if I was there with her at the lantern lit evenings with the red-hot coal-filled brazier keeping our feet warm in the cold stone house of winter.  Yes, we can touch history…and history can touch us!

Transtromer’s “We can touch history” also made me think of what was going on in the world the day I was born, and in 1961, and in the 60’s in general.  Here is what I have found:

What was going on in 1961?

Average Income per year $5,315.00
Cost of a gallon of Gas 27 cents
Average Cost of a new car $2,850.00
Eggs per dozen 30 cents

What Events Happened in 1961

  • Fidel Castro declares Cuba is to adopt Communism and bans free elections
  • US Cuban Exiles and CIA mount unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Castro known as the Bay of Pigs
  • John F. Kennedy inaugurated as President of the United States
  • President John F. Kennedy advises American families to build bomb shelters
  • The Peace Corps is established by John F. Kennedy
  • President Kennedy asks Congress for $531 million to put a man on the moon
  • Somalia suffers wide spread flooding after the two main rivers, overflowed their banks and merged in a vast flood plain leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
  • Segregation on railways in the south ends
  • Construction of the Berlin Wall begins.
  • East German Authorities close the border between east and west Berlin
  • UN General Assembly condemns Apartheid
  • Estimate of the World’s Population reaches 4 billion  (Please note: It hit 7 Billion on October 30, 2011!!!!)
  • South Africa becomes an independent republic.
  • Last Journey of The Orient Express Paris – Bucharest
  • First Direct US Military Involvement in Vietnam
  • Amnesty International Started in United Kingdom
  • The Antarctic Treaty System comes into force to regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica to ensure that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes
  • Pampers, the first disposable diaper, introduced
  • Members of The UK Portland Spy Ring are found guilty of selling plans of the HMS Dreadnought, Britain’s first nuclear submarine, to the Russians
  • During the Monza Italian Grand Prix Race Baron Wolfgang von Trip’s Ferrari crashes off the track onto embankment filled with spectators killing 14 plus the driver.
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) started
  • “Freedom Riders” test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia by riding racially integrated interstate buses into the South. Some are attacked and beaten by white supremacist supporters of racial segregation.

Popular Culture

  • The farthing coin, used since the 13th century, ceases to be legal tender in the United Kingdom.
  • British satirical magazine Private Eye is published for first time
  • The Pony become a popular dance

Popular Films

  • 101 Dalmatians
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • The Misfits
  • The Hustler
  • West Side Story

Popular TV

  • Wagon Train
  • Bonanza
  • Gunsmoke
  • Perry Mason
  • The Red Skelton Show
  • Andy Griffith
  • Candid Camera
  • My Three Sons
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Mister Ed (first broadcast in October, 1961)
  • The Avengers debut in the UK. But it was not seen in the U.S. until 1965.

Most popular recorded songs of 1961 in the US:

  • Will You Love Me Tomorrow The Shirelles
  • Pony Time Chubby Checker
  • Surrender Elvis Presley

Born in 1961

Barack Obama 

Nadia Comăneci

George Clooney

Lawrence Fishburne

Michael J. Fox

Wynton Marsalis

Technology 1961

    • Yuri Gagarin is the first human in space (This occurred on my very birthday, November 25, 1961!!)
    • The First in-flight movie is shown on TWA
    • The First electric toothbrush is produced by Squibb Co.
    • Alan Shepard makes first US Space Flight
    • Niagra Falls starts producing hydroelectric power
    • The first quasar is discovered by Allan Sandage at Mt Palomar, California
    • IBM introduces the Selectric typewriter Golfball

Major World Political Leaders

France President Charles de Gaulle

India Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru

Russia / Soviet Union
First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev

United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower Till January 20,
United States President John F. Kennedy From January 20


  • Andy Warhol Exhibits His Campbell’s Soup Can
  • Cuban Missile Crisis
  • First Person Killed Trying to Cross the Berlin Wall
  • Marilyn Monroe Found Dead
  • Rachel Carson Publishes Silent Spring


  • Betty Friedan Publishes The Feminine Mystique
  • JFK Assassinated
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Makes His “I Have a Dream” Speech


  • Beatles Become Popular in U.S.
  • Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali) Becomes World Heavyweight Champion
  • Civil Rights Act Passes in U.S.
  • Hasbro Launches GI Joe Action Figure
  • Nelson Mandela Sentenced to Life in Prison
  • Warren Report on JFK’s Assassination Issued


  • Japan’s Bullet Train Opens
  • Los Angeles Riots
  • Malcolm X Assassinated
  • New York City Great Blackout
  • U.S. Sends Troops to Vietnam


  • Black Panther Party Established
  • Mao Zedong Launches the Cultural Revolution
  • Mass Draft Protests in U.S.
  • Star Trek T.V. Series Airs


  • Che Guevara Killed
  • First Heart Transplant
  • First Super Bowl
  • Six-Day War in the Middle East
  • Stalin’s Daughter Defects
  • Three U.S. Astronauts Killed During Simulated Launch


  • Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated
  • My Lai Massacre
  • Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated
  • Tet Offensive


  • ARPANET, the Precursor of the Internet, Created
  • Charles Manson and “Family” Arrested
  • Neil Armstrong Becomes the First Man on the Moon
  • Rock-and-Roll Concert at Woodstock
  • Senator Edward Kennedy Leaves the Scene of an Accident
  • Sesame Street First Airs
  • Yasser Arafat Becomes Leader of the PLO

Even if you did not just have a monumental birthday, you should check out what great event/s happened on the day OR the year you were born (unless you are my birthday twin..in which case I have done the homework for you (Kim Johnson and Kathy Ridgely Beal-that would be you!!)!  And share it with me by posting a comment below!


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