History was never my strong suit. I think the turning point was the overly enthusiastic teacher I had in 7th grade who scared me so much. I struggled with the requirement in college, garnering my only C. Whenever I find myself at a historic battlefield or museum, the sight of all those plaques makes my eyes glaze over. But in the interest of making up for lost time and setting a good example for my children I do try to drum up some enthusiasm.
I recently spent five days in Williamsburg, Virginia. I will admit up front that it wasn’t my idea and I went there for reasons having nothing to do with history. The trip was a Christmas gift from my husband. He (and a bunch of other incredibly thoughtful hubbies) gave me (and four other women from my book club) five days on a beautiful plantation. So, being honest, I went there to eat, drink and be merry with friends. Oh, and of course we read a book. One of the husbands (shout out to Mark, here) picked the book, “Dark Enough to See the Stars in a Jamestown Sky” for us to read and discuss (we really did!). Despite the verbose title and somewhat dry writing, the book brought history to life. It was the journal of a woman named Joan who journeyed across the Atlantic to settle in the first Jamestown settlement, survived the “starving time” and hostile Indians, and lived to tell.
Joan’s story raised a lot of issues about self-reliance, food preservation, and just how easy we have it these days. Most of us have never been truly hungry and we’ve certainly never been in danger of starving. Reading about the struggle for sustenance and the possibility of death on a daily basis was a foreign concept for me. But it is a very present reality for many on our planet. The desperation that rearranged priorities and perspectives was clear. The plight of a mother unable to adequately feed her child was heart-wrenching. I was glad I could close the cover. While it was a lesson in history, it made the present real.
What will history say about us? The house where we stayed was built in the 1700’s - the first time. It had only resided at its current location for 30 years. The owner had painstakingly moved it, piece by piece in his Ford Pinto. (Yes, really!) It was restored beautifully and we delighted in the details we discovered – dishes, carpentry, art work, weaponry, books. The grounds were gorgeous. The whole place looked like it had been plucked right from the center of Williamsburg and placed there in the forest across the river.
In between the revelry (no kids!! no where to be!! No one will ever know!!), I managed a few trail runs. Some of the trees I passed were enormous and I wondered if they had been there while Joan was across the river starving in Jamestown. Knowing the settlers had survived by eating acorns, I had new respect for the tiny nuts as they crunched under my feet. Maybe it was my hangover, but I really felt those woods were hallowed.
Which makes me wonder – what kind of history are we making? There have been huge changes in my lifetime. The world has become a different place. I’m not sure that all of it is for the better. But what kind of history am I making here in my family? I know so little about my own grandparents, and even less about my great-grandparents. I don’t know what their lives were like, what they held as important, or what kind of dreams they had. That’s only two generations removed. What will my own grandchildren know about me?
Because I write so much, I’m guessing my grandchildren might know more than they want to know about me. I trust that my journals will prove much too boring for any of my children to ever wade through. But I hope they will know something of me. How will you be remembered? Have you given the idea any thought? Will it be for the beautiful collection of art or stamps or books? Have you preserved your stories in scrapbooks or journals? Will you leave jewelry or furniture that has been infused with your spirit? I realize that the “stuff” we leave behind isn’t as important as our impact on the lives of the people we leave behind, but being in that historic house and wondering about the stuff that was left behind made me wonder about the people who left it. It made me want to know who they were.
Most of us don’t stay long enough in one place to allow our gardens to be our legacy. Our first house was 150 years old. The garden in the foundation of the old carriage house was probably at least 75 years old. I loved to work in that garden and wonder if the peonies (there were hundreds) were descended from peonies planted by someone who gardened at the turn of the century. We found a collection of old tobacco cans in the crawl space and my husband and I laughed at the idea that someone used to hunker down in the pump room for their daily fix. What are we leaving behind?
I do believe we will leave some kind of history, however sketchy. If we don’t want our legacy to be the hours we spent watching reality TV or reading profiles on Facebook, it would behoove us to consider what we will pass down. I hope my grandchildren get a few of my freckles, but I also hope they use my bone china and mismatched pottery. I hope they read this blog. I hope the tomatoes I grow this summer will pass along their seeds in to the next century. Imagine.
Like the settlers at Jamestown, we need to prepare. Maybe we don’t have to crush acorns for flour, but we do need to think carefully about what we teach our children. What we arrange our lives around. We are living history. As I read the story of Jamestown, it wasn’t so much the survival of Joan, but the thousands that didn’t survive that haunted me. So many people traveled so far, only to perish. We know nothing about them but a name on a roll, and sometimes we don’t even have that since many women and children tagged along unaccounted.
Make sure someone remembers your name. Think about the legacy you will leave behind, including the “stuff”. This is the only life you get, don’t squander it. Start collecting acorns.