Thanksgiving was great. The food was good and the company — my lawyer daughter and her family and my British-American grandson and his Argentinian-American wife and 2 little ones (who will be all three nationalities) — couldn’t have been more loveable.
I made some roasted chard with feta cheese which was so good almost all of it got eaten. And of course, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, salad, roasted winter squash, etc, etc. I’ll remember it as a specially good one, and perhaps with time forget that I had a small panic about getting everything on the table hot. And that I failed to do so.
The next day lawyer daughter and her family went off to see the new film about Lincoln. Just before they left we got into a discussion (argument?) about history. Was the civil war about slavery, or was it about economics. Of course, the two are so interconnected that it’s not possible to untangle them. But I think, (hope I’m not misrepresenting the other side) that my emphasis was on the moral issue of slavery, and they (lawyer daughter and her son) took the position that slavery was a political justification and that Lincoln and the Northern politicians didn’t really have strong feelings about ending slavery. Their motivation was primarily economic.
We each declared expertise of a sort. Lawyer daughter was an honors undergraduate history major who had taken some American history courses. Jerry and I have recently watched a couple of Teaching Company courses on American history: one on colonial history and another on the whole scope of American History — 72 lectures. Besides that we have read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough and are now reading his book on Harry Truman plus a biography of Seward by Walter Stahr and one of Ulysses S. Grant by H. W. Brands (these two excellent, well written books are particularly relevant to the civil war). Of course, nothing was settled in our discussion (argument?). We parted with hugs all around and they went off to see the movie.
I have been thinking a lot about history these days. Somehow the study of the past seems a way to prolong the span of existence, a thing that begins to matter more as we age and get closer to the final end of our knowing.
Jerry and I are back in imagination thousands of years, doing an Egyptian history course from the Teaching Company. A great deal of this is about mummies and monuments and documents left by scribes which only tell what the ancient Egyptian bosses thought suitable for their descendents to know. Lots of it probably is embellished or even invented.
The professor in our course, Bob Brier, is an expert on mummies — he has even done a mummy himself; consequently I now know a lot more about mummies than I ever wanted to. But the monuments are astounding and I would love to see them, though the thought of going to Egypt these days is a bit scary.
I like to think about the lives of people who lived long ago. In one of the Egypt lectures our professor mentioned a mystery, set in ancient Egypt, by Agatha Christie whose husband was an archeologist. Our professor said the details of ancient life in the novel were accurate. I like Agatha Christie, so I put the book on my Kindle and read it with great pleasure. Though the mystery itself is formulaic, I thought the picture of life in the Egyptian Middle Kingdom was marvelous. I felt I could see it.
We are now at the 19th dynasty, and there are a few stories that, for now, are stuck in my memory. One is about the wife of Tutankhamen (18th dynasty)– her name was Ankhesenamen and she was his half-sister. They had played together as children. Their father was Akhenaten; Tutankhamen’s mother was the beautiful Nefertiti, Ankhesenamen’s mother was one of Akhenaten’s many other wives.
Tutankhamen died suddenly when he was 18. He may have been murdered. His sister-wife was about a year older. She had had at least 2 miscarriages. The unnamed fetuses were preserved in little coffins in Tutankhamen’s tomb. There was no royal successor, but there was a powerful priest-regent named Aye (he was about 60 years old) who wanted to marry Ankhesenamen so that he could become pharaoh. She wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites asking him to send one of his sons for her to marry. She said she was afraid because she had no heirs, and she would never marry one of her servants (Aye). A prince was sent, but when he got to Egypt he was murdered and Ankhesenamen had to marry Aye after all. After that she disappeared from history and no tomb has ever been found for her.
I find this such a sad story: children growing up in an environment of great privilege yet great peril, with no way to direct their own destiny. And who knows what the real story was. Just a few scraps of fact and so many inferences.
From the reading I have been doing and the lectures we watch I feel as if I know John Adams and Abigail Adams and their children, William Seward, Ulysses S. Grant and a lot about other great men and women of the past. But it is the past and what I know is what can be learned from letters and accounts of others. My grandson in our discussion of the Civil War and the movie about Lincoln said he hoped that Lincoln wouldn’t be “idealized” in the movie. He said he wanted to know what Lincoln was “really like.”
For me that’s an unknowable. Some accounts are surely closer to reality than others, just as some portraits are better likenesses than others. But though I know more about my own past than anyone else, I am not sure of the accuracy of my knowledge about myself. My children often tell me stories about the past that don’t match my memories. We were all there but what really happened can no longer be discovered.
Even the massive monuments of ancient Egypt have been so ravaged by thousands of years of weather and abuse that we can only imagine what they may have looked like when they were new.