History and memory

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 beenĀ  more loveable.

Layer daughter

My multi-national grands and greats

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 greens are next to the salad

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.”

Grandson at the far right is the one in the discussion

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.

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7 Responses to History and memory

  1. Rain Trueax says:

    History does get rearranged especially by those who live longer and can do it or use the ‘truth’ to get their way on some other issues. From those who saw ‘Lincoln’, it sounds like it takes the view that ending slavery was critical to Lincoln; but I have read what your daughter had– he used it as a way to defeat the South and that the real issue for him in the Civil War was to keep the states together. There is no way we really can ever know the truth even of a time so recent with writings to help tell the story.

    Where it comes to Egypt, it’s even more impossible. We got to see the Tutankhamen exhibit when it came to Seattle some years ago and it is fascinating for the exact truth of what happened.

    If one believes in reincarnation, there are some who claim they lived then and give their view of what happened but even if there was such a thing as reincarnation, living in a time of history only gives you pieces of it anyway.

    Like you I very much like history with some periods more interesting to me than others. I’ve done quite a bit of research recently on the Civil War but mostly the war itself and how it impacted those who fought it. The politics of it will be written and rewritten to suit each future generation with who knows the truth of someone’s motivations at the time.

  2. Hattie says:

    Wonderful. Has anyone told your lawyer daughter that she looks something like Sandra Fluke?
    You are a very distinguished, accomplished and handsome bunch!
    Tip on the buffet: Terry’s cousin always has us over for Thanksgiving and serves up buffet style, just as you do. She still has one of those electric warmers everyone used to own. Maybe you could scare one up at a garage sale or there might be something new for sale that would fill the bill.
    Happy Holidays, my friend!

  3. Anne, don’t forget to read about Hatshepsut – she was me in a previous life! Okay I can’t prove it, don’t need to prove it and am perfectly happy to be told it’s bullshit. But there’s no harm in the fantasy – if that’s what it is – and it has given me lots of inspiration. Maybe you saw what I wrote and the photos of the trip I took to Luxor in 2005 to see ‘my’ temple at Deir-el-Bahari etc? It’s at this link:
    You and Jerry might enjoy browsing it along with your ancient Egypt research.
    The first time I ever saw the Ancient Egypt section of the Louvre when I was about 16, I instantly felt at home – everything was familiar, especially the 18th Dynasty.
    Reincarnation may or may not be a fact and if it is, we’ll never know how it works, but I do have a strong sense that there’s some truth in it, however vague.

  4. Tabor says:

    It, the civil war, was more about the money. The slavery issue gave a nice moral overtone to the war, but there was the issue of whether the territories would have slaves or be slave free…which changed economics substantially.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    “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.”

    What a beautiful line, Anne. And I would love to have been there both for the food and the discussion.


  6. I’m glad you had such a nice Thanksgiving!
    I love history too. It’s fascinating … and you’re right – we never do know FOR SURE exactly what happened! (Maybe that’s what makes it even more interesting?)

  7. pauline says:

    We are constantly making and revising history, our own included. I notice that with my children. They filtered our mutual experiences through their emotions and perceptions and their memories are quite different than my own. I imagine anyone writing about the past has to deal with conflicting reports that are at once true and biased. I think most wars are fought about economics but how to get people to rally around such a concept? Throw in a moral or emotional cause and you’ve got their support…

    Dinner looked great, warm or not! Glad you had some of your family around you.

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