First, a brief apology. I have been absent from this blog since last August, a long time. But, as you see, I am not dead, just dilatory. There has been much travel, New Zealand, England, Alaska; difficulties of the family type and the endless law suit. And some health issues, mostly minor. Sorry to all who have missed me, and an especial apology to Dick Jones who wrote me a kind email that I failed to answer. Sorry, Dick and thanks for caring. I mean to do better in the future.
Now, here’s my post, A ramble through history of a personal kind.
These days when Jerry and I hear about the disasters sure to come from climate change,overpopulation, corporate greed and political upheavals we shrug and say, well, we won’t be here to see it happen. Of course, we both care about the future of the earth and our species, but what can we do? Our time here now is short. I take the hopeful view that humans will get smarter and avert the disasters. I can’t look into the future. I won’t know. Perhaps the reason I study history and look back over life is because it seems to lengthen time.
My head has been in the past for months. The present is difficult, and winter is a time for reflection so I have been thinking about history. I love the 19th century. I am 82 years old and, though I call myself 20thcentury Woman, sometimes the 19th century seems less strange to me, more like my own century. By the end of the 19th century my grandmothers, whom I knew well and admired, were young married women.
Jerry and I watch Teaching Company lectures on history — from ancient to modern and all the in betweens. I think about how history is studied. How do we know about the past? How do we know the “truth” about the past? Is there a “truth” of the past. The past is gone and perhaps the truth has gone with it. As I write here each word becomes part of the past. Probably I will come back to this sentence and change it; the old sentence will disappear. As minutes pass I will forget my exact thoughts when I wrote the sentence. The new sentence will be changed to reflect a new past which is related to the old past. Petrarch published his correspondence, but throughout his life he edited his letters. He was editing the past.
Like many elderly people I often wake up at 3 in the morning and have difficulty getting back to sleep. During those hours I took up memorizing presidents of the US in order. That meant mostly the 19th century, since there were only 2 presidents in the 18th century and I already know almost all the 20th and 21st century presidents. I read David McCullough’s book on John Adams (loved it), so I was able to quite quickly go from Washington to John Quincy Adams. If I had been alive in those years I would certainly have been a Federalist or later a Whig. I read What Hath God Wrought which covers the years 1815 to 1848. When I came to Andrew Jackson I hated him. Then I read a biography of James K Polk (hated him too). I read a bunch of books on the Civil War. That made me acquainted, to some extent, with James Buchanan, and of course Abraham Lincoln — the greatest man of the century — perhaps the millenium. I would have been a Republican if I had lived then.
The years between Polk and Lincoln, those years leading up to the Civil War, seemed lost in the mists of time. I knew almost nothing about William Henry Harrison (he was only president for 3 months) not much about John Tyler, Zachery Taylor and Millard Fillmore, less about Franklin Pierce. Now I am reading Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. I am beginning learn something of that period. A biography of Ulyses Grant and one of John Hay, who was private secretary to Lincoln and later secretary of state to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt brought me up to the turn of the 20th Century. Now I am reading “A Bully Pulpit” which pushes me into the 20th century, covering Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
As I read and think my judgements on the past are of course the product of my own politics combined with whatever biases are found in the books I read. There is always a selection of materials by the author and the slant of his or her political leanings. How much of what is written is “truth”? Even the the plain facts can vary from book to book. History is peopled mostly by the rich and great. Evidence of the poor and small is scanty, so there is unavoidable bias in one’s perception.
While I was reading real history I reread War and Peace. I had read it in my youth, but as some people do, especially women, I skipped all the battle parts. This time I read it on my Kindle and I read every word. I found the battle parts gripping. I thought about our war of 1812 in the context of what was happening in Russia and Europe at the same time. I was absolutely glued to the book and read it every minute I could. Now I am reading Anna Karenina. I don’t like it. It seems to me to be a morality tale. Somehow I liked Tolstoy’s story on the earlier time, before his own time, better than his judgemental perspective derived from his contemporary morals.
My personal history has been on my mind too. This led me to think about how I see my past life. If you look back on recent stretches of adult life the present colors past memories. You remember how it was then, but the memory is inevitably altered, like Petrarch’s letters, by subsequent events.
Jerry and I spent Christmas with my British family. I had been going there for Christmas since my grandchildren were babies, but had missed going in recent years because of changes in their lives and mine. My daughter now lives on a narrow boat moored within walking distance of her ex-husband’s house. They are friendly and see each other often. My grandchildren are now adults. The older ones with jobs and careers, the youngest in her third year at university and talking of a PhD in philosophy. We did the Christmas festivities in my ex son-in-law’s comfortable house. We trimmed the tree with the same old ornaments. We did the usual frantic last minute shopping in Oxford. We all hung stockings (around the tree since there is no fireplace there). We made a mess wrapping presents and then had our usual Christmas eve supper of lovely cold cuts bread and salad. The next day we had excellent roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for dinner. So many changes, even though we all eagerly hung on to bits of the old life.
The day after (boxing day) my daughter took her two daughters to Oxford to exchange many presents and Jerry and I went for a walk in the park with son-in-law, grandson and dogs . It was a sunny day, after days of rain. The park was green and pretty, the leafless trees silhouetted against the sky. Lots of ducks frolicked in the flooded lawns. For the moment that was the present, if there really is a present between the immediate past and the on rushing future.
At home after Christmas on the island I began the new year by getting rid of some old stuff, and I tackled my desk. There were piles of papers. I had a library box labeled “Letters”. In it I found letters that my cousin had sent to me when she sorted my aunt’s papers after she died. I had glanced at the letters when they came a couple of years ago, but had not read them.
The letters were from my parents to my aunt, Clare, my father’s sister who lived in Andover, Massachusetts. I was 3 at the time. My parents were separating and they asked my aunt to look after me “for a month or two.”
This letter was from my father to my aunt. It had some childish scribbling on in and a note at the top in my mother’s hand writing. The note said, “Dear Clare. I am afraid Anne has decorated this letter. It is an attempt to write to you she tells me.”
Here’s the letter my father wrote: It was undated, but must have been written in late 1935.
Dearest Clare, I have some bad news to spill and a favor to ask of you. Briefly, Marion and I have separated, Marion is physically and psychologically in a bad condition, and if you can do it without inconvenience, I would like you to take care of Anne for a month or two, till Marion has had a rest. The separation has been inevitable for the past two or three years. The epidode which you witnessed last year was nothing more than a temporary symptom, of no importance in itself. Nothing more happened in that connection after we returned from your place. But nevertheless we drifted apart more and more emotionally, until finally we both decided to separate. Now I am staying with some friends in Virginia, about 45 minutes by car from Washington. At this moment I happen to be in the apartment (now Marion’s apartment)) to talk over the problems with Marion. We are still good friends, but what has happened to us is sufficiently recent to make the contact involve some emotional tension. I wish I could talk to you and go over details with you, just to be able to communicate with someone who has understanding and imagination.
I myself am in some state of mental chaos, but have sufficient nervous and physical strength to deal with the problem. Marion is very run downand needs a complete rest. The people with whom I am staying could not conveniently (for themselves or for Anne either) have Anne.
Marion and I calculate that it would cost you about $50 a month to have Anne at your place, since you would need to hire a maid to help looking after her. Don’t think that you need to take Anne to help a member of the family in dire need, since some other way can be found if it is not convenient for you. But if you could do it, it would be a very material help.
For several months I have not written to our parents. I couldn’t bring myself to write about this when it was still uncertain, hoping it might be settled satisfactorily after all and I would not have needed to make them unhappy by writing about it, but on the other hand feeling it would be too insincere to write without mentioning what was in my mind most of the time. Well the day after tomorrow (Sunday) or tomorrow if I have time I will have to write and tell them about it. I am seriously worried about the effect which the probable war [World War 2] will have on them. Love, Ribby [my father’s nick name because he was so skinny].
My grandparents lived in Italy at the time, and war was on everyone’s mind there.
My mother was gone for a year and I stayed with my aunt during that year. I have cameo memories of the trip there on the train. I loved the train. I believe my father took me. I was happy with my aunt. The house was huge — 3 stories, 10 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, front grand staircase and back stairs for servants, though there was only a cook (Mary Stanton, an Irish spinster). It was pure 19th century, hardly touched by the 20th century, though there was a telephone. No refrigerator. The ice-man came with giant tongs and a big hunk of ice which he hove into the ice-box. This castle of decaying elegance was financed by my aunt’s husband’s parents who came to stay in the summers. My aunt and uncle had not much income as he was a teacher at Phillips Academy.
I have lots of clear memories of that year, but since I spent much of the rest of my childhood there, sometimes I am not sure that I haven’t inserted later states of the household into those memories. For example, I now can’t remember whether Mary Stanton was there then. I know she was there a few years later when I stayed again while my parents actually got divorced. I know that when I was 3 and 4 years old I slept in a small room on the 3rd floor off the “playroom” where there was a closet full of old fashioned toys — I remember a domino set and a metal erector set. My aunt often changed people’s rooms around, and I never slept in that room in later years. One day my aunt painted a child’s tabel and chair for me in the playroom. It was orange. I can see the bright orange table on the faded oriental rug as the pale yellow winter sun shone through the window. At bedtime my Uncle read me stories — my favorites were: “The Story of Ping”, “The Wise Old Ardvark” and “Junket is Nice”. At night I could hear the train whistle in the distance, past the apple orchard and woods in back of the house. It was benign and mysterious.
For me this was not a time of trouble. My memories are all about me: my escapades and pleasures, my mistakes and few (very mild) punishments. As I read my father’s letter and another from my mother explaining my childish routines to my aunt, I suddenly got a different slant on that whole time. I was no longer the center of those events, but rather a problem for the troubled people around me to solve as they tried to find sense and order in their lives. For the first time I had a new view of the adult world of that time, something I couldn’t comprehend as a 3 year old child. What must it have been like for my aunt, almost a girl in her early 20’s, no children of her own as yet, newly married and living in a new place — she was born and grew up in Europe — to suddenly have the full time care of a child not her own. How was it for my mother to leave her only child with someone else for a year. She was a loving and attentive mother. She must have been utterly miserable. And my father, who needed a wife, withdrew into a world of theory and utopian dreams. And worried about the impending war.
Already my own memories of those years, like Petrarch’s letters, are revising themselves.