Friday, October 3, 2014

The Past Isn't Very Far Away

A lock of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair
My grandmother was born in 1917. That’s three years after the start of World War One, five years after the Titanic sank, fourteen years after the first powered flight. She was probably walking when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918 and ninety-seven years later, she’s still alive.
Conrad Heyer, photographed in 1852 when he was 103.
He was the earliest born american to be photographed
and the only person to be photographed who crossed
the Delaware with George Washington
People tend to think of the past as something that happened a long time ago, but my grandmother would be the first to tell you that those years that she has lived flew by like a freight train. My great-grandmother, whom my father knew well, was held up by a bandit in Yellowstone National Park in 1908…those sorts of things seem like foggy memories from the deep past, when, in reality, what happened one hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, or three hundred years ago, only happened three lifetimes ago, if everyone lived as long as my grandmother.

The bullet that killed Nelson in 1805
Unfortunately, this is the best picture I can find
as the bullet is on display in Windsor Castle
and photography isn't allowed
Shakespeare is still funny; we relate to Jane Austen so much that countless movies have been made of her books; even Aesop, an ancient Greek philosopher is read to children at bedtime. The Romans, who we humorously like to refer to as ancient, lived lives that would have seemed perfectly understandable to us. They talked politics at dinner, they had glass in their windows, they even had fountains in their gardens…and in the streets of Rome, urchins were busy painting graffiti on the walls of buildings.
People are still as much people today as they were a thousand years ago. They still like desert, good drama and nice clothes. Taste and fashion may have changed over the years, but the intent is the same. The various forces that motivate people to do things are the same; we haven’t become any wiser, smarter or stronger over our years of existence.

This tile, recently found in Leicester, England, was rolled out
2,000 years ago and a puppy walked on it before it was quite dry
We need to think about the past correctly, not as dates and dry paragraphs in a history book, but as something that is still happening to us. The world we live in today was shaped by the past, bound by decisions made many, many years ago. What I’m trying to say is that the past isn’t very far away; the remains of it are all around us, and if you’ll take the time to look for it, it will meet you half way. 


  1. I love hearing about people's family history! Unfortunately, my oldest living relation is mostly deaf so we can't really have conversations with her, though at least we get to visit her :) I do know that she grew up very poor. She was the eldest in her family, and when her mother died she had to raise her younger siblings. When her father remarried when she was 14, she wouldn't let any of her brothers or sisters call the new wife 'mother'. She's always been fiercely loyal; if you mess with anyone in her family, watch out! She makes awesome biscuits, and she passed the recipe down to us, and now I make them all the time (of course, she never measures when she makes them, so the recipe we have doesn't taste quite the same, but they're really good).
    Our great-great-great grandfather (I think that's the one) was in the Civil War. His grandfather was in the Revolution.
    But, sadly, I know very little family history. It seems that those things are dying out as families become more fractured and disconnected; I wish they weren't.

    1. That's fascinating that you had ancestors in the Civil War and in the American Revolution! I believe we had one in the American Revolution, but I can't remember now. I know we had one who was a sea captain.

      We're fortunate enough to know quite a bit about our family history. Some ancestors and relatives kept meticulous records and others were into photography at a time when photography was still very cumbersome. We can trace back as far as the Mayflower and even some roots in Tudor England.

      I wish family history wasn't dying out, either. I think knowing where you came from is really important; it gives you a personal connection with history. Many people who aren't familiar with their backgrounds don't realize that their ancestors helped make the world they are living in.

  2. Some children, even today, still have the most ancient book, the Bible, read to them.