For all of us who write and read about the past, historical time can be one slippery article. Any time period other than our own slides into The Past, a place long ago and far, far away. Or, to paraphrase another famous opening (L.P. Hartley’s wonderful The Go-Between): The past is like another country. They do things differently there.
But it doesn’t take much to rattle this kind of comfortable assumption. To begin with, the Past isn’t really so very far away. My grandmothers were born in the 1890s. One of them clearly remembered the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and both of them recalled nattering old uncles who’d fought in the Civil War. It’s an easy genealogical hop backwards through my grandmothers’ grandmothers, and the War of 1812, and another set of grandmothers beyond that to reach the Revolution. Farther back than that hurts my head to calculate, but the gist of my rambling is that it doesn’t take too many generations to encompass all of American history.
Of course, the Past isn’t limited to Manifest Destiny and other high-concept historical facts. It’s every-day stuff, too. My teenaged daughter can’t believe that my high school yearbook features a page honoring the Future Homemakers of America club, but nary a word about girls varsity sports teams –– which is, of course, because there weren’t any. To her, life before Title IX seems as remote as the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
The other morning, Turner Classic Movies was showing a silent John Barrymore movie from the early 1920s, with Barrymore playing Beau Brummell. The Roaring Twenties somehow don’t seem that long ago to me (perhaps because that’s when my parents were born?), but Regency England does. Yet the number of years between us and John Barrymore is roughly the same as between Barrymore and Brummell. Whoa!
Historian Antonia Fraser delights in “link-with-history anecdotes.” In Royal Charles, her biography of Charles II, she describes one: “Dr. Martin Routh, President of Magdalene College, who died in 1854 in his hundredth year, used to say that, when young, he had known an old lady who as a little girl had seen King Charles walking with his spaniels in Oxford.” Fraser concludes that she herself, “as a child living in Oxford in the 1930s, likes to think she might have known someone old enough to have met Dr. Routh.”
My brother-in-law’s family emigrated to America from Ireland late in the 19th century. While he has lived all his life in this country, he has visited Ireland many times, and still feels a deep connection to his family’s ties there. Thanks to miracle of the internet (what ISN’T for sale on the internet?), he orders carefully prepared boxes of peat shipped to him, the same peat used for heating generations of Irish cottages –– literally pieces of the “old sod.” With great reverence, he’ll light a chunk outside on his deck, close his eyes, and let the distinctive scent carry him from suburban Connecticut back to the Ireland of his ancestors. Less of a romantic, my sister-in-law forbids the peat-burning ritual inside the house, while their neighbors no doubt sniff the evening air suspiciously and consider calling the local authorities. My brother-in-law doesn’t care: for him, that’s the scent of the Irish Past.
One last example: On the road I travel almost daily is a worn landmark sign pointing towards a “Historic Weeping Beech Tree.” Here outside of Philadelphia, landmark signs are everywhere, but this is the only one I know that commemorates a tree. And yes, it’s definitely a very, very old tree, an enormous American weeping beech that spreads and sprawls in every direction (a diameter of at least 100 feet, by my guess) with branches like serpentine vines. This beech has been certified by the local historical society as having been planted in 1703, by a Scottish Quaker farmer named Alexander Bane on land that was part of William Penn's original grant. Of course that Friend’s idyllic farm was long ago broken up and “developed”, the stone farmhouse torn down and the rolling fields around it replaced by suburban houses and an elementary school, with the four noisy lanes of Route 202 destroying any lingering hints of Quakerly peace.
But Alexander Bane's tree remains. Now over three hundred years old, it’s an aging, brittle survivor, isolated and surrounded by a chain-link fence to protect it from nefarious teenagers and tow-trucks headed for the auto repair shop across the street. Yet standing beneath its twisting branches, I think of how an aging William Penn might have visited the Bane family's farm. He might well have sat on a nearby bench with Alexander, drinking cider brought out to the men by Jane Bane on a warm summer evening: the same William Penn who was often at Whitehall Palace in London, lobbying Charles II on behalf of his colonists in Pennsylvania, the same time and place for my historical fiction books (Duchess, Royal Harlot, and King's Favorite). Yeah, I know, it’s a stretch. But when I look up at the leaves of that three-hundred-year-old tree, suddenly 17th century England doesn’t seem so long ago at all.
What about you? Do you have something or some place that connects you with the past? What can carry you back: is it an old teacup that belonged to an ancestor, or a favorite hymn, or a nearby battlefield turned into a park?