#437 Steeped in history

I am a history buff. Have been for years. I’m not exactly sure how it’s started, though I suspect a particular European history teacher in Exeter had a hand in it, making it interesting and all that (how dare he?) by somehow finding the ridiculous and the sublime in every era, every conflict, every revolution we had to study. He was a bit of a terror and his exams were legendary, but my inner masochistic academic clearly loved it so much that I signed up for a second semester with him, before proceeding to plunder and pillage my way through almost every offering the History Department had available. I was a fairly small fish in such a bright academic pond, but I think it’s safe to say that I might have been one of the first students there, if not the only, to squeeze four years worth of history classes into the space of three years of my own free will. For fun.

Do I remember much of it right now? Probably not. The Spanish wars of succession are a vague mist, as are the precise details of the Papal schism and the Reformation and god knows what else. But the love of the story, the interplay of facts, factors, and influencers, their significance, and how echoes of the past still ring through today never ceased to fascinate me. Nor have I forgotten the importance of understanding and learning from history.

It’s not really surprising, in light of this, that family history is something that also caught my attention early on. And boy does my family have plenty of it, though that is perhaps fodder for another post or three. Now, frequently the things to which people confine their understanding of “family history” are just old photos albums and heirloom trinkets. The significance is there for anyone who knows what they’re looking at, but for anyone else it’s just an anonymous window into another time, stripped of the context that gives those images and objects their significance. Without that context (the stories) there is little to keep one’s attention. Facts and figures provide a certain foundation for a tenuous connection, but stories are what put those facts and figures into a frame. It was how that history teacher tormented us on exams, listing a handful of historic terms we had to identify, but a concise, correct explanation of each historic figure, place, or event would only get us  a maximum of 8 out of 10 points. We had give more than just identify the historical term. We had to place it into context, link it to the other items listed. Explain the connections.

Without those stories, flipping through a family photo album is little more than a brief acknowledgment of a shared history which fades back into shadow as soon as the page is turned over. I mean, there is really only so much sense of connection that you can achieve from a caption “Grandma at age 12, outside of the schoolhouse” scribbled on the back of a faded photograph. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have any description. No one ever thinks to write “Grandma, at age 12, outside of the schoolhouse where she met Grandpa. They never talked to each other until he fell off his bike just outside the school there and they became friends and then later got married and were together for over fifty years” so that future generations can know that they owe their life to a bike accident on that little patch of dirt in the photograph next to where Grandma is standing. (This is by way of an example. This is not my Grandma and Grandpa, their story is stranger still, but it could be someone’s grandparents.) When we lose the stories, those photos and mementos lose their value and become disposable objects. There are professionals who spend their life buying and selling such items of the past (I even know one) and over time and generations, as we forget the names that go with the faces, what’s left is just an anonymous impression of the time gone by.

Sometimes, though. Sometimes, you find yourself holding an intact piece of your own history and it’s like lighting a match in the darkness. It flares bright and flings the shadows around you like the proverbial Moses parting the Red Sea. A jewelry box you got on your 16th birthday that your grandfather gave to your mother on her 16th birthday. The very first time you see a rare photograph of an uncle you never met because he died before your mother was born. Letters from the war front. An exquisite handmade garment. Some might scoff at this form of sentimentality. After all, the power of these objects stems almost exclusively from the significance with which we ourselves imbue them. But when that significance allows you to connect your own self directly to past events you only previously read about in history books, that sentimentality becomes a lifeline, a tribute to the people who came before you and who shaped the world into which your grandparents, your parents, and ultimately you, were born. An unbroken chain of evidence sprung from the pages of your history book and into your hands.

For me, one of the objects that most viscerally captures this feeling began its life, innocuously enough, as men’s thermal long underpants (кальсоны, if you want to be precise), but it didn’t long stay that way. Because when you’re subsisting on post-war rationing at the dawn of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, you make do with what you have. And what my grandmother had, apparently, was access to men’s long thermal underpants. In 1951 or thereabouts, they were a luxury item issued only to military officers at a time when new fabric was scarce to come by. What my grandmother needed however, were baby clothes for her new nephew, so lo and behold an absolutely boring plain white undergarment became a brightly embroidered, beautiful gift. I was enchanted when I first laid eyes on these pieces years ago and heard my mother explaining their history, but I was absolutely struck dumb with emotion when I got the chance to put them on my own son five years ago. In some respects, it’s just an old handmade article of clothing, but in another sense, it’s a testament to how humanity survives and thrives in adversity. How on the heels of tragedy and death on a global scale, individual lives continue on with their daily joys and sorrows, their triumphs and challenges, their hobbies, their loves, their attempts to create order and normality from a life that’s sometimes little more than chaos and whimsy of fate.

Beautifully transformed underpants aren’t the only things bequeathed to my family’s safekeeping from that generation. Still in my mother’s possession are my grand-aunt’s letters home from the front during her time as World War II nurse with a front line corps of engineers. Tyotia Tanya, as I knew her, is another part of my family’s past tethered to me less by facts and figures of her birth and death but more by the stories I have of her life in between. A woman who wanted to serve her country in war, but was unimpressed with being sent to sew suspenders for soldiers in the local factory to where her family was evacuated, so she took matters into her own hands and became a nurse on the front lines, writing home infrequently about inconsequential things.

One part part of me that’s more academically inclined rejoices at putting the fragile piece of paper into its proper historical context like one fragment of a multi-million piece jigsaw. On a more human level however, those tiny scraps of lovingly embroidered underpants speak to me more of hope whereas reading  Tyotia Tanya’s letters leaves the taste of bleakness in my mouth. A short note whose purpose is nothing more than to enclose a photograph casually mentions that she was awarded a medal for valour and concludes with a postscript that “now we’ll probably have to force the Dnieper” as if the task was an annoying errand one has to run instead of one of the largest operations of the war. The trick is, of course, to read between the lines, at everything that isn’t said, either because of wartime censors, or to simply pretend for a short time that the world around her wasn’t going to hell in a hand-basket while she watched men and women she knew die in front of her under fire.

It’s a blessing then that tragedy isn’t a requirement to bequeath significance to an object, as we know from the aforementioned story of military underpants. This past summer The Mister and I were privileged to step into the role of godparents for a new nephew. The event witnessed the re-emergence of The Family Christening Gown. And yes, those are capital letters which an object has the entitlement to acquire if it’s been present at the christening of four generations of the Mister’s family. Given my love affair with tangible connections to the past, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone that when Hawkeye was born and we decided to have him baptised, I reverently requested the privilege of borrowing The Gown. Perhaps if he had still been a newborn I would have opted to use the embroidered garments from my own family’s past, but Hawkeye had well outgrown them by the time the question of clothes for the occasion arose, and I have no regrets with him taking his turn to be graced with the delicate lace and cotton in the Mister’s family queue.

Even with well preserved history, sometimes the details get lost in the mists of time. I have been able to figure out that the gown is at least 100 years old at this stage.  It has almost certainly served four generations up to and including Hawkeye and his newest cousin. What’s even more fascinating though, is that it wasn’t made by one of the Mister’s ancestors before being passed down through the generations. Instead it appears to have entered the family possession as a gift from another local resident. A Catholic resident, to be precise, passing along a Christening gown to a Protestant neighbour at the turn of the 20th century in rural Ireland, against the backdrop of a country teetering toward insurrection and civil war. On a smaller scale though, you still have people who get up every morning, eat their breakfast, and go out to tend to the farm, milk the cows, feed the pigs, and go to the local for a pint and some gossip. Why did a Catholic neighbour give such a beautiful and religiously meaningful gift to a Protestant family for safekeeping at that time? No one is exactly sure at this point. But the fact is that she did, and her gift has survived and been honoured generation upon generation, serving its purpose of bringing new souls into the fold of Christianity. The particular flavour of Christianity becomes immaterial when you compare that difference against the communal significance of celebrating family and faith.

At this point, it does feel like I am plumbing the depths of self-indulgent nostalgia, but I know I am not the only one who values such symbolic connections to family and history.  For all his stoic pragmatism and self-confirmed lack of sentimentality, even the Mister sometimes has a soft spot for such things, infrequently betrayed on occasion such as the aforementioned christening where I snapped the photo of him holding his new godson. I know he has these soft moments because he does not, ever, wear a watch. If he wants to know the time, he pulls out his phone. He does not wear suits to work, and he has no need of a classic timepiece on his wrist. Even when he does wear a suit for special occasions, like all people of our generation his phone is never far out of his reach in a trouser or breast pocket. But the watch matters on days like this because that’s his dad’s watch. Because there are some days, when even the self-professed non-sentimentalists need a symbolic way to link their past and their future, bring together the old generation and the new. Because these stories and the objects that ground them are our guiding north stars in vast sea of history, letting us hold on to our identity in a ceaseless wave time.

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