Thursday, October 09, 2008

My ancestors got to this country before it was a country. Depending on whether you count the official arrival date by descent through the Lenni-Lenapi, or by the colonists who arrived on William Penn's first voyage, it's been a while. I grew up a stone's throw from where my forebears first settled in Pennsylvania. It was history brought to life in a way that the historical recreations couldn't quite compare with. On one hand, I could go often to recreations. Men and women in reproduction clothing standing by cookfires, cast iron kettles I could have climbed in, soap and candle making and spinning wool and flax from the source... you can get a good feel for history if you do that enough. There's another sense to be found by walking by a graveyard with red fieldstones whose carving has been all but worn away by time. Roughly shaped they still stand to mark people who came here on the small wooden ships. People who were like us with hopes and dreams, whose sorrows were born as best they could with a dozen children and two or three in the ground before they were weaned.

Four hundred years in a place leaves something behind for the descendants, whether or not they can see it on a daily basis. When I walked in Ireland the summer after graduation, I saw that same sense of history in the people on the streets. When I walk in the town I currently call home, I don't see it as much. When I walk in the places that have historical monuments, I feel it a little. A hundred years old? Respectable. But where are the real histories? Where are the walls built of stones plowed up in the spring, laid back down to mark the yard in 1746? Where is the ancient grave? Where are the textiles that were laid aside in hope chests and forgotten, to emerge again and be treasured by generations that study the patterns and methods?

I'm writing this because of crafts. I do needlework, and I bake my own bread as much as I like, and every now and again I slip into a daydream as my fingers fly in the task. I feel close to generations of my maternal line. So many of my skills are handed down through the generations, so many of them taught from one woman to the next. My mother traced those lines through the centuries, and a number of things kept coming to light in anecdotes that make us marvel at how much family traits don't change. Our love of books? An ancestor that bartered chores to neighbors for candle ends, he'd stay up at night reading. There were writers, and readers, and historians, and a whole family of weavers. There were accomplished seamstresses and good cooks. There were stubborn stiff-necked anabaptists, martyred for their beliefs in Switzerland, expelled in the Palatine. There were respectable people. There was a member of the King's Lifeguard in Prussia, who had a religious experience when he saw the sinking of the Spanish Armada.

They were people. They were our people. A history, a heritage. Tonight I think about that a lot, don't know why exactly, maybe I'm reading too much history and seeing the resemblances in my children to the elder generation who have already gone to heaven. There is nurture and nature, and I wonder how much of these traits are due to which cause?

What is cause, what is effect?

Do I really need to know the difference when it comes to these things?

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