My ancestors hover in the household like ghosts enjoying a summer vacation.
I’m descended from a New England family whose maternal forebears emigrated from England in the 1600s. Because of this, I’ll let you know that New Englanders really do “use it up and wear it out” before anything is discarded. I’ve unpacked a lot of their trunks, had boxes to sort through and albums to review. It’s not unusual now to straighten up a room and stop to examine Great Grandpa Ballou’s letters from Fort Barrancas when he was with his Vermont Regiment, read postcards from Grandma Fisk invariably taking a train to another town where she’d lecture, or trip over the toleware candle sconces Great-Great-Grandpa Ezra Pierce played with as a child in 1816.
It’s more unsettling to look at the hair collection. These are snippets of hair collected in the 19th century from the family members who had passed on. They were carefully woven, knotted and tied in bows as keepsakes. Each is identified on cards by name and dates bracketing their life. While the cardboard is disintegrating, the hair might have come from sweeping up a barbershop floor yesterday. This is not the sort of thing I can carry to the Antiques Road Show, so they’ve all gone into a single large envelope labeled “HAIR,” waiting for my children or grandchildren to decide what to do with this memorabilia of mortality.
My limited religious ruminations stop at the thought that we remain immortal until our last acquaintance passes on. Death isn’t abrupt, but it does catch up eventually. Given this dollar-store theology, I opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone. (It might help to have some rural legends, like firewood theft prevention, to pass along for posterity.)
I’ll give proper due to statues in the town square collecting bird droppings and the tombstones moldering in the marble orchard. But I can also suggest the World Wide Web is an option for immortality.
Grandmother Fisk, for example, had been a lecturer on the Chautauqua Circuit in the first decades of the 20th century, traveling the country as America’s Foremost Cartoonist. She drew pastel sketches while narrating her stories — patriotic, humorous and historic — before small-town audiences while. By idly Googling her name, I discovered the University of Iowa had an extensive digital collection of Chautauqua information. I called the archivist at the U of I libraries, who exclaimed, “We had the notes and programs and schedules, but we had no idea what the actual content of the programs involved!” I was happy to donate her papers, photos, lecture notes and stories, which are now online. Even better, she’s been given a new lease on life as students research women’s liberation and write their master’s theses.
|Marion Fisk, "Tenting Tonight"|
I brought her father back to life as well with a piece of “true fiction.” Grandma Fisk would tell me stories when I was a child curled up in her four-poster bed. One recollection was about a famous song to come out of the Civil War, “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground.” This song made the name of its composer, Walter Kittredge, known all over our country. Kittredge would visit her father — my Great-Grandpa Ballou — and together they’d sing “Tenting Tonight.” The warmth of the “tent” formed by Grandma’s canopied bed and all those memories can still comfort me. And perhaps even comfort her spirit if she’s sitting on the bedpost. Just possibly, my great-grandfather, a loyal Union soldier, also would have a tear in his eye while tucked in snugly on the Web.
Long-dead ancestors have all come back as living memories to new generations, as alive as personalities as they were when the ladies chatted about them in the kitchen. I’m looking now at an ambrotype portrait of my great-grandmother as a child in 1859. In her penciled memoir, Mary Ballou wrote in the third person, “At 3 years of age her first picture was taken by a traveling photographer, Lawrence by name. She sat in a borrowed high chair, belonging to Charlie Jones [a neighbor child]. Black it was with white line trimmings & a diagram on the back. Her dress was pale orange with little white diamond patterns, low neck, short sleeves, and Mary was half afraid, but altogether curious to see the man put his head under a black cloth. Mother was ill with typhoid fever, and Mary was recovering from the same.”
Little Charlie Jones died from typhoid shortly afterwards, and I wonder who remembers him. He never delivered a speech or wrote a letter, nor had his likeness captured in an ambrotype. Just a tombstone marks his passing, or a post script on his parents’ marker, that makes small claim to his “immortality.”
Those New Englanders who never threw anything away? Mary saved a swatch of her dress. More than 150 years later, the pale orange still has an otherworldly glow as I show it to my grandchildren.
Our poignant search for unfading, eternal life compels us to store school photos, snapshots and Daguerreotypes. Those “Kodak moments” are a way to store time in a bottle. The Internet now gives them greater universality.
We can waltz through a live-for-the-moment future till the devil demands his due. Then, the words of the dead become precious commodities. But, there’s good news. Our images and words can be archived, repeated and shared. Their spirits can be invited to the dinner table.