Thursday, July 05, 2007

Meandering Through History

I decided late yesterday afternoon that I was in the mood to celebrate my July 4th with a hamburger and some fries from the diner next door. Alas, the diner next door was closed for the holiday as was the gyro stand up the street and all of the other diner joints in the neighborhood. The only place that ended up being open was a British pub where I enjoyed a Ruben sandwich and a Caesar salad, neither burgers nor fries being on the menu. I was in the company of a small motley group of lost 4th of July souls many of whom were participating in the pub’s contest to win a trip to Ireland by finishing a bottle of Jamesons, or trying the bartender’s experimental cocktails. I’m not sure how many other countries would offer you the opportunity to celebrate Independence Day in the former enemy’s bar, but God Bless America for the right and the privilege.

If I sound blasé about celebrating the greatest of holidays in the greatest of nations it’s because I am, alas. I always have lame excuses for not making 4th plans. This year the combination of its midweek placement and my being out of town last week led me to argue that it ‘snuck up on me’, but the truth is it’s always something. Traffic…mumble mumble…Noise…mumble mumble…Too Hot…Too Loud…Too Wet…I have to stay home to keep my cats from freaking out. Really, it’s pathetic. “Wicked anti-patriotic girl!” you may cry, but in that I must protest you are wrong.

The truth is when it comes to July 4th celebrations I peaked early. 1976. New York City. Watching the tall ships roll in on the Hudson from the roof of my aunt’s Riverside Drive apartment building. I had my own official Statue of Liberty silver glitter crown. Now you’re asking me to fight the traffic (or walk for heaven’s sake!) to Ruston Way for the Movin’ 96.5 FM Rockin’ Tacoma 4th? Yeah, I don’t think so. There are pedicures to be given, and cats to calm. Call me in 2076.

Last week I was in Washington D.C. for a conference. One day my friend Elise and I headed off to Monticello to visit the homestead of Thomas Jefferson. I actually caught myself contemplating some items in the gift shop thinking “This would look great on my new bookshelves,” as if I somehow needed new things to fill them. As if I don’t already own so many books, tchotkes and decorative detritus to fill a home full of bookshelves. There is more than ample crap in my home to fill these new bookshelves already, but I did give in and buy a small globe, about the size of a baseball. It’s a globe of the world as it was understood in 1745. It’s a fantastic world where Florida is a tiny nubbin poking off the coast of Amerique Sel De Something I can’t read, Cuba is a huge island the size of itself and, interestingly enough, the missing part of Florida, and the Amazon river slashes across Amerique Meridion bisecting it almost in two with a beautiful thick perfectly straight wide blue line; an aqua superhighway running, to its surprise I imagine, direct from Brazil to Ecuador with nary a bend.

There are, unfortunately, no menacing spots on the map claiming “Here be dragons”, but the northwest corner of what we know as North America does just kind of drift off into an amorphous whiteness like, we know something is up there, but it’s too damn cold to go figure out what. I like to think there’s hopefulness in that vaguery that says “We still haven’t given up on that whole Northwest Passage thing.” If we don’t draw any land in, we can still believe there’s a bitchin navigable river up there, just like the fantasy Amazon, a clear blue line custom made for floating shiny rafts of goods and services. Reality’s a bitch of a task mistress, but that’s what I like about early mapmaking, reality interpreted by a bunch of dreamy guys with sketch pads and the accountants who bankrolled them.

Monticello is an interesting place to visit. We’re awful fond of our founding fathers, we Amerique Sel De Whatevers, and not without reason. They achieved something amazing, often despite themselves. We learn in school the shiny version of them and their foibles, denying them the complexity that humanity gives us all. We can’t deny the fact that Jefferson was an aristocratic southern gentleman farmer who owned slaves, but we are taught that he struggled with this. He treated his slaves well, we’re taught, practically not even like slaves at all. He allowed them to be educated, to learn marketable skills and, of course we are told, he freed them when he died.

This was brought home to me even today as I watched, for the many-eth time, the musical 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. I like 1776, it’s great entertainment. If you haven’t seen it, then it helps to know that it is, yes, a musical about those blistering summer days in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress struggled to create what came to be our Declaration of Independence. In all musicals there must be some underlying quandary, in this case the moral struggle over slavery. Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration pretty clearly lays the groundwork for freeing slaves. The southern delegates are having none of it. There are some rousing arguments and sobering musical interludes and TJ states profoundly that he has decided to free his slaves. Ultimately the passage about slavery is stricken, the sad, but in the language of the musical somehow necessary, compromise upon which our country began its gangly first steps. The slaves had to take one for the team, with the promise we’d make it up to them later.

I don't know how much of this is or isn't accurate. Truth is I don’t know enough detailed knowledge of the history of the time to know the ins and outs of what was put in and removed from the Declaration. What I do know from my recent visit to Monticello is that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. He inherited…inhereted …a hundred or so on his 21st birthday, and then inherited a bunch more when he got married. These were the starting gifts to a young American aristocrat, a matching set of people. They slaved for his farm as field hands, craftsmen, laborers and livestock managers. They worked in the kitchens and in the house. He took some of his slaves with him to France specifically to learn French cooking, and when they returned turned his southern kitchen into a French culinary institute. (Random Librarian Factette: Jefferson introduced the Waffle to we Ameriques Sel De Whatevers, God bless his foody soul)

Jefferson allowed his son to teach slaves who were interested in learning how to read and do maths, but he didn’t run around inflicting education on them all. I suppose Jefferson did treat his slaves well comparatively speaking, but taking a gander at the tiny shack which housed families of 13 or more or listening to the tour guide comment on the two set of clothes per year and one blanket every three years…three years…doesn’t really allow any illusion that these men were somehow treated like union employees.

When TJ died, he set a small number, something like 6 or 9, free. The rest of his hundred or so slaves were sold…sold…to pay off the large debts of his estate. I’m not offering this information up as a condemnation of Thomas Jefferson as much as a reality check. We love our founding fathers we do. We carry big old crushes on these supermen of yore who had a wacky notion and brought it to fruition and then in perhaps their wackiest decision, left it for us to steer. But the truth is they were men, geniuses of their time, but also men blinded by those same times to many of the truths we now hold self evident. This is the truth about American history, and what I love about it. When we teach our children whitewashed versions of history, we deny them the ability to be truly impressed and proud at what fallible beings, not gods, have created. When people talk as if the Founding Fathers created some perfect thing which we’ve only been fucking up ever since, it’s an offense to what they, and we, truly managed to accomplish.

According to Robert Osborne in his introduction to 1776, the director showed the completed film to Nixon before it was released. Nixon suggested, in that way Presidents have of suggesting things that magically get done, that the director remove a musical number called “Cool Cool Considerate Men”. It’s a great song and though the director did apparently cave at the time, it’s now been magically restored. To the Right…Ever to the Right…Never to the Left…Always to the Right.” It’s pretty catchy and in its own unnerving way communicating a sentiment which appears to be as American as those crazy liberals agitating for capital “I” Independence. I get a little freaked out to think what the current administration might have done, given the same opportunity for advance edits. Probably stamp the whole thing “Treated As Secret”, or at the very least make the director pixilate Philadelphia.

One interesting thing that came up on both our tour of Monticello and after was that of the Hemmings family. Our tour guides were pretty straight forward about the fact that the Hemmings slave family held important roles running Jefferson’s various enterprises and that one of the daughters, Sally Hemmings, bore Jefferson at least one child, probably more. When I brought this up later my sister-in-law said that she had gone to Monticello several years ago, before the TJ foundation had been forced by DNA evidence to own up to the truth that had been staring everyone in the face for two hundred years: Jefferson was a busy founding father and was, in this case at least, colorblind in fulfilling his fathering obligations. It makes me giggle trying to imagine the stiff proper southern ladies who lead the tours desperately trying to shut down any of these distressing rumors being flung at them by their tours. In this I can only hope science did them a service, DNA allowing them to fling off their pinchy toed shoes of respectability and finally slip on the comfy Birkenstocks of wacky family truth.

Speaking of wacky family truth, one of the fun parts of having new books shelves is that I can finally put out assorted family photos I’ve gathered over the years. I’ve put out my high school graduation photo in a delusional attempt to convince someone, anyone, to gasp at how little I’ve changed in 20 years. I’m still waiting. There’s a nice set of pictures of me and my mother taken at approximately the same age. We look like the same person, only the black and white of my Mom’s photo giving a hint of weird time travel going on. Otherwise, seriously, it does look like the same little girl in two different pictures. There are some pictures of my parents as children, and a really neat picture of my Granny. She’s standing outside holding a baby, my mother, flanked a group of small children one of whom is one of my aunts. My Granny looks young, so very young. She’s wearing saddle shoes for heaven’s sake, and there’s a breeze blowing back her skirt and hair. It’s very Steinbeckian, but in a good way.

I finally put out a picture today I’ve gone back and forth on. It’s a snapshot of my parent’s wedding in a pretty round frame. It’s very much a document of its time. It looks like it belongs hanging on a wall in the background of That 70s Show, or some more square version of That 70s Show, where the kids actually did go down to the basement to do their homework. Well, duh, obviously it belongs hanging in the Brady House. This is the wedding picture Mike and Carol Brady should have had, clearly.

I like the picture because it does have a, I hesitate to use the overused word “retro” quality to it, and of course I like it because it’s my parents, or rather it was my parents 38 years ago. My hesitation comes from the fact that the marriage it is depicting is over in a way that exceeds the word “over”. Both the people prominently figured in the picture went their separate ways less than ten years after this picture was taken. They’ve both been married to their respective spouses at least 3 times longer than they were to each other. Those second marriages, and the additional parents they added to my life equation, were each in their own ways as or more significant to me personally. I mean, I actually attended both of those weddings.

My mother is wearing a dress she made herself which eventually ended up in my dress up box. I just finished reading this article about the Trash The Dress movement in which women get post-wedding pictures done of the bride wearing “the dress” while swimming or horseback riding or gardening or rolling around in dirt or attacking the dress with scissors. There’s a lot of sociological blah blah about what this symbolizes and how this is no more wasteful than paying to put the dress in hyperthermetically sealed storage for future posterity, and all I can think is, yeah, but both of those are a HELL of a lot more wasteful than just putting it in your kid’s dress up box. I had a lot of fun playing in, with and around that dress, which did get trashed in the process, but I can tell you looking at it in its prime that I’m grateful my mother did not somehow “save” the dress so that I might wear it someday. What happens in the 60s needs to stay in the 60s, and that’s all I have to say about that.

This snapshot is a document, an uneasy document, of that day and all the days to follow for that young hopeful but can I say kindly clueless couple. There is only one smile in this picture, although there are at least ten people in view; the smile on the face of my mother. It’s not a smile I recognize from the woman whose smile is more familiar to me than my own, not the least because it has become my own. It’s not a fake smile. It’s not a jolly smile that takes up her whole face. It’s kind of a small, quiet smile behind which I can read nothing. Hope? Relief? Confidence? Terror? Anything I could guess I’d be projecting what I know about the end of the story, and would therefore be totally wrong.

My Dad, god bless him, looks as pleased and smug as any man in a powder blue tuxedo has a right to. He also does, I must confess, look exactly like my brother David, which means I must now officially excuse myself from any and all versions of the argument between David and my Mom that tend to go like this: “Yes you do.” “No I don’t!” “You SO do!” “I SO do not!” This is the curse of the child. There are moments in your life when you do, in fact, appear exactly like one of your parents during a particular moment in their lives. Like everything, these moments are transitional and do not last, but parents have that elephantine memory that will not allow us to forget that one day in the kitchen when I was three a photograph of me was taken that proves my doppelganger lived in a nursery school photo from the 1940s. All I’m saying, Dave, is that I suggest you avoid powder blue tuxedos.

But where are the other smiles in this picture? Those of the happy families and acquaintances itching to hit the cake and lemonade in the narthex? The only two people in the picture who look like they’ve been at a wedding are my parents. The rest of the scene feels vaguely funereal, like the witnesses know they’ve been party to the end of something, rather than the beginning. Their unease was off by eight years and two children, of whom I am both rather quite fond, so I’m glad that no one did that made-for-tv moment of interrupting the ceremony to ask if the couple is, in fact, quite completely off their rockers to believe this is a good idea.

But perhaps I'm just projecting what I know to be true now on history more ancient than I. I place emotions and intentions on faces I know, but without knowing anything about them then. Maybe everyone not looking at my parents walk by was distracted by the best man’s shiny shiny shoes. Perhaps my grandpa had offered one of his patented Deep Thought homilies which still had them all pondering what really did happen at that wacky water into wine party. It’s a mystery, lost to the ages.

I’m keeping the picture out because, as odd as I’ve made it sound, it makes me happy. My parents are walking out of a church hand and hand into a future which, it turns out, was my future, and my brother’s future, even if it wasn’t so much their future. Pretending it didn’t happen doesn’t improve history. It just makes for empty shelves.


Lopez Kilpatrick said...


Anonymous said...

I display a picture of my parents as a couple and both of my brothers do, too. They divorced when I was 6 and my brothers were 3 and 6 months. Anyone who has seen the photo and knows my parents now say that they can't imagine them together. (It really is mind-boggling.) But it is -- how did you put it? -- wacky family truth. It's real and worth remembering.
-- Holly G.