Are you a lover of history? Do you thrill at identifying the orginal owners of an old house? Do you actually enjoy wandering through an ancient cemetery reading epitaphs, looking at dates, discovering entire families buried side by side? Or maybe you have dedicated a lot of time trying to fill in your family tree with names and dates. If so, then thank you!
Some of us love finding that thread that connects us to our distant pasts.
It’s often surprising how little we know about our ancestors. A name and a date certainly don’t give us a clue about what made our distant relatives, the carriers of our DNA, tick. There’s little information that reveals their dreams, heartaches, personalities, quirks and desires to us. All of that seems to have been lost forever.
Our origins go way back, mixed in the haze of human history, a mystery that will most likely remain hidden.
Our peers know us and our children remember us. Our grandchildren sometimes can’t recall our middle names. By the third generation, we have mostly faded away, an old photograph buried in a box. The short, accidental life that was once so important to us has disappeared forever.
Yet, we feel like we’re the stars of our very own theatrical productions, that the universe is poised to either give us what we want or take it all away.
It’s as though the world was created with our happiness in mind and everyone else was merely assigned supporting roles. Our own self importance becomes overinflated and our expectations often unrealistic.
When I research the past, there’s a sense of humility that creeps into my awareness, however.
Old photos have the same effect on me. I don’t have to be related to the people in the photos either. There they stand, soberly staring into the lens of the camera. An image captured decades ago with only the barest hint of who this person might have been.
I always have so many questions when gazing upon these images.
Beyond wondering what their names might have been are the deeper questions that their haunting images illicit. Were you happy? Did you feel loved? Did you live long? How much did you suffer? What were your dreams? Did you die alone? Perhaps because I register high on the empathy scale, my questions tend to be more about how the person felt rather than what they accomplished.
Old houses and buildings have the same effect on me.
If only those walls could talk. What have they witnessed? Down through the ages, how did the many different occupants behave when behind closed doors? That’s when we can often be our true selves.
Local histories, world histories, community histories, family histories are not just fascinating but are also informative. We can learn from the past if we feel so inclined. The mistakes our ancestors made are good examples of what not to do. Their successes that contributed to progress shed light on how to move forward.
Nothing stays the same in our evolving world, but if we have no idea where we came from maybe where we’re headed will always be an accident.
I’m not sure that history class was most of my friend’s favorite place to be. For some reason, I never held that same contempt for learning about the past. Even as a child, I was endlessly fascinated with what makes humans do what they do. Countless hours of observation have not provided me with many answers but instead more questions. Yet, history books, documentaries, genealogy, old photos, documents, old architecture, my wonderful history professors, antiques, museums, old books, and the stories told by my grandparents continue to intrigue me.
History is always under threat of being rewritten or completely forgotten.
Old beautiful buildings are torn down only to be replaced by a shopping mall. Few in the community even knew the incredible stories surrounding these beautiful pieces of archetiecture. Once gone, it is erased from our memories along with thousands and thousands of other stories.
Our ancestors also died and were forgotten.
We often don’t even ask our grandparents to share their memories of our great grandparents with us. They pass away and are buried with a wealth of incredible stories. After they are gone, a few of us spend hours and hours trying to fill in the blanks of our own histories, often regretting that we hadn’t picked the brains of the living resources in our own families before they were gone. So, by the third generation most us will become at best a name on a tombstone with a handful of fading memories of who we were and what we cared about. With the exception of a few famous people, we all slip into oblivion.
Even famous people get lost in myths and legends, their true selves either glorified or demonized.
It takes the relentless digging of the archeologist, historian, or genealogist to uncover facts about these individuals and shed light on who they really were rather than who we want them to have been.
Without those rare individuals who obsess over all the little details that make history come alive, societies would have almost no stories to tell at all.
Instead, we’d have to rely on oral stories passed from one generation to another, embellished along the way with little to no evidence that the stories were even true. Our tribes would be even more dependent upon myths and legends to guide them. I can’t imagine living in a world dependent entirely on the short and faulty memories of the masses.
Most people probably don’t appreciate the passionate work of the historian or even the fascination of the amateur historical sleuth, but those of us who fall into either category are grateful to that small segment of the population who thrill at uncovering a single connecting to our distant pasts.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Teresa Roberts is a retired educator, writer, world traveler, and professional myth buster. Her books can be found on Amazon