Thursday, August 21, 2008

Imagine that for every experience you've had over your many years of being alive, a little pearl has materialized that sums up that experience's impact on you. Some experiences may produce black pearls, or oblong pearls, or tiny barely-visible pearls, each depending on the flavor and significance of the experience.

When you're still young, there aren't enough pearls to see any emerging patterns, possible designs or groupings; but as you age, you may suddenly see a winding thread that links many of the pearls. Maybe there comes a time as your identity forms when some of the pearls somehow snap together, as if suddenly magnetized.

My interest in local history has emerged from this tabletop of pearls and I can trace back my interest through the years to memories formed when I was still a toddler. Now the linkages seem clear, but it has taken many years for them to be made apparent.

Probably the first such memory is of me visiting the hospital, where my grandmother lay dying from stomach cancer. I was barely three years old. I was the only grandchild my grandmother would ever know and my birth had rescued her from decades of depression, stemming from the loss of her first-born. My other memories of her are far fuzzier. Opening Christmas presents in her living room; playing with toys on a rug in a small room while she sat in a leather chair nearby. This particular memory is very clear, though. There are no photographs to crystallize it. I remember being short, straining to see up onto the bed where she lay smiling and talking with me. Her voice has disappeared over time. There was a hospital meal tray on a rolling stand nearby. I remember being called over to her. She had a gift for me. She leaned over to the drawer by her bed, pulled it open and handed me packets of Captain's Wafers that she had saved from her lunch of hospital soup. Thanks, Grandma! I loved crackers. I tottered back to my mother, who was dressed nicely to visit her ailing mother. She leaned down to me and in a soothing but sincere voice she urged me, "Brad, remember this."

Years later I would be sitting in a doctor's lobby with my great-grandparents, waiting for them to be called back for a routine check-up. My great-grandfather, a lively storyteller, was around 95 years old at the time. I was maybe 10. His voice bubbled and made long cello notes as he told stories. Understanding his speech was an art I had only begun to practice; my mother was an accomplished artist. While my mother tended to my great-grandmother, Poppa Stan began spinning a yarn about men waiting in trees. Or at least that's what I remember. It could have been anything, really. Lunatic fans at a baseball game, an experience in the First World War, stories passed down from his Confederate grandfather. I've tried to piece it together through the years, but the elements are too sparse and flimsy: men, in trees, waiting. It could just be the grainy snapshot invented by my mind. Were they jumping down on someone or something?

There was never a time my mother visited her grandparents without me after I was old enough to walk. These had been the only grandparents she'd known and they had raised her nearly as much as her own parents. She dearly loved her grandfather, a popular man in Cowpens. Being with him meant parading around town, receiving candy and compliments from smiling strangers. My mother was determined that my brother and I would know them, so we visited every few weeks. Most of the time, we took them out to dinner (not to be confused with supper). The venue varied, but the experience was nearly the same. I would watch them eat steamed cabbage, pinto beans and other oddities while I stuck close to my mac and cheese and hamburgers. Other times he would pitch tennis balls to me from a whitewashed swing as I wielded a broken plastic baseball bat. I hear that memory more than I see it. A light green comet streaks into a nearby field: "Whoo-wee! Looooord ahhv muh-see!" His high-pitched laughter echoing through the shady yard.

The historical details would only be pasted on in retrospect or visible to my adult eyes through the videotapes made during one of our visits. Poppa Stan had been a textile league baseball player throughout Spartanburg County from the 1910s through the 1940s. In the video, he comes back into the house after pitching balls. Winded, but with glistening eyes, he tells the room, "Boy, I wish we could really play ball."

These memories laid some of the foundation for a family history report I created in the 8th grade. Poppa Stan and Greatma were gone then, but my mother had plenty of stories pass down from them. Relatives, newspaper clippings, and books in the library had others. I treasure these stories as inherited memories and the details invented by my mind to fill in the tiny gaps made them that much more real. There's the memory passed down from Poppa Stan's grandfather, the Confederate soldier from White Plains, in eastern Spartanburg County. On a cold night in Virginia, early in the war, my ancestor and his fellow men were in camp talking and thinking of their families hundreds of miles away. It was December, almost Christmas. They had expected the war to be quick and decisive, but there was now no question that the war would take months more, at least. They knew the Union Army was nearby and that there would be a battle soon. During a moment of frozen silence, they hear through the grass the metallic tones of some far-away music. As they strain to pick out the notes, a change in the wind suddenly makes clear the distant harmonica playing "Silent Night."

Of course there are pearls from other branches of the family too. There's the photograph of my great-grandfather, Walter Steinecke. He is around five years old, smiling, his head encircled by a warm white glow. When the photograph was taken around 1898, Walter's father, William, owned and operated a photography studio in Brooklyn, New York. William's father had been a respected portrait painter and engraver before he left his wife and children and began a new life in Chicago. William had only barely gotten to know his father, the source of his artistic heritage. This photograph of his son shows him as a jewel, the pride of his father. Undoubtedly, he had sworn to be a better father to his son than his father had been to him. But just as William would only barely know his father, Walter only barely got to know William. William died only a few years after this photograph was taken, never seeing his son grow to become a steel executive and amateur artist.

My 8th grade family history report was the clasp or maybe the string that began to link these experiences. From there it grew into a hobby, something I tinkered with during my free time and a frequent source of conversation. As my family's history touched the history of South Carolina, I would delve into the stories of my community as extensions of my family's heritage. In 1753, one ancestor, the descendant of 17th-century Swedish immigrants, settled briefly on an Upstate South Carolina creek that came to be known as Dutchman's Creek after the small Nordic settlement that grew on its banks. Another creek was named for my Surratt ancestors. They were also participants in movements and events that affected the area: early settlement, various wars and military encampments, populist causes during the 1920s and 1930s, agriculture, small-scale businesses... all of which I researched out of curiousity. Of course since Spartanburg was my home and the home of both of my parents, I saw or heard frequently about the changes that have occurred in the past 40 or 50 years and I gradually became interested in the changes before that time, even if they never directly effected my family. Over time, I built up a repertoire of local history facts and stories, each with a lesson, an explanation, or a bit of humor. Eventually, I had gained a sturdy knowledge of research techniques and an understanding about organization and documentation, all of which had a significant influence on my career in museum collections and research.

I feel like now I have a framework installed for my interest in history and I can gradually build it up by adding stories and information, so that it can eventually be a grand palace of historical anecdotes! I've spent perhaps a little less time developing some of my other interest such as ecology, art and design, and theatre. But as time allows, I hope to begin to trace out those passions more fully. I'm glad I've got some time to work on it!

1 comment:

Steve Shanafelt said...

Just to let you know, I gave Hub City Historian a little shout-out on the new Arts, News & Culture blog (dreaming of becoming an alt-weekly) Keep up the good work. Your blog is one of the most original ones I've seen in town, and I look forward to seeing more.