I read my first actual book when I was eight. It was called Smiling Hill Farm, and it related, in the simple language fit for new readers, the journey of a family in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century from their former home in a tame, domesticated Virginia, through the great dark eastern forests, to the wilderness of Indiana. It described the cabin they built at the top of a hill, their first attempts at buckskin clothing and soap-making, visiting peddlers, the relationship of the bachelor uncle to the rest of the family, malaria, first marriages. The beauty of the book, and what fascinated me about it, was that it didn’t stop there. It followed them all…through the first brick house, the weddings of grandchildren, a contingent heading west yet again, the deaths of the original mother and father, and on and on.
At the end of the book, a very old man, well into his nineties, plays with his own great-grandchildren. He is, if I recall correctly, the son of two of those settlers. In a wonderful parallel, the tall trees surrounding the house are in fact the saplings which had been left standing by the original family members, as they cleared the brush so many years before. Together the man and the children, in the shade of these trees, watch a highway being put in at the foot of the hill.
This book, told almost from the point of view of the land, was my first glimmer of what I can only call the unbroken flow of life: that the old man was once really a boy; that people whose names have almost been forgotten, or have been forgotten, were as real as I am in all respects; that our lives, far from being the discrete poems we tend to imagine them to be, are just lines, or perhaps at best verses, in a very long song.
As a teenager visiting Boston, Massachusetts, and South Bristol, Maine, during the summer, I would prod my Grandmother Burgin to recite the names and stories of her family. She could recall from memory much of a nine generation oral history, passed from mother to daughter, that stretched back to Plymouth. At the end of the day, while pouring out orange bottled dressing for the salads, I heard about Robinsons, Frenches, Farrars, Shaws, and Sanborns. The thought of writing it down occurred to me, but before I could—the summer I was sixteen—my grandmother had a stroke and much of that oral history, lore more than names or dates, was lost. Gone.
It was then that I realized what had to be done, and I started saving whatever I could find: old envelopes with names written on the back, newspaper clippings, the nothings on which histories of this sort depend. Anything that would help me to rebuild the framework, and possibly those stories.
The map is not the territory, and this score, this list you hold in front of you, is not the song. But my hope is that if you read between these lines, you may be able to hear something, faintly, and be able to recall it the next time you’re preparing dinner with some young relative.