In the Introduction to this project, I wrote about having the realization…
…that people whose names have almost been forgotten, or have been forgotten, were as real as I am in all respects…
If there’s one line, one phrase, that sums up my entire motivation to do this work, to gather in all this information, and take so much time and effort and life energy to make it available to others, so that these stories can live and be passed on, it is this idea. “People whose names have almost been forgotten, or have been forgotten, were as real as I am in all respects…”
As real as I am.
I’ve often wondered if, as our lives unfold, we don’t go through a very early period of more or less secretly believing that all of those around us – mother, father, siblings, neighbors, cousins – exist as actors in some sort of play for our benefit and our benefit alone. Then, as we add neurons and synaptic connections and gain experience, we move on to a stage where we somewhat grudgingly acknowledge that while others might be real, the time period in which we find our young selves is in fact the only time that has ever existed, that there is just the present, this present, and all pieces of evidence to the contrary, i.e. history, art, culture, language, are more or less elaborate fictions that have been thought up as embellishments to our current period. (A mentality not dissimilar to the way creationists explain away the fossil record as being placed in the ground by God, but I digress.) And then, in this “unfolding” of our consciousnesses, if we’re lucky, we enter a phase in our development, where we connect with the truth, not intellectually but viscerally, that we and every other person we know, have ever known, will ever know, are only the latest chapter of humanity’s broad narrative arc; the last few ticks of a clock whose hands have been circling for eons.
As I said, this is just something I’ve wondered. Perhaps a child psychologist, or a pediatric neurologist, would say all the above is hogwash. I have no idea. But when I think back on my own earliest days, it feels true.
As for the last phase, connecting with the reality of other people in other times, for me there was no one single “Aha!” moment; there were several.
One came when I saw a photo of an Asian brush painting – Chinese? Japanese? Five hundred years old? Six? I don’t know – of a cat. It was pasted on the wall of our local veterinary office above a cluttered desk and an old, perpetually disgruntled German Shepherd. I can still see that cat. Its curving spine. Its cat posture. It looked like it was going to jump down on the floor, raise its tail and walk away. But it was just ink on silk. The record of a particular few seconds, long, long passed. How many centuries had that cat been dead?
Another moment came when I read an ancient poem, almost but not technically a haiku:
The Moon has set and the Pleiades. It’s midnight. Time is passing. And I sleep alone.
(Often attributed to) Sappho
Those four sentences – their immediacy, their aching humanity, and like the painting of the cat, their age – all take my breath away every time I hear them.
There was a third moment. And it was the passage below… A description in an old, smelly, leather-bound book owned by my father, with a cracked and crumbling spine, of our ancestor Susanna Parker, my fifth great grandmother, noticing the gleaming of the British soldiers’ muskets as they arrived from Boston, and later in the day, following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, finding a dead young man, a “Redcoat,” on her front walkway…
As real as I am.
All of this happened.
Someday, and for many somedays after that, everything that I myself have been, and seen, and felt, and done, will be passed off by some new five year old as a likely embellishment to her present, the only present that has ever existed.
On the morning of the 19th of April, 1775, Susanna Parker, who lived with her parents on the turnpike in Concord, caught sight of the British troops marching out from Boston, and running with her sister over the hill behind the house watched the gleaming of the muskets along the road. When the soldiers came back that afternoon, pursued by minute men and farmers, the girls again took refuge behind the hill, and on their return to the house found lying dead at the gate a handsome British soldier in his red coat.
That same morning Colonel Prescott rode to the house of his neighbor, Samuel Lawrence, in Groton, and cried out, “Samuel, notify your men; the British are coming.” Mounting the colonel’s horse, Corporal Lawrence rode seven miles, rousing the minute men of his circuit, and was back again in forty minutes. In three hours the company was ready to march, and on the next day it reached Cambridge.
At Bunker Hill, Samuel Lawrence received through his beaver hat a musket ball which cut his hair from front to rear, and was struck by a spent grape‑shot upon his arm. After serving two years near Boston and in New York, he returned to marry Susanna Parker, to whom he had been engaged since early in 1775. But during the ceremony the signal was given to call all soldiers to their posts, and within an hour he left his bride to join his regiment at Cambridge.
At the close of the war Major Samuel Lawrence and his wife settled down at the Lawrence homestead in Groton. He attended to his duties as farmer, deacon, justice of the peace, and trustee of the Academy of which he was a founder, while she cared for the house and a family of six sons and three daughters.
In 1807, the fourth son, Amos, with twenty dollars in his pocket, drove in his father’s chaise to Boston and entered business.
In a few years he and his younger brother Abbott founded the house of A. & A. Lawrence, which with a few other leading firms in Boston carried on her foreign commerce, developed the manufactures of Massachusetts, and gave to that generation of Boston merchants a wide reputation for integrity and success.
Amos, who was for many years an invalid, gradually surrendered the active business to the younger members of the firm and devoted himself to philanthropic and public interests, while his sleigh, covered with boys and filled with books and clothing for the poor, was known by every one in town.
Abbott, a man of fine physique and great activity, was the leading member of the firm, an influential representative in Congress, and a successful minister at the Court of St. James.
The three other brothers, Luther, William, and Samuel, rose also to positions of large responsibility in business and civic life; so that when a manufacturing town rose on the banks of the Merrimac below Lowell, it was given by a vote of the citizens the name of “Lawrence”…