Today is the 93rd anniversary of my grandparents’ marriage. Our family has never been particularly aware of the date, or even the event. But as I began reinvigorating my genealogy research a few years ago my first steps were to begin scanning all of our family documents and photos.
As I did so, my limited perspective on people began to change – rather than abstract folk fixed in time these images provided context and glimpses of them at various points in time. Last year I visited the church where my grandparents were married and found myself surprisingly touched just by standing in the spot where my grandmother must have waited at the rear of the aisle.
We walk through life thinking we know the story. Any story. All stories. But we tend to focus mainly on the big ones. Those may be important, but often the seemingly mundane details can offer a finer and even more satisfying understanding.
This morning I listened to the latest How Sound podcast entitled Mighty Tiny. At the start of the episode host Rob Rosenthal reads an opening quote that originally comes from the historian Will Durant. I was not familiar with Mr. Durant, but was struck by the perfect parallel of the passage to the perspective I have developed during my family research.
I began to look into his writing and found that the Will Durant Foundation site contains a larger section of the passage. I think anyone active in researching their family will find that the ideas in these paragraphs are an affirmation of the task and that life on the banks is our inheritance.
“It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, and a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it.
Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts – between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. This is the more dramatic side of history; it captures the eye of the historian and the interest of the reader. But if we turn from that Mississippi of strife, hot with hate and dark with blood, to look upon the banks of the stream, we find quieter but more inspiring scenes: women rearing children, men building homes, peasants drawing food from the soil, artisans making the conveniences of life, statesmen sometimes organizing peace instead of war, teachers forming savages into citizens, musicians taming our hearts with harmony and rhythm, scientists patiently accumulating knowledge, philosophers groping for truth, saints suggesting the wisdom of love. History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”