I’ve been thinking more, lately, about history. About cosmic and cultural, political and personal history. About the way that people do and don’t keep records of any kind of history, how each documentarian shapes the way things are remembered or forgotten, and how each person on the receiving end of the documentation shapes it all further, given the multitudinous filters of experience, intelligence, and personality each brings to the process. School learning, book learning, deep research, and autodidactic learning all depend upon the vicissitudes of human understanding and communication. And a whole lot, also, on luck and succeeding history, since all of the learning can be lost or found many times over the decades and centuries.
My family recently unearthed the above little slip of paper that marked my maternal grandfather’s completion of his first machinist training. Gramps had immigrated to the States some years earlier in search of work, and had kept busy and alive in the piecemeal way that [willing, as opposed to indentured or enslaved] immigrants have done since time immemorial, bunking in cheap rented quarters with other young immigrant men, laboring long hours for little pay, and playing greenhorn pranks on each other in the few hours outside of work when they weren’t downing a hasty bite of food or sleeping exhaustedly. His machinist training eventually led to his working at General Motors for quite a long time, even serving on the team that built the first Duck prototypes for the army. And then his life took various turns, over the years, and I grew up knowing him as a skillful carpenter and homebuilder and the hobby-farmer tending beautiful produce gardens and a handful of Cheviot sheep.
But of course I knew very little of his life story. I did have the privilege of sitting and quizzing my grandpa over dinner more often than most, since I rented a bedroom from him and Granny for the three years I worked near their home in between my undergraduate and grad studies. So I heard some of the tales, like the one about his flatmates sending each newest member of the household to town to buy “ten cents worth of Piggly Wigglies,” a silly quest after a mythical grail that afforded the rest the cheap entertainment of watching from afar as their victim tried in his broken English to persuade shopkeepers to hand over something that didn’t exist even if his speech could be deciphered, and the store owners eventually sending the series of foreign-born youths off, each now smarting with the same outsider embarrassment they’d all experienced in their early days in the US. I heard, too, of that uncle of my grandpa’s who had tried to dissuade him from going to America, and if he did, to at least be as wary and canny as possible because “those Americans will sue you for anything.” This was, mind you, not in the modern day that we generally agree is such a ridiculously litigious one, but in 1929 or so. (Apparently some things haven’t changed very radically in this country.) Still, I know only scraps of Grandpa’s whole biography.
I can at least say with conviction that I come by my stubbornness honestly. Despite the family pleas and warnings, Elias Omli sailed willfully ahead, and lived most of the rest of his life in the US of A. In those early times, he must have struggled immensely, yet found fulfillment enough in the life he forged for himself and later, his family, that despite his longing for the old country and one brief but unsuccessful attempt to reintegrate with the family in Norway when my mother was very small, he lived and died an American. Between those atoms of information he shared with any of us his descendants about his childhood and youth in Norway and the rest of his existence in the US, there was a whole, complicated, adventure-filled, and ordinarily colorful life, very little of which anyone really knows, or could know.
That is how we all exist. Even the most documented, celebrated, and historically dissected characters and the events in which they take part in life or death cannot be fully known, let alone understood, by anyone but themselves. If I’m any example, I suspect even such self-knowledge is pretty shallow in the long run. Having written and shared over 1500 posts here in Bloglandia, where I immigrated from the semi-real-world over 4 years ago now, I may in some ways be better documented than a few other people, should anyone care to sift through all of my imagery and verbiage at any point, but even in this, I share what I choose to share, and only my point of view on it all is represented, so that skew is also bound to be imperfect, if not a little disingenuous.
(I’ll at least aver that the stuff I tag as Fiction is really fictional, and leave determining the rest of it up to readers, who will of course interpret it at will anyhow.)
Gramps’s story was unique, but not dissimilar from many others’ in history, whether they decamped to new homes and lives from their birthplaces or not, whether they had vocations that called them at an early age and flourished throughout their days or they followed more unpredictable routes. The fate of an individual is inevitably affected not only by his own choices and acts but by the natural and national events and changes that fall in his life’s path. The person who penned the Swedish grocery and supply list above, many years ago, did so as the manager of a remote coastal household for not only the family but probably also a handful of townsfolk who shared the responsibility for overseeing the safe arrival of boats and their occupants on that forbiddingly rocky shore. What this little slip of paper denotes is a glimpse into the everyday life of not just the one person who wrote it but of a small group of people whose names are no longer known and whose life stories probably exist, if at all, only in the bloodstreams of distant great-grandchildren, yet the quaint harbor town they once labored to keep in existence all those decades ago is today a thriving and colorful, lively place. New stories are born there all of the time, and I can attest that the dry goods and groceries now available there are, respectively, more plentiful than and as delicious as ever.
Individuals, communities and cultures all have their times of trial and those of triumph, some noticeably more of one than the other.
A recent reminder of that came into my view when my spouse and I spent a few days in Halifax. It is as beautiful a part of the continent as I’d always imagined, and yet like the rugged coast of that Swedish island it certainly presents difficulties to the ships that approach it today, and all the more must have challenged the lives, safety, and ingenuity of all comers in days long gone. I loved exploring as a tourist and seeing, especially, the natural beauties of the area with all of its geographical wonders, sea-borne marvels, and magnificent greenery, and also the wide variety of architectural styles that hint at the multicultural roots of the region. Not surprising that the shores are dotted with lighthouses large and small, as well as the houses of those who tended them.
When at the waterfront of the city proper, I admired the old lighthouse and the humble buildings near it on the island most visible from the piers. For a lighthouse location, which is by nature placed in a potentially volatile coastal setting, it looks sweetly bucolic, ideal, and peaceful. Indeed, it is nowadays a quiet and pretty place, a heritage site in mid-restoration for its intended future as an historical park. But that heritage is far from peaceful, let alone ideal; like many other islands in such prominent coastal positions, it has a long and storied past as a fort, a military encampment and, even darker, as a prison and internment camp.
Some of those imprisoned on that place now known as Georges Island, Nova Scotia, were among the estimated 1660 prisoners out of 11,500 local Acadians expelled from their homes and lands en masse by British forces during the 18th century imperialist battles between English and French forces over New World territories. Three quarters of the entire Acadian population were deported in those times and thousands died in raids, counterattacks, and battles; others died under torture, of drowning on the deportment ships, of disease, or of starvation. And Acadians were far from alone in being imprisoned or worse on that pretty-looking little island.
Their own comrades, the Mi’kmaq (and other aboriginal Atlantic inhabitants), with whom Acadians on their arrival as French colonists are said to have lived quite equably, suffered on the island along with numerous captured French sailors and soldiers and any number of other “enemies” of the British rule. Something far less benign than a lovely coastal outpost of protective presence came to exist on this sorrowful promontory at the edge of the proto-Canadian world.
Can I look at this island in ignorant imagination anymore as a picture of vintage calm? Of course not. But I can also guess that there are very few acres of earth anywhere that are not stained with ancient cruelty and the blood of untimely deaths, whether of the innocent or not. It’s easy to sit in judgement from my place of comfort and call the expulsion of the Acadians an attempt at genocide or ethnic cleansing. Certainly, records and recollections of the historians present offer ample reasons that I should think there were all kinds of wicked intentions at play, from land greed to hatred of unknown races, from religious and political imperialism to maneuvering for resources. There were clearly personal elements involved, and as in all wars, military actions that turned into personal vendettas, fights over disputed borders into plundering and petty theft. Just as, undoubtedly, the aboriginal Atlantic peoples must have initially feared, and perhaps fought, the Acadians, and the French and British spent great resources and innumerable lives on their distrust and fear of each other and of the inhabitants of their intended expansion zones.
But earlier centuries’ worldview was also vastly different from today’s, all around the globe. Today, we have knowledge of a much larger and more developed world, of the richness of other cultures, even of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, and we have no excuses for not trying in every imaginable way to resolve differences without being exclusionary or violent. But past times and people didn’t all have the advantage of our expanded view. Every cultural center or nation of significant size in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has had its powers, each of them assuming a natural, if not divine, right of rule over all that they had not yet explored, by dint of their own isolated mastery. It’s not just that leaders, explorers, and conquerors themselves have seen it as their right, and often as benevolent duty, to claim ascendancy over whatever and (assuming they’ve managed to recognize indigenous residents as people) whomever they encounter, and to rule as they see fit. Those who write down history, or tell its tales, also continue to believe or disbelieve in ways that are unique to them, and the biases that sneak into our views are inextricably mixed into how we, and future generations, think about history.
What can I take away from these musings? Only the usual self-admonition that I look beyond what is visible. That I question and try to learn further, and not rush so quickly to the judgement that comes oh-so-naturally to me. That I ponder whether any slight thing that I do or say myself can perhaps help others, individually or globally, to remember the lessons of history, both bad and good, and to move forward away from our worst selves. We may remain undocumented in these attempts, as in so many other aspects of being small mortal beings, but I think that existence itself bears the marks of our passing as a document that will spell out the difference between annihilation and rehabilitation of our world.