Keepers of the Flame

All my life I've had a fascination for history, especially history that shaped my own locality and life. When I was a child I would seek out elderly people, sit down with them, hear their stories of the lives they lived and the history they witnessed. This was thrilling to me, it gave me a sense of connection and continuity. To me, it was of the greatest importance to preserve an oral record of history.

My childhood best friend's elderly, widowed grandmother lived with her family. She was extremely old and blind. If my friend's family had to be gone for a few hours I would sit with the grandmother. I was hungry to hear her memories and she was delighted to share them. She told me about the nearby plantations, their boundaries, the fine homes that once stood on them and stories about the people who lived there. She told me about the first and second world wars, the patriotism, the sacrifices. I believe it made her day when someone was interested enough to want to hear about her life and memories. 

My maternal grandmother told me stories of her family, how they were wealthy plantation owners who lost everything in the civil war. She shared about her childhood and life. Memories filled with so many little facts I would otherwise have never known about times gone by. She told me about the lives of the grandparents and parents she loved, their triumphs and struggles. The soldiers who never returned from war, or returned with wounded souls and bodies. The precious babies who died and the mothers who died birthing them. She told me about the flu epidemic that took hundreds of lives of the neighbors all around them but spared her family. I learned about the wonder of first cars, electric lights and indoor plumbing. I hung on every word. Somehow it fed me spiritually, this knowledge of and connection with the past. 

My father and I would sit on the riverbank for hours with bamboo fishing poles in our hands. I always looked forward to those times and the closeness I felt with him when he would tell me about his memories. Stories of his childhood on a farm where his parents raised ten children. He told me how his mother would work in the garden, can all the vegetables and slaughtered meat. Cook three meals a day for a family of twelve and the extra farm hands. She'd wash all the clothes in a tub on a washboard and mend them when they were torn. There were no dishwashers, microwaves, clothes washers. He told me about how humble and kind she was in the face of the rages of a drunken husband. In retrospect I realized she was a product of her times, bound for life to a brute, beaten down until she was a drudge with no life or aspirations of her own. He told me about his brothers and sisters, their lives and funny family stories. He related to me how he and my mother met, how beautiful and smart he thought she was. I heard about their wedding, their early life together. Stories of poverty and determination, how, during the great depression, he worked for $1.50 a week in the cotton mill. Tears would fill his eyes when he spoke about their two infant sons who died. These memories he shared helped me to realize that I came from a heritage of struggle, strength and faith. Throughout life they have caused me to aspire to the same positive attributes as those who came before me. 

It seemed like the years went by in a flash. I gathered my own memories of the times and my own life. All those memoirs of generations past that others shared with me are still in my remembrance. I will always remember the history they brought to life for me. I have a wealth of memories to share with the new keepers of the flame, but where are the new keepers? I have no one in my family, children or grandchildren who have ever shown any interest or asked me to share those memories with them. I've wondered if the flame will die with me. Perhaps there is still time to pass the flame on, I can only hope someone will want to carry it into future generations.

 

Chesterfield, VA