Living History

The media is full of history stories leading up to our nation’s July 4 birthday celebrations. Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for writing The Star-Spangled Banner during the Battle for Baltimore in the War of 1812, and how this piece was chosen to be our National Anthem, is perhaps my favorite story this year. Listening to my local NPR station, I heard Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight – Six Weeks that Saved the Nation, talk about the lawyer, Mr. Key, and his experience during this night of bombs and rockets. It’s beautiful – the telling of a story that is perhaps just another page of retold facts in kids’ history books. Aboard that British ship, the constant blasts must have been deafening, and lack of knowledge of their consequence, frightening, wondering how the troops in Baltimore could withstand this barrage. Read for yourself…

 “During the night, he can’t see anything at the fort, but he sees and hears this tremendous bombardment that actually picks up during the night with amazing intensity after midnight, as the British launched hundreds of bombs at the fort plus hundreds of rockets. Then a little bit before dawn, everything goes silent. You know, while the bombs were going off, Key was at least reassured that, well, the fort hasn’t surrendered. And it wasn’t until the sun came up, and it was a very misty morning, that they were able to see some flag hanging limply over the ramparts at the fort, and they couldn’t make out whether it was British or American. And finally, a little breeze kicked up and they were able to see the stars and stripes. For Key, it was a very emotional moment. …  http://www.npr.org/2013/07/04/198418605/for-star-spangled-banner-a-long-road-from-song-to-anthem

Now this is living history. Author Vogel is our eyes and ears to the experience. And this piece, the history, is all the more poignant knowing that the man who penned the poem that we proudly recite in song before civic meetings, sporting events, at parades, the Olympics, and in schools, was against the war! There is the sense of urgency in Vogel’s retelling – Key didn’t know if Baltimore would be British or American after that deadly bombardment, and whatever his politics, Key felt that his citizenship was on the line. Vogel recaptures the immediacy, and the passion.

The words that Vogel chooses inspire the connection between the past and the present. He makes us understand the historical players in terms that are meaningful to us today. We can just imagine the blasts of the bombs, the smell of the smoke-filled air, the anxiety of not knowing what might happen. The times when we experience such a deep and profound association with the past are ones that are indelibly marked in our psyches; they are life-changing.

It is a great gift that Vogel gives us – the ability to link us with the past. He does it with his knowledge of the times and his choice of words. But we can create our own connections, our own deep associations that bridge the past to the present in ways that create the same life-transforming instances of powerful memory and connection.

Last week, my husband’s family in Wisconsin hosted the Sixth Anderson Family Reunion, and Wisconsin is where it all started. My father-in-law and his siblings grew up in Merrill, a community that was originally inhabited by the Chippewa Indians, and later was a logging town on the Wisconsin River. This bit of history is just a recitation of names. But when our relatives chartered a motor coach, one of those beautiful large and splendid buses that’s pure white with no advertisement on the outside and comfy on the inside, and we embarked on a road trip from Fond du Lac to Merrill, the story took a life of its own. We spent maybe an hour and a half on the road, but I’m not sure because I spent the time enjoying the green grass and gorgeous farms while chatting with family members and listening to stories recounted by relatives who are from the area, as those of us in the back of the bus encouraged the use of the microphone. We didn’t want to miss a word!

I’ve known since joining the Anderson clan 28 years ago that photography runs in the genes; my husband’s grandfather owned a highly-respected photography studio in Merrill, my father-in-law was a gifted amateur photographer, and my brother-in-law is an equally gifted and skilled professional photographer. On the bus, my brother-in-law took the microphone and talked about what photography was like years ago when his grandpa photographed clients in his own studio with a glass wall to provide a light source – how the cellulose nitrate film was flammable and how his dad held the plate of virtual “gunpowder” to produce a flash that would further illuminate the subject, hoping that the spark from the flash would not ignite the flammable film and start a fire. “Photography was dangerous,” my brother-in-law said. There were three fires at that studio. And he told us how his grandpa continued to photograph during the Great Depression, when he could not afford film, and how he made his own glass photographic plates, and bartered a studio session and portrait for a side of pork to put meat on the table when times were so difficult. Suddenly, learning about cellulose nitrate film wasn’t just a piece of random trivia; it was an historical fact that impacted our lives today. Nobody spoke during my brother-in-law’s impromptu speech. The impact of an explosive photographic mistake could have been deadly and far-reaching. Again, history came alive for us as I imagined my father-in-law as a young kid helping his father out in such a dangerous job!

We arrived at the newly-acquired building for the Merrill History and Culture Center at 100 East 3rd Street, and it’s loaded with family history. Docents had prepared well for a busload of Andersons. They had gathered and displayed photographs from the Anderson studio that Grandpa had taken. They had photocopied pages from high school yearbooks listing some of the children.  And the site itself provided a treasure trove for us; as the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church, one cousin walked to a covered window (they are doing some upgrades on the property) and asked for the dust covering to be removed. The docents obliged, and revealed the stained glass window that the Anderson Family dedicated to the church years ago. Now it was the docents who were surprised! And the docents opened the Baptismal Register for us and we turned the pages and read in lines of beautiful handwriting of the baptisms of all the kids, with my brother-in-law photographing and documenting each and every page. The docents even created post cards of the photography studio building as souvenirs for us.

In that beautiful coach, we toured the town, and cousins told stories of where the family lived, and showed us where the cottage on the lake once stood. As we drove around the streets, we could see a few people opening curtains and glancing at this big unmarked bus. Little did they know we were looking at them and their well-maintained edifices through the dark, tinted coach windows, and imagining the children of the photographer and his wife, running down the steps and heading off to school, or to the river to fish, or off to play. On the ride back, our Uncle told stories, speaking into the microphone that his daughter extended to him, recounting life on the farm and incidents during World War II. Again, every person listened intently.

Roots grew thicker, stronger, and deeper that day. We linked our lives to a set of parents and their seven children growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Two of those siblings stayed in Wisconsin and raised families there, others settled in four other states, and representatives from all those families in those states and now other states shared in this piece of living history. It may not have been an event that changed the course of our nation, or that one will recall via a poem that future generations will sing. But it brought to life the deep connections between our Merrill elders to every individual there. There are several traits that can be found in the Merrill family of then, and the cousins of today. For one, that “Can-Do” spirit of the photographer and his wife and their children has been passed down through the generations like a genetic trait. This is a family of hard work and energy and faith in humanity.  One cousin worked all night every night for a week to finish work on a large, beautiful structure that he built for his own business and his wife’s studio/business, just so it would be ready for the reunion. It is a family that cares about its own and others. There is the shared value of the importance of family and of making time to continue these wonderful reunions, where cousins greet each other warmly and pick up on conversations that they had engaged in several years before and where kids grow up before our eyes.

While the original seven siblings have all passed now, we are thankful that several spouses, our aunts and uncles remain, and through them we continue to explore the stories and memories of the Anderson Seven and life in the extended family. And the sense of humor is evident, too; folks unable to attend this reunion might just have to plan the next one! Everyone agreed that we will engage the youngest family members; our future and theirs as members of this wonderful extended family is linked with the past. And so in three years, we will gather again, place to be determined, and make more memories, learn some more about the past, bring each other up to date, eat more great local food, laugh a lot, sit for the family portraits (one portrait for each family descended from each of the Anderson siblings, and still another portrait of everyone together), and stand united in memory and family and living history. But as for this past trip to Wisconsin, we are so grateful for this experience; it will never be forgotten.

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4 thoughts on “Living History

  1. Wow! I never realized your family roots grew so deep…what a great experience to share with family-I”m sure you all felt much closer to one another on the ride back-and kudos to the Docents for making the extra effort, making your trip that much more memorable-thanks for sharing!

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