The Public Humanist

Leave Something of Yourself Behind

“Future generations will dwell with the fondness andaffection of children upon every memento of their fathers.”
–Charles Delano, 1856

From Westhampton ~

How interesting it would be to see my own town’s landscapeand the distant hills beyond when every rock, stream and valley had beenexposed by timber clearing and grazing livestock. Those near and far-off vistas are not gone, just obscured by thecanopies of nearly 100-year old maples, oaks, and pines. Our grandfathers would lament their longhours of hard work spent in improving the land to make it productive – only tohave it grown up all over again. Fewrealize they had plowed and planted much of the very land now considered to bewild and forested. They thought it wascleared for posterity.

Changing landscapes, changing views. Our lives are like that. Instead of Grandma making Thanksgivingdinner each year, now it’s you. Just asthe trees obscure the rocks and streams and valleys that still lie below, ourbusy lifestyles obscure our sense of the passage of time. It’s difficult to view or value our own lifehistories. We’re too busy to bereflective. We have no perspective aswe move ever forward in life. And mostof us are largely surrounded by those of our own and the next generation – ourchildren’s generation – with whom we share many of the same memories and experiences. There’s just not enough contrast there forcomparison.

In our 70s and 80s, however, we will be operating insecond gear instead of fourth. Norush. We’ll have more unscheduled hoursin which to remember and look backward, time to reflect, and our grandchildrenand our neighbor’s kids will consider everything about our lives to beabsolutely fascinating. They may eveninvite us to school to share our stories.We’ll be the old folks, justlike the ones who visit our children’s classrooms now and talk about going iceharvesting each winter or shooting marbles when they were young. Perhaps our grandchildren will want to seeour collection of 45s that we kept in record boxes. Will they ask us what we did all day without a computer? It’s time now to write it down. What did wedo yesterday? What did we do with ourlives?

In reading the diary that a widow in my town kept duringthe years 1855-1873, I became lost in a world I never knew existed. Yet it hadexisted, and right up the road from my own house! She was writing everything down a hundred years before I wasborn. Her shopping lists and accountsof conversations with neighbors, her laments and her personal joys grabbed meand pulled me right into her home with her and her three grown children. And the language was filled with . . . newwords! She was buying brimstone and salaratus. Why? She rode home by sleigh from Huntington on abeautiful moonlit night. She relatedwagon accidents, bee-hunts, whortleberrying and funerals. Sometimes she said shillings and other times cashmoney. Routinely, her son bankedand un-banked the house in the fall and spring. He tightened the bed cords and moved the stoves to and from theparlor. She “balled up” butter andbartered with it at the local store for candle wicking and oak nut galls withwhich to make ink. She watched “theiron horses go by!” Because of her diary, Lydia, her family, her neighbors willall be remembered and admired.

Lydia’s diary provided more than a glimpse of daily lifein Westhampton 150 years ago. She wasan observer, and wrote every day for eighteen years. Yet there must have been other diaries being kept in town. How much more accurate would ourunderstanding of the town’s history be if we also had the written perspectiveof her son, who worked at his sawmill from sunup to sundown nearly every day,aware that the family depended on him for financial support? The town merchant? Where did he buy his goods?And what about the engineer of that “iron horse” in Huntington? Who was he and however did he come to operatea train? Economic status and genderhave greatly influenced what our ancestors were able to record about themselvesfor us, their posterity. We know moreabout the folks who could afford education and literacy, as well as the time tosit down and put pen to paper. Largely,diarists were wealthy men – statesmen, inventors, scholars, businessmen orsoldiers.

Women and the working class and poor have had feweropportunities for education and less free time for reflection. Their personal histories are rare, yet somuch more revealing than those of men “on the go,” because their daily routinesand seasonal work throughout the passing of decades occurred in a singlegeographic location and their diaries provide rich and detailed information. That is how we live. We can relate tothese people. They are our neighbors ofanother time. Even if they wereintimately familiar with horse wagons and measurements and cloth and estimatesof weight and loads that we would find difficult to calculate. They broke through snowdrifts with teams ofoxen. They planted without the benefitof a weather forecast. They boiledswill and ate cowslips. Yet they alsoskated and sledded, sang, danced, donated, worshipped, celebrated, voted,debated and cared for one another in touching and helpful ways. They were us,if we had only been there.

Even as a young boy, it seems Sylvester Judd had more thanjust a need to know. He also had a needto record everything. He observed,pursued, studied and took note of all he encountered or heard about. What was the history of the fence? When was the first two-story house built inChesterfield? How did one strike a firein their fireplace in the 1700s? Withextensive notes on everything from the history of apple varieties to the stylesof shoes throughout time, he left over 50 volumes of fascinating detail aboutthe history and use of nearly every imaginable object. Thanks to him, we know exactly what theaverage men, women and children of his time wore, what they ate, how theyworshipped, etc. He may have driveneveryone around him crazy with his constant questions and recordings, but wefeel a huge sense of indebtedness to him for all his efforts for posterity.

Previous generations knew we were coming. They had every thing laid out for us, theirposterity. As if anticipating a visit,they prepared and sacrificed for us like loving grandparents. They knew they would never benefit from thethriving communities they created or the shade of the beautiful trees theyplanted for us. They built massive and solid buildings to last for us. They even left messages for us incornerstone boxes and sealed them up with beeswax, “ ?that future generationswill dwell with the fondness and affection of children upon every memento oftheir fathers, the committee have felt prompted by the opportunity now open tothem to transmit, under their own hand, a communication addressed directly totheir descendants of another age.”

“For Posterity” was written on the outside of the sealedenvelope placed into such a cornerstone box in 1856 at the site of theNorthampton State Hospital. The messageinside began, “to their children’s children who in after ages shall break theseal of this memorial, we send greetings:Foreseeing how soon the time must come when all personal traces of thepresent generation will have faded from the recollection of men; ?we havesought a recess here within the walls of this newly rising edifice (now called“Old Main”) wherein to deposit this humble record of ourselves?”

The concept, even the word “posterity” seems to have goneout of style. Perhaps it is because weare the first generation of mankind to have seen our blue planet. We have been made acutely aware of earth’sdiminutive size within a vast universe, its fragile state, and the vasttimeline of mankind’s existence.Another fossil, another skull, another branch of our shared family treediscovered. Our individual importancemay be overshadowed by our knowledge of world events. Even posterity may seemquestionable these days. But, lookingat our children, how can we not feel compelled to believe that they, too, willhave a future to grow old in? Preparefor posterity and leave something of yourself behind. Remember that “future generations will dwell with the fondnessand affection of children upon every memento of their fathers.”

–Barbara Pelissier, President of the Westhampton Historical Society and Vice-Chair of the Pioneer Valley History Network

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply