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June Morning, Thomas Hart Benton

"It's a HistoryLessen to recognize how little anyone eventually knows."

When I peer into the portraits of my great great grandparents, I find the most superficial representation of these two people frozen in a forgotten moment in time. When were the photographs taken? I'm uncertain. Possibly eighteen ninety, give or take a decade. I know some of their backstory. My grandfather Elsa's parents grew up on adjacent spreads in the dryland wheat country of Eastern Oregon's Gilliam County. He, on the top of Hale Ridge, some of the last land grant ground left by the 1880s. She, at the bottom of that ridge beside a year round stream. My great grandfather Nathaniel's chore as the oldest boy left after diptheria took his two older brothers, involved herding his family's livestock to the stream at the bottom of that dry ridge to water them and to fetch water for household use, since their property had no water, no well, given that several thousand feet of basalt sat between it and the water table. My to-be great great grandmother Clara's family lived near the watering hole.

That story represents a kind of history which projects whatever image I might choose to infuse it with.
Was their love an instant infatuation or a slow realization? I imagine some semblance of inevitability in their courtship, if they even performed what I'd recognize as a courtship. I don't know. I do know some dates and some locations, with me left to fill in a mostly blank canvas. Likewise BIG history seems to discard small details in favor of seemingly tectonic plate movements. We hear a lot about cataclysms but vey little about personal feelings, and essentially nothing about the manner of those who actually lived in those times. Nathanial's great grandfather was a Postmaster in the Ohio River country just West of Cincinnati, the edge of Indian Country then. His wife and daughter died of milk poisoning before he was killed in a freak accident involving a boot caught in a stirrup and a heavy rain-swollen creek. Nat's grandfather was thereby orphaned into a careless uncle's care, where he stayed long enough to plot his escape once he came of age. He left in an oxcart, heading West, with his new bride, who would fall off a ferry crossing a frozen Mississippi River and drown before she could bear any offspring. Nat's grandfather continued heading West, settling in Central Iowa, marrying a second bride (then a third), and raising a huge family in an enormous farmhouse, living to a ripe old age.

I don't know what any of these people preferred for breakfast. Of course, in the family history, they were mostly upright bordering on pious people. Clara's forebears were hard-assed Predestinationists, some of the earliest to cross the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s, but I do not know, will never know, how they lived day-to-day. My father kept a diary cataloguing every detail of his life at the scale of one inch equals one inch. The journals hold no gist, no feeling, no impression, simply facts which seem strangely irrelevant out of the context of the moments they were entered. I think I could chart his blood pressure history over the last two decades of his life but never find how he struggled to learn how to cook after Parkinson's disabled my mom. I might conclude how determined he must have been and also how disciplined, but never find record of doubts, fears, or even aspirations. Even in life, he rarely spoke of how he felt about anything. I always supposed this reticence came from growing up in the Great Depression.

In life, he was full of great stories, little snippets of daily happenings he'd seen or heard about. There was this old guy who lived up Rock Creek who found a buck browsing in his barn one day about a week before the opening of deer season. He thought he'd be pretty smart and just lock that trophy in that barn, browsing on hay, until opening day. The morning of the first day of deer season, this old guy, rifle in one hand, snuck out to open the barn door to release his prey. When he cracked the door, the deer kicked the door from the inside, which knocked the old guy on his butt. He dropped his rifle in the fray and by the time he'd recovered from the shock, his prize buck was long gone. That's genuine history to my ear.

I've been asking myself what the heck I think I'm doing writing these daily essays. Who am I writing them for? Am I advancing a certain sort of philosophy, championing some superior way to live? No, I quickly admit, I am not, except by inadvertent extension. I hold no understanding of any sort of superior way to live, but I am nonetheless alive for now. I've always wondered what my forebears wondered about. I've puzzled over how they managed to live, three quarters of a dozen in a one-room shack without running water, without resorting to caveman-quality squalor. I do not know. I sure wish I did know or could know. I'm trying to make sure that my great great grandchildren won't have to wonder quite so much about who I was and how I lived.

Modern times turn into ancient times. My great great grandfather lived in an unpaved, un-electrified world. Powered flight emerged when he was in his thirties. He was said to have started out a sheepherder before running his own flocks, before becoming a contractor, commuting clear to Troutdale from Gilliam County by train for work, leaving his wife, daughter, and son to tend the sheep while he earned more substantial money halfway across the state. I wonder after the state of their often long-distance relationship, Nat and Clara's. How they coped with the stresses and strains beyond their seemingly idyllic home, home on the range. We seem to lessen history by the way we capture it, noting dates and big events without remembering the connecting tissues that held those lives together. All these small details seemed mere background noise then, I suppose, tacit eternals unworthy of reflection or capture. It's a HistoryLessen to recognize how little anyone eventually knows.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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