Friday, August 28, 2009

Strange currency

May 21, 2009

Much of what I had to say I’ve said many times before, but each audience casts its own imprimatur upon my Sultana talks, and at Wednesday’s “History is Lunch” event at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, I was keenly aware of the presence of one person each time I said the word “survival”, because I knew it meant something different to him. I also thought of him when I talked about how the guys aboard the Sultana lived the rest of their lives, because at that moment he was living the rest of his, and he’d chosen to devote an hour of it to this. Obviously we’re all living the rest of our lives at any given moment, but here was a guy who’d received his written notice, in the form of a doctor’s diagnosis of an inoperable, malignant brain tumor that, notably, came about after a melanoma metasticized. I hadn’t seen him in years but had always enjoyed being around him; now he lit up the space as I talked about the Sultana. I wished he’d have asked questions at the end, or made comments, but after it was over, as a group gathered around me for follow-up questions, I saw him slip quietly out the door.

Before the talk began we met in the doorway and I mentioned that we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. He looked at me sort of quizzically; his hair was a little wild and his ensemble a tad disheveled – he looked like someone who was either fabulously wealthy, a little eccentric, or both, or who for whatever reason did not care much what people thought of the specifics of his appearance. In his arms he carried a stack of artifacts including an old, framed photo of Lucius Quentus Cincinnatus Lamar, a 19th century Mississippi senator, congressman, Supreme Court justice and Secretary of the Interior. Lamar is famous around these parts, in certain circles: He was a brilliant, busy, well-connected man who did a lot of things. He was also an ardent secessionist who served in the Confederate military until he was disabled by an attack of vertigo, after which he served as the Confederate ambassador to Russia and France. For the record, the guy who brought Lamar's photo to me is not "unreconstructed," as we say of people whose Old South sensibilities survived re-entry (it's a figure of speech; none of us was around for re-entry into the Union or for the Reconstruction that followed). On the contrary, he’s enlightened and liberal. But he recognizes importance where he finds it, and for a long time he was in the business of finding it and highlighting it, as an exhibits coordinator at the state's Old Capitol historical museum. He also comes from an old family of means who occupied a grand antebellum house, so he grew up around and has since been professionally immersed in a lot of historical detritus.

As I looked at the photo, he asked, “Do you keep old things? Because if you get home and decide you don’t want any of this, just throw it away.” It was only then that it was clear he had brought these things as an offering to me. (I’m not being coy by not naming him; I just don’t think it’s my place to announce someone else’s medical status on the internet.) At that point I’m sure I was the one with the quizzical look on his face. Here was a former employee of the Old Capitol museum, at an event at the state Department of Archives and History building concerning a story pieced together from old records, photos and artifacts, suggesting that someone might THROW SOMETHING OLD AWAY. Not to mention that I am personally descended from a long line of devoted packrats -- my house is a repository of old things kept by both sides of my family as well as some from the otherwise unrelated family who built the place 175 years ago, plus some items given to me by friends and in some cases by strangers simply because my house is an obvious repository. Houses like mine create their own catch-all dynamic; they may as well have a secret historic-preservation “hobo mark” on the gate. Which is as it should be, though I do fantasize sometimes about building a modern, bare-walled satellite structure, bereft of artifacts and freighted meaning, to which I could occasionally escape.

But the idea that I might actually throw away a stack of old books and photos was preposterous, particularly under the circumstances. Getting back to the point, there is also this: I could not have written Sultana had not others kept old things. So: Yeah. “I keep old things,” I said.

I had to assume that he was in the process of cleaning house, and felt the need to present me with something. I don't think the items were deemed particularly significant to me; they were just items that needed to be moved and I was someone who might take them. (His wife later told me on the phone that he's been overwhelmed by all the things he's accumulated, and she frequently has to intervene to prevent him from throwing things away.) In addition to the Lamar photo, my gifts included a souvenir poster from the Centenary of the United States Judiciary (1790-1890) and two books that were falling to pieces: Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Edward C. Walthall (a Mississippi senator), published in 1899, which contains such pearls of wisdom as “familiarity is the most destructive of all iconoclasts”; and a similarly titled book from the same year which compiled memorial comments about William F. Love (a Mississippi congressman and senator). Among the Love memorial comments that later caught my eye, in part owing to the circumstances surrounding the gift, was this one by Mississippi’s Sen. Sullivan:

“I do not share the view of those who feel that death is always a thing to be dreaded. I do not feel that it is the greatest calamity that can befall us. Life is but a poor boon at best, with its sorrows, its heartaches, its discouragements and disappointments. Tell me, ye philosophers, who shall drop a plummet to the bottom of a sigh? Who shall analyze a single tear? And still these shadows soften and give rich and sweet chance to do some kindly act for our fellow-man – that which is right, high, and noble; to lift the humble, to help the poor, to heal the wounds; to minister to the afflicted. Sweet, sacred privileges!” The point, apparently, being that Love rose to the occasion despite being stuck on earth. The language of the era was eloquent and a bit flowery – the verbal equivalent of a floral spray at a funeral – but: “Who shall drop a plummet to the bottom of a sigh?” That is righteous stuff.

What I'd been given were a few noteworthy shreds of a few noteworthy past lives, each of which could no doubt form the foundation for its own book (it doesn't take much). My own first book, a photo-essay book known as Ten Point, grew from a trunk of old photos that my grandmother had taken in the Mississippi Delta between the 1920s and the 1960s, and my second book, Mississippi in Africa, grew from the gift of an ancient piano that no longer played. Sultana grew from someone else’s discovery of bits of rusty iron and burnt wood in an Arkansas farm field.

Because I come from a family that has many sheds, all of which are perennially full of junk, and because my siblings and I have been attempting to clean out the home of my parents, both of whom died during the past year, I can imagine what it is like to feel your life slipping away and to wonder what should be done with all the stuff. Should it go to the shed, where it will mildew or be summarily hauled away by rats for their nasty little nests? Should it be donated to the state archives, which already has more than they can handle? Should it be thrown away, and so lost forever and ever, amen? Or should it be offered to someone who might enjoy it for a time? In this case, he made the right choice: Within hours, the Lamar photo had found its spot on my wall. Not that I’m a particular fan of the L.Q.C. Lamar (though I do love the name). It's just that the photo, in its old frame, given the way it was by someone who is dying, says a lot about the passage of time and what gets left in its wake. History is not just lunch, after all. It's forgotten leftovers, too.

After the anticlimax of the Nashville signing, it was nice that there was a good turnout for the History is Lunch talk (standing room only!), and the crowd asked good questions, which is typically the way I measure an event, as if it were designed for my entertainment. Among those in attendance were several old friends, a few people I’ve met at previous talks, and some interesting new acquaintances. But it was the guy with the armload of remnants who made my day. I was proud he took the occasion to come.

I never got a chance to ask something that his presence brought to mind, which was: Why would you do this? Not why would you bring these gifts, but why would you take a measurable chunk of your remaining time to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone speak publicly about a forgotten tragedy? Don't get me wrong, I'm aware that I'm a FASCINATING SPEAKER, but I wondered how a person decides what they'll do with the next one of the, say, 350 hours they've got left. Is it the same way we decide when that hour seems (deceptively) to come from an endless supply? I don't see how it could be. Before the talk began, as we stood in the doorway, I asked him how he was doing and he sort of twirled his finger around the side of his head and said, “You know I’ve been sick…” I said that I did, but that he looked well, which was true, to which he replied, “I’m on some experimental treatment that seems to be helping a little, so I might live two more months.” He looked like he had more time than that, but what do I know? In any event, he said it was nice to be out and about.

Obviously the brief tales chronicled in these pages are framed by the Sultana, whose story tells us that we never know when the worst is behind, or ahead, nor how much stress we can take, nor if the end we envision will come when we expect it to or be delayed. Considering all that, it’s best to do what my guy did, and that is to respect important records and visible details, and above all else, to rise to each occasion.

During my talk, after hearing of all the difficulties the Sultana survivors went through, including during the rest of their lives, a woman asked, "Did any of the survivors go on to succeed in life, after going through everything they went through?"

"Absolutely," I said. Some of them went on to become doctors, train conductors, preachers, farmers, successful husbands and fathers -- to achieve things they may never have believed possible during their dark hours. Though they're all dead and gone now, they left behind their legacies, their bits of energy to circulate through others who were influenced by them. Along the way they also left behind the usual detritus, the signifiers and clues and trash, the words and images that still catch our attention, and which someone else had to deal with after they were gone.

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