February 9th, 2003

abstract butterfly

found in an attic

I'm always intrigued by the notion of an attic full of things. My grandmother and grandfather had one of those cinematic attics, which had memorabilia from the past--books my grandfather read in high school, newspaper articles about family things, and various of the clothing items and such that don't get thrown out. This attic, though, was in an old home they moved from when I was a young teen, and I don't think that the attic in the home they moved to had any such ancient contrivance. I've been reading this morning about all the various things that people have found in an attic. One attic in California contained the original manuscript of the first half of Mark Twain's novel "Huckleberry Finn". An attic in Sweden held a thousand year old Viking sword, apparently dug up a generation or two ago, placed in an attic and forgotten.
An attic in the UK contained Queen Victoria's letters to the gamekeeper of whom she grew quite fond after the death of her husband (which perhaps should serve as a reminder about committing to paper/LJ things one does not wish uncovered in later generations). People have auctioned things at Sotheby's they found in an attic, but I am pretty sure my aunt's high school yearbook would not have made me rich.

I must admit that I have a bit of longing to sort through attics of old material. I like those little county historical museums which are nothing more than a collection of the attics of roughly ten people. I love the look of an old-time attic space--the kind in which actual walking areas are available for storage and mobility, unlike, say, our current attic in which only limited storage is possible because most of it is just insulation, not walkway.

I think the attraction for me of an attic is that connection to things passed. I wonder sometimes what earlier generations of my family thought. I'm fortunate, in that on my mother's side of the family,somebody wrote a rather detailed geneaology, and on my father's side of the family, there is a rich oral and written history of things family members said and did.

One bit of oral history always speaks to me. A number of my relatives fought in the American Civil War, in the 1860s. Most of them fought on the losing Confederate side, while a few fought on the Union side. One great-great-type relative participated in many of the bloody Tennessee campaign battles, horrendous affairs in which he obtained wounds. He told the story of being in a battle in which a line of Union troops was arrayed against a line of Confederate troops. Just before the battle began, a large rabbit ran between the lines. Both sides watched the rabbit head past the lines, retreating to safety. Finally, one of the soldiers shouted out "But for my honour, I'd run, too!", and both sides broke down in laughter. My uncle's Civil War pension records show he took three wounds at Shiloh. I wish everyone's honour had made it possible for that war to be avoided.

Another of my great-great-type relatives wrote his life story for his descendants to read. Like most of my relatives, he alternated between farming and working for the railroad, achieving no greatimportance in either field. His autobiography runs no more than two pages or so. It's a good general guide to what he did, but it does not really tell me what he felt, and how things seemed to him. I always marvel at people who lived one hundred years ago--no anti-biotics, life expectancies significantly shorter, no technology, outmoded social prejudices and more challenges in many ways. Yet many tend to think of those past times as uniformly charming and desirable. I am always intrigued by folks who argue for "good old days" during which a national economic emergency put people out of their homes, hungry, or for a time when "old time religion" tolerated lynchings of people in public exhibitions as a spectator sport. But the lure of the past is nonetheless unmistakable. I like my past in trunk-sized portions, in atticss in old homes, where everything can seem charming, outdated and utterly desirable.