Legacies

I like to say that I am a second-generation digital humanist. My father, George H. Brett II, became interested in computers in the late 1970s, helped the University of North Carolina system evaluate computers/operating systems, was the first sysadmin of the Humanities listserv, and worked for decades in what was then humanities computing.

It was my Dad who introduced me to email, mu*s, html, terminal, servers, the internet, the world wide web, twitter, and THATCamp, along with countless other things which aren’t necessarily relevant to computers or the humanities. We had a conversation before my first THATCamp to establish whether he could say “that’s my daughter” (he could), and even with that it apparently took people a while to realize that he was my Dad.

There is so much I want to say about his life and what he did, not just for me but for so many people. So much, in fact, that I cannot seem to say any of it.

My father died this afternoon, after a fight with a brain tumor and, eventually, pneumonia. His family was with him, and I am grateful to everyone at RRCHNM and the Department of History and Art History at George Mason for not only making it easy for me to drop everything and come up to be here, but for telling me to do it and never letting me doubt I was making the right choice.

I have created an Omeka installation to collect people’s stories and pictures of my father. Even as he was in his final days, I discovered things he did and lives he touched I’d never known about. The site may be buggy at the moment – I only just installed contribution – but if you have something to share, please do.

My Oldest Friend

My oldest friend, by which I mean the friend I have known the longest, leaves the country today. She is off on her first posting as an employee of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and over the next twenty or thirty years she will get to live in all sorts of interesting places.

Her father worked for USAID all during our childhoods, so she has already lived or spent extended periods of time in Peru, Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania, and Bangladesh, not to mention North Carolina, Massachusetts, and the DC metro area. Every summer, she would come back to our hometown in North Carolina with her mother and brother. Her mom had seen too many USAID and foreign service kids grow up without a sense of place, a rootedness, so she determined that my friend and her brother would spend months every year in the town where both their grandparents lived.

Recently, we went out to dinner. My friend had just finished speaking at a panel on “third culture kids,” a term for children whose parents work and live in country or culture different from that of their origin. Most of the literature about third culture kids talks about their distance from their ‘home’ country, the place which issues their passport. I get the sense that coming back to North Carolina helped assuage some of that alienation and differentiation, which was, of course, the point.

Why, you may ask, am I talking about all of this on a blog which focuses more on history and my experiences as a PhD student? Because my friend’s experience resonates with the family about whom I want to write my dissertation. One of the first US consuls in England, married an Englishwoman and had five children, all of whom em/immigrated to the United States at some point in adulthood and there stayed. Were they English or American or something else? These five people are in some ways the cultural precursors of my oldest friend. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be intrigued by their story if I hadn’t grown up with a friend who lived overseas, but neither can I deny an increasing interest in the cultural history of early diplomats and citizens living abroad and their families.

When my friend was applying for the job, I got to sit down with someone and act as a reference. They wanted to know if she was reliable (she is), but also get a sense of how well she would represent the country. I answered, truthfully, that I felt she had grown up knowing that she was a representative of the country, and I thought she did it really well. What did it mean for people (men, women and children) to represent a nation which was only years or months old?

Safe travels, friend. Who knows where the future is going to take either of us.

 

Quick thought: accessibility and angles

On Sunday I went to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum out at Dulles with my parents, a friend, and the friend’s two sons aged almost-5 and just-6. Due to recent knee problems, my dad opted to use a wheelchair for the day.  As a result, his eye level was roughly equal with the boys’. Dad ended up noticing signatures inside the wheel well of one plane, and other details that were blocked at the angle of a standing adult.

It occurred to me that it would be a good exercise for curators and exhibit designers to go through their exhibits in a wheelchair (or at least a rolling desk chair at its lowest height). This would allow them to see the space from the perspective of children and persons in wheelchairs, and might lead to some rethinking and redesigning. It might even be a chance to put ‘easter eggs’ at kids-eye-level!

The Donor Side

This past week I participated in the museum donation process from the other side – the donor side. My father was donating some of the papers of his father and grandfather to a military museum, and my sister and I joined him.

The initial meeting with members of the collections and research departments was relatively familiar to me, having witnessed it happening in my own department when I was at the historic house museum. They explained the process of accession – slightly different from what I was used to – and we talked about the content and history of the 2 trunks, display table, and assorted files and scrapbooks. They were very excited about some of the material, and sensitive to the fact that it was sort of hard for us to let it all go. They are, however, going to digitize everything, and we’ll get a pdf of the finding aid once it’s complete.

The best part of it all, however, wasn’t even on the original itenerary. Dad of course mentioned that I had just worked in a curatorial department, which led to some friendly colleague chat with the research guys. They suggested that, after visiting my great-grandfather’s aircraft (undergoing restoration), we visit their office building, also the collections storage site. Continue reading “The Donor Side”

My Grandfather

My paternal grandfather died on Saturday. He turned 87 at the beginning of this month.

I’m doing my best not to focus on the loss, on the fact that (more than likely) whoever I marry will never have met my wonderful grandfather, and think instead about what time I did have with him. After all, my maternal grandfather died when I was about four years old, and my memories of him are limited to an impression of pale plaid and beige, of the smell of pipe tobacco, and an overall sense of being loved. Which is wonderful, but different from the memories of a man who I knew for almost thirty years.

My grandfather was a living connection to the events of the 20th century. Not just for me – a few years ago he sent me a clipping from his local paper, talking about the travelling portion of the Vietnam Memorial Wall and how Vietnam vets were talking with the junior high kids, helping them to understand the reality of that history. My grandfather was named in the article, and his picture was there too. I have that clipping somewhere. He loved talking about history, whether it was his, our family’s, or the world’s.

Continue reading “My Grandfather”