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.


What you save

I declared my undergraduate major in History on the first day of classes of my sophomore year of college, September 2001.

A handful of days later, what might have been an ordinary Tuesday became a historic event. I knew it was going to be what children in the next generation would ask me about, saying “Do you remember” and “Where were you?”

A few months ago, in preparation for a move from Charlottesville, where I was working as a historian, to Northern Virginia, where I am now again a history student, I went through the box of papers I’d saved from college. In the box was a letter-sized plastic envelope with documentation about the immediate aftermath of that September.

Until I came across it, I’d forgotten completely about collecting these things. It made sense then, as now, to try and gather an archive of my experience, of the experience of my college friends and community. The envelope has a copy of the student newspaper and the daily broadside from campus, the cover of a New Yorker magazine, emails and a poem I wrote, and some other items. I remembered selecting things to save, making sure to get copies of things, even though I knew that the college library was probably doing the same thing. It didn’t matter if they were. I was saving these not for the next year, or even 10 years out, but 30 or 40.

I looked over everything carefully, then put it all back in the plastic envelope and promised myself I’d get archival storage once I finished moving.

11 September

This day had a huge impact on my undergraduate life.

2001 was the beginning of my sophomore year of college, in New York State, only about 2 hours by train from New York City. My parents and sister were in northern Virginia. When I finally understood the scale of what had happened, I knew it was going to be one of those events my children would ask me about, decades in the future.

This date, 11 September, was also the basis of my undergraduate thesis. 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean tradition of democracy was dealt a blow from which it took seventeen years (or more) to recover.  I wrote about the coverage of the coup by US newspapers; partly because my Spanish is limited to what most Americans pick up, and partly because the events of the two intervening years had made me curious about how openly critical newspapers had been of our own government in the past.

(In January 2003 my mother and I attended a celebration of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and attended by people from all religions and backgrounds. Following the service we walked down Massachusetts Avenue, intending to gather in a prayerful vigil for peace in Lafayette Square – but due to “security concerns” the police stood on horseback, preventing this crowd celebrating nonviolent protest from getting too close to the White House. Later that year, friends at William and Mary who were also studying in the UK were told that they would lose all credits and might be expelled if they joined in anti-war protests in Britain).

I spent the fall of my senior year of college reading book after book on the coup in 1973, the imprisonment of thousands in the National Stadium, the torture and killings – and all this in a nation which had been very proud of its democratic process. It was disturbing reading, and I only got through it because of the breaks imposed by college life, and by self-imposed breaks with a box of 96 Crayola crayons and a coloring book. Still, I’m glad  that I know about that tragedy in the history of a nation not my own.

September 11 is a day, for me, to remember the power of democracy, the importance of human rights, and that the power of fear and anger and hatred can be overcome.

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”

One man’s past is another man’s present

The last two days I have heard things on the local NPR station which very clearly brought to my attention how things I consider to be very much The Past are still The Present for others.

The first was not a full story, but the lead for a story later on (which I didn’t hear). It was about politicians in some state running for office and in the sound clip one of the Republican candidates was railing against the evils of Socialism. The second was about a group of people of faith, Pastors for Peace, who go to Cuba in violation of and protest against the ban on travel. The reporter mentioned that there is legislation to try and soften the embargoes, but that an Anti-Communist lobby group is fighting to keep things as they are.

From a purely logical standpoint, I understand that the reasons behind the concerns. I know that the Baby Boomers and those before them, who make up a great deal of the “Powers That Be,” still carry the emotional weight of the Cold War. For me, however, that war is history, the past, something to be learned from, not something to be continued. Continue reading “One man’s past is another man’s present”

A little secret

I twittered this earlier and a number of people have picked it up, so I figured I’d repost it here, for posterity (even if the Library of Congress has archived it somewhere):

“The secret of many historians is that we’re gossips who are too polite to talk about the living”

Home Sweet Home

I started writing this post almost a year ago, when a number of stories all came together at once. There was  NPR  talking about the effect of the recession on home ownership, and a promotional piece from one of the local stations about a woman who was presenting her research on the Sears homes-selling method, particularly selling the idea of ‘your own home’ in the post-war era. Then there was my own housing situation – at the time, I was trying to find a new housemate. Things got rolling, and the post fell by the wayside.

Now, about a year later, my own housing situation is in flux again. I’m not going to stay in my (gorgeous, poorly insulated 1940s bungalow) rental. I face the choice of trying to find a place of my own that I can afford or finding a house and housemate. And here’s the thing: I have never in my entire life (adult or otherwise) lived on my own.  I’ve never had a house/apartment/studio/condo all to myself.

The reason is simple: I have always lived in areas where it was expensive to live alone, and I’ve never had the kind of income which could bear that expense. Most people I know have had to find a roommate or three after dorm life. Somehow, I feel as though there is a rite of adulthood I have not completed. At the same time, I am clearly aware of how modern that idea is, living without another person.

Perhaps it does not get as much play in historic house museums and other venues as it might, but people rarely had a place to themselves. Women, particularly, lived in family units or at least with other people. If you were rich, there were servants about; if poor, family and neighbors. There were (and are) cultures and classes where having your own bed was unusual. Amanda Vickery, in her Radio 4 series on private lives, does a wonderful job of discussing just what ‘private’ meant to people in the 18th century.   On a far more mundane level, I have to explain to people new to historical costume that, yes, a working woman’s clothes could lace up the back because there would have been someone around to help her into them (and out again!).

I know all of this – in fact, I love this aspect of human history, all jumbled together and social. I am aware that the bachelor pad, the single apartment after college, is a very modern invention, although I’m not sure when it took such a strong hold as definition of adulthood. I know that living with other people is a perfectly historical practice. It does not, however, stop me from wishing I could find a nice little place to call my own, at least for a year, where it would be me and my furniture and my Books.

Thoughts from Virginia Forum

I spent the last two days at my first Virginia Forum. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I really enjoyed myself.One of the strengths of the Forum is the diversity of the attendees: professors, graduate students, museum types (like me), university librarians, museum librarians, library librarians, archivists, historical society staff, independent scholars, and I’m sure I’m forgetting something.  Anyone can apply to present, and nametags only have your institutional affiliation, not your rank or title. Sessions are three or four presentations of 15-20 minutes, all based around a common theme, with plenty of time left at the end for questions and comments.

I’m not going to try and offer thoughts on every session I attended; maybe at some point, but I still have to check out my hotel this morning, and get on the road home. There is, however, one experience from Forum I want to share.

One discussion which started in a session and (for me) took off on twitter was about archivists and approaches to processing material. E. Lee Shepard, from the Virginia Historical Society, talked about the difficulties of deciding how closely to follow the material when creating a finding aid. He read us a quote from an incredibly moving letter written by James Ewell Brown Stuart to Mary Walker Lewis a year after the death of his daughter.  It was very moving, and an insight into the psyche of the man, but how do you put something like that in a finding aid, where most of the time all you can do (because of time limitations, etc.) is write “Stuart to Mary Walker Lewis, Year month day”?  What his presentation, and the others in the session, revealed was that archivists frequently know a great deal more about their collections than what’s written in the finding aid.

This concept was summed up in the phrase I tweeted “make friends with the archivist.” I got a response from @amycsc, who (having only read the tweet) said she objected to the idea that in order to find what you’re looking for, you have to buddy up to someone. Once I explained the background to the tweet, she pointed me to the Special Collections Research Wiki for the College of William & Mary.  She explained “The idea of ours is in part to download what’s in our heads, share what we’ve just emailed to a researcher, & seek info from others”. I think that’s fantastic. It’s probably not applicable to every institution, and I have no idea how easy it is to find from the more standard web pages (I was tweeting from my iPhone, which can surf the web but isn’t ideal for such things). Still, I think it’s a good way to start getting information out of people’s heads and into something more permanent, so that when they are gone, the information will still be around. That problem isn’t limited to archives – we have trouble with it in my department at the museum!

I had a fantastic time, and met some very interesting people. I feel really energized and enthusiastic today. I want to come back and spend a whole day at the Mariner’s Museum, and explore this area a little more. I plan to drive on some of the Colonial Parkway, rather than just taking the highway home. Thanks to everyone who made Virginia Forum happen – see you next year!

The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?

Conincidence or Serendipity

My master’s thesis grew out of an internship at the National Museums of Scotland, checking a transcription of the only extant early 18th century Edinburgh goldsmith’s ledger and doing some digging into the goldsmith’s life.  Within a few weeks of working with the ledger I knew that I wanted to study it extensively, and that it would make a good topic for my thesis.

Being that John Rollo, Goldsmith was also John Rollo, Sixth Lord Rollo of Duncrub, I was able to find basic genealogical information for John. And thus I discovered that we share a birthday. The man whose life and business was the focus of my master’s thesis was born the same day and month as me. Well, sort of. He was born in 1708, prior to the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar. Our recorded dates, however, match up.

So, Happy 302nd Birthday, John Rollo.