Posted by: downtothesea | November 27, 2008

Living history.


This is the Frederik VIII.  In September 1923, she steamed into New York Harbor with my grandfather (my mom’s dad), my great aunt, their mother Anna, and her sister-in-law, Alma.  They had all come from Ludvika, Sweden, and were going to begin a new life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with my great-grandfather who was already there.  I am tickled to read the ship’s manifest, which reveals that even at the tender age of seven, my grandfather is listed as already knowing how to read.

It shouldn’t surprise me, though.  When I think of Grandpa I always picture him reading…or doing the crossword puzzles he loved.  I swear, they didn’t make a crossword he couldn’t figure out.  He could blast through those suckers in 15 minutes.  When he came to visit, the first thing my mother did was put on a pot of coffee and hand him that morning’s crossword puzzle.

My grandfather was a ridiculously fast reader.  He could plow through a 500 page book in a day and a half and always had grocery bags full of books he was trying to give away.  Like me, he loved to own books, even if just for a little while before passing them on.  And he read everything…spy novels, detective stories, Nora Roberts-esque stuff…I imagine him with a shopping basket in Barnes & Noble tossing in bestseller after bestseller.  But his great love was history and historical fiction.  I’m convinced that’s where my own inclinations as a professional historian come from.

He was also the first person to let me in on the fundamental secret of history, which is that every story has many different versions, depending on who is doing the telling.

My epiphany came at the beginning of second grade.  Grandpa had asked me what we were learning in school and I replied that we were reading about Christopher Colombus in our reading groups.  Grandpa suddenly looked very serious.  He inclined his head to me conspiratorially.

“Whatever they tell you in school, Punkin,'” he said, speaking slowly, carefully, “I want you to remember that we were here first.  The Vikings.”

“We were?”

“Yup.  Leif Eriksson got here first.  And we–you, me, and your mom–are descended from Leif Eriksson.”

My head reeled with pride as I marched back to school the next day and told my teacher that she was just plain wrong:  the Vikings had gotten to America long before Columbus, and what’s more, I added, puffed up with my own importance, I was a Viking, too.

Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well.

But that lesson stayed with me:  in history, in life, there is always another story behind the one the winner told.  And it is critically important to learn that story too.  There may not be one overarching historical “truth,” but a multitude of various-colored threads–all the different stories–fit seamlessly together in a curious weave to create the fabric of history.


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