February 25, 2012
There. I’ve said it and, (for all you doomer purists, who turn up your noses at TV watching,) I’m glad. Yes, some of it is high-class British soap opera. So what? The drama takes place in a fascinating period of our mutual history with good writing and acting, interesting and believable characters and it deals with historical events – World War I and the Spanish Flu in these first two seasons – that changed both the aristocracy and the servant class in Britain and the world they lived in, forever.
As a history buff and someone who has tried my hand at historical fiction, I appreciate a well-written story that portrays that history through the eyes of not only history makers, but of those ordinary people who lived or died by the choices of those movers and shakers. Downton Abbey does this as well as and perhaps better than most of the historical fiction (and no small part of the historical “fact”) I’ve read and seen portrayed through the years.
But it did something else for me, as good historical fiction based on lives lived during the time, often does. It reminded me of my own family history and of the fact that we are all part of an interwoven web of events as old as mankind.
My living room walls have several small collections of family pictures – my son and stepson, their children, my brothers and sisters, my parents, their parents and grandparents. They serve to anchor memories of those who were or still are in my life and add flesh and bones to those I knew only through stories passed on to me by family members.
One is a picture of my paternal great-grandmother, white hair drawn back in a bun, wearing a long black dress and a white half-apron. She appears to be in her late seventies, perhaps early eighties, and is flanked by her two daughters and her six sons and stepsons – one of whom is my paternal grandfather, Samuel Reeves. She lived through the Civil War, I assume in northwestern Arkansas (since according to land records, members of the family bought property there in 1845 and 1848) with its bloody cross border battles between the northern and southern armies. My smattering of Cherokee blood comes from a marriage somewhere along that branch of the family.
There’s also a picture of Grandpa Sam and Grandma Laura, taken – I believe- on one of their wedding anniversaries. They left northwestern Arkansas shortly after they married and moved to southern Oklahoma in a covered farm wagon while Oklahoma was still Indian Territory. They worked leased farms there, where they raised twelve children – one of whom was my father. Twice their homes burned down and after one of those times, my grandfather left my grandmother and the younger children with his mother while he went to New Mexico to work in the silver mines until he had enough money to start over again.
A picture of my maternal great grandmother, Elizabeth “Libby” Glenn Schleicher, hangs there, too. A formidable woman, to hear my mother tell it, she was a member of the Ohio Glenns (though of which branch I’m not sure) that gave us the American astronaut, John Glenn. I have no picture of Great-grandpa Schleicher, but I have seen a picture of him in the restaurant they owned back in Ohio at the turn of the last century.
Nor do I have a picture of his mother, Rosina Kruger Schleicher, who followed her husband, Johann, to America in the early 1850s with their three young children – one of whom was a baby. They came from Bavaria during the revolutions that swept Germany and much of Europe in 1848. She and the children came by steerage and landed at Castle Garden in New Jersey after her husband had found a job. My mother told me that, during the trip, the baby died of a fever that had spread through steerage. After they wrapped him and brought him up on deck for burial at sea, he suddenly began to cry – whether from the brisk sea air or the hand of God, I can’t say. That baby grew up to become my great grandfather. Whether the story is factual or apocryphal I don’t know, but it has become a part of my family history and, thus, a tiny piece of the history of the times.
A small portrait of my maternal grandmother, Edith Schleicher Jordan, also hangs there. Three years old, dressed to the nines in a heavy suit and bonnet, she looks for all the world like someone’s dour baby doll standing against the chair back. She married Clinton Jordan, a young Ohio lawyer and, later, the owner of a construction company. They moved to Oklahoma when my mother was a child and lived through World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic, the dust bowl and the Great Depression. The home he built for them there still stands – at least it did when my brothers and I took Mom back to see it a few years before she died.
I have no photo of my maternal grandfather, but I do have three sketches – of him, my grandmother and my mom – that Mom did when she was pregnant with my older brother. Grandpa Jordan was Scots-Irish, a large man and, in the sketch, looking rather formidable, himself. He lost the construction company and his law practice in the Great Depression and, one Sunday in 1941, while my mother and grandmother were at church, committed suicide. What part those losses played in his death, no one knows for sure.
My grandmother lived into her seventies, though pictures taken in her late fifties, as I remember her from my childhood, show the beginnings of the Parkinsonism that eventually took her life. She had begun a career as a concert violinist, which she gave up, of course, when she married my grandfather. She was no longer able to play the violin by the time I was a child, but I do remember her whistling Schumann’s “Trammerai” one evening in our kitchen while she washed dishes. Apparently she had been a life-long whistler because my mom said that Grandpa used to say to her, when he caught her whistling, “Remember, Edith, a whistling woman and a crowing hen come to no good end.”
A copy of my parent’s wedding picture hangs there, as do later pictures of each of them. Born in 1909 and 1910, their lives spanned both world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression. I’ve mentioned some of their trials and tribulations during the Depression and World War II on this blog, so I won’t repeat them here.
The stories connected with these people are many and do me proud, I think, as the recipient of both their histories and their genes. They ground me in my own life and remind me of both the frailties and the strengths we humans possess when pressed to the mat by life.
You have such a history, too, full of people both ordinary and extraordinary. And if you are, as I have been, lucky enough to have a storyteller or two in your family to remind you of these people, take another look at the treasures they have given you.
We live in times that may yet prove to be as difficult and world changing as that period portrayed in Downton Abbey. Knowing history is a good thing. That knowledge reminds us that humanity has been down these roads before, many times. But, knowing our own history is priceless. It reminds us that our own ancestors survived such times, leaving us lessons to use and pass on to those who will follow us into their own history.
That’s why I love Downton Abbey.