After last week’s post, I commissioned my father to write this particular story. It is one so real to me that I struggle to remember that I was not actually in it! Also, those of you who know me well will be struck with how the last few paragraphs share identical sentiments you’ve heard me rant about dozens of times. Indeed, I was startled to see the resemblance, and then ashamed of my surprise. Of course! I got my passion for connecting to history from my own connection with my dad (and most of my other good passions I got from him too). I hope you enjoy it!
I remember the day very well. As a boy, it was my task to clean and dust the basement. It was one of those finished basements with the brick fireplaces and wood paneling popular in the 70’s. We spent a lot of time in that basement (as opposed to the living room, which was reserved for “guests” and almost never used), so it got messier quicker.
There was delicious irony in my mother assigning this particular task. On the wall an old photo of a civil war soldier looked out from a very ornate frame that my mom had to clean when she was a kid. She hated cleaning that frame, because it was so ornate—it took forever. I grew up around this picture and its frame, and now it was my turn. But unlike my mother’s situation, my taskmaster was not as persnickety, and so all I had to do was to take a vacuum brush to it, and then wipe it down with a cloth dampened with “Endust”–some wonderful modern chemicals.
On this particular day, however, I was not appreciating the lucky break that history had given me, but rather thinking what a silly chore this was. And so I began to wipe this stupid frame with the stupid old picture in it, thinking what a beautiful day I was wasting. But, as I did so, the light from the window reflected off the picture in a way that made me actually look at the picture. My half closed eyes slowly got wider and wider. And I stopped wiping and just stared. And gaped.
I knew I was looking at my great great grandfather, Rich McGee. He was a confederate soldier in the civil war. And he was around 16 when he joined. I knew all this. But it began to dawn on me that the eyes that were looking at me were about the same age as eyes that had been joylessly cleaning with Endust.
A stocky, 16 year old. Brown hair. Round face. Light colored eyes.
And then I saw him.
He was me. I was not looking at a picture, I was looking in a mirror. I had grown up into this picture.
It was both an exhilarating and tremendously creepy sensation, all blended into one. There was at once a sense of bonding with the past, and at the same time a realization that his world was nothing like mine, and the issues that he faced were quite different. I had to eventually stop and go upstairs to tell Mom my epiphany. She just smiled.
This got me wondering what had happened to Rich McGee. And so I asked my grandmother Dana what she remembered about Rich McGee in the civil war. This is the story that she told me, with probably some details gone awry:
There were three brothers who had signed up for the confederate army, I believe from Patrick County. The mother was understandably worried for his sons. She made the oldest promise that he would take care of the youngest. I don’t know why the middle child was not a part of this family pact, maybe the mother felt that he could take care of himself (but not necessarily others).
I don’t remember what battle it was—it could have been the second battle of Manassas. But after a day of combat, the older brother could not find the youngest among the fires that the soldiers huddled around. Desperate, he made his way out in the darkness, away from the fires, and back unto the battlefield looking for his brother. While searching on that battlefield, he was shot by a Union sniper, and was killed instantly.
Eventually, they did find the younger brother out there in the battlefield. He was alive, but seriously wounded. About a half a year later, he would die from those wounds.
Only the middle child, Rich, remained. Again, I am not sure which battle, but he was eventually taken prisoner, and waited the rest of the war out in a union camp.
Rich McGee eventually lived into his 90’s and died in the 1930’s. He had a son, also named Rich, and that son also lived into his 90’s and died in the 1960’s. I have a picture of that son, then grown old, there with his little great grandson—me.
And when I think of this, it reminds me how young we are as a nation, how the things we read about in history books are not really that far away. It also reminds me that we are never born in a vacuum. That we stand on the shoulders of the decisions and choices of those before us. And we stand with similar equipment in mind and body. This doesn’t stop each new generation from taking history in another direction. But it does tell us at what point we start.
I have come to appreciate the Chinese value of honoring our ancestors. But I don’t have to burn incense or paper money to do so. I can honor them by remembering their stories.
So thanks, Jer, for letting me do some remembering and some reminiscing–some honoring.
By Cary Clifton