Wednesday, January 23, 2008 • 9:26 AM Comments ()

Leave Something of Yourself Behind

posted by Barbara Pelissier

“Future generations will dwell with the fondness and affection of children upon every memento of their fathers.”
--Charles Delano, 1856

From Westhampton ~

How interesting it would be to see my own town’s landscape and the distant hills beyond when every rock, stream and valley had been exposed by timber clearing and grazing livestock. Those near and far-off vistas are not gone, just obscured by the canopies of nearly 100-year old maples, oaks, and pines. Our grandfathers would lament their long hours of hard work spent in improving the land to make it productive – only to have it grown up all over again. Few realize they had plowed and planted much of the very land now considered to be wild and forested. They thought it was cleared for posterity.

Changing landscapes, changing views. Our lives are like that. Instead of Grandma making Thanksgiving dinner each year, now it’s you. Just as the trees obscure the rocks and streams and valleys that still lie below, our busy lifestyles obscure our sense of the passage of time. It’s difficult to view or value our own life histories. We’re too busy to be reflective. We have no perspective as we move ever forward in life. And most of us are largely surrounded by those of our own and the next generation – our children’s generation – with whom we share many of the same memories and experiences. There’s just not enough contrast there for comparison.

In our 70s and 80s, however, we will be operating in second gear instead of fourth. No rush. We’ll have more unscheduled hours in which to remember and look backward, time to reflect, and our grandchildren and our neighbor’s kids will consider everything about our lives to be absolutely fascinating. They may even invite us to school to share our stories. We’ll be the old folks, just like the ones who visit our children’s classrooms now and talk about going ice harvesting each winter or shooting marbles when they were young. Perhaps our grandchildren will want to see our collection of 45s that we kept in record boxes. Will they ask us what we did all day without a computer? It’s time now to write it down. What did we do yesterday? What did we do with our lives?

In reading the diary that a widow in my town kept during the years 1855-1873, I became lost in a world I never knew existed. Yet it had existed, and right up the road from my own house! She was writing everything down a hundred years before I was born. Her shopping lists and accounts of conversations with neighbors, her laments and her personal joys grabbed me and pulled me right into her home with her and her three grown children. And the language was filled with . . . new words! She was buying brimstone and salaratus. Why? She rode home by sleigh from Huntington on a beautiful moonlit night. She related wagon accidents, bee-hunts, whortleberrying and funerals. Sometimes she said shillings and other times cash money. Routinely, her son banked and un-banked the house in the fall and spring. He tightened the bed cords and moved the stoves to and from the parlor. She “balled up” butter and bartered with it at the local store for candle wicking and oak nut galls with which to make ink. She watched “the iron horses go by!” Because of her diary, Lydia, her family, her neighbors will all be remembered and admired.

Lydia’s diary provided more than a glimpse of daily life in Westhampton 150 years ago. She was an observer, and wrote every day for eighteen years. Yet there must have been other diaries being kept in town. How much more accurate would our understanding of the town’s history be if we also had the written perspective of her son, who worked at his sawmill from sunup to sundown nearly every day, aware that the family depended on him for financial support? The town merchant? Where did he buy his goods? And what about the engineer of that “iron horse” in Huntington? Who was he and however did he come to operate a train? Economic status and gender have greatly influenced what our ancestors were able to record about themselves for us, their posterity. We know more about the folks who could afford education and literacy, as well as the time to sit down and put pen to paper. Largely, diarists were wealthy men - statesmen, inventors, scholars, businessmen or soldiers.

Women and the working class and poor have had fewer opportunities for education and less free time for reflection. Their personal histories are rare, yet so much more revealing than those of men “on the go,” because their daily routines and seasonal work throughout the passing of decades occurred in a single geographic location and their diaries provide rich and detailed information. That is how we live. We can relate to these people. They are our neighbors of another time. Even if they were intimately familiar with horse wagons and measurements and cloth and estimates of weight and loads that we would find difficult to calculate. They broke through snowdrifts with teams of oxen. They planted without the benefit of a weather forecast. They boiled swill and ate cowslips. Yet they also skated and sledded, sang, danced, donated, worshipped, celebrated, voted, debated and cared for one another in touching and helpful ways. They were us, if we had only been there.

Even as a young boy, it seems Sylvester Judd had more than just a need to know. He also had a need to record everything. He observed, pursued, studied and took note of all he encountered or heard about. What was the history of the fence? When was the first two-story house built in Chesterfield? How did one strike a fire in their fireplace in the 1700s? With extensive notes on everything from the history of apple varieties to the styles of shoes throughout time, he left over 50 volumes of fascinating detail about the history and use of nearly every imaginable object. Thanks to him, we know exactly what the average men, women and children of his time wore, what they ate, how they worshipped, etc. He may have driven everyone around him crazy with his constant questions and recordings, but we feel a huge sense of indebtedness to him for all his efforts for posterity.

Previous generations knew we were coming. They had every thing laid out for us, their posterity. As if anticipating a visit, they prepared and sacrificed for us like loving grandparents. They knew they would never benefit from the thriving communities they created or the shade of the beautiful trees they planted for us. They built massive and solid buildings to last for us. They even left messages for us in cornerstone boxes and sealed them up with beeswax, “ ?that future generations will dwell with the fondness and affection of children upon every memento of their fathers, the committee have felt prompted by the opportunity now open to them to transmit, under their own hand, a communication addressed directly to their descendants of another age.”

“For Posterity” was written on the outside of the sealed envelope placed into such a cornerstone box in 1856 at the site of the Northampton State Hospital. The message inside began, “to their children’s children who in after ages shall break the seal of this memorial, we send greetings: Foreseeing how soon the time must come when all personal traces of the present generation will have faded from the recollection of men; ?we have sought a recess here within the walls of this newly rising edifice (now called “Old Main”) wherein to deposit this humble record of ourselves?”

The concept, even the word “posterity” seems to have gone out of style. Perhaps it is because we are the first generation of mankind to have seen our blue planet. We have been made acutely aware of earth’s diminutive size within a vast universe, its fragile state, and the vast timeline of mankind’s existence. Another fossil, another skull, another branch of our shared family tree discovered. Our individual importance may be overshadowed by our knowledge of world events. Even posterity may seem questionable these days. But, looking at our children, how can we not feel compelled to believe that they, too, will have a future to grow old in? Prepare for posterity and leave something of yourself behind. Remember that “future generations will dwell with the fondness and affection of children upon every memento of their fathers.”

--Barbara Pelissier, President of the Westhampton Historical Society and Vice-Chair of the Pioneer Valley History Network

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