October is LGBT history month. It’s also my anniversary month. Last year, Beth and I got married on our 20th anniversary (I only half-jokingly told her that I knew we had to keep the same date or she would never remember our “new” anniversary), and so this October will be… our first “official” wedding anniversary, but our twenty-first real anniversary.
That got me thinking about history in general. Our personal history is important to us, and sometimes to those close to us, but for most of us, our history will most likely never move past that relatively small circle.
Like many people, I live in an area whose history I don’t take the time to appreciate. Doing research for books has led me to take a closer look at the history all around me. The town I live in is located in the Shenandoah Valley where many battles and skirmishes were fought during the Civil War. It says something about the back and forth nature of the fighting that Winchester changed hands seventy-six times during the war.
Moving back a bit in time, this part of Virginia was the western frontier when the English were settling America. A sixteen-year-old George Washington came to Winchester in 1748 to survey this region. This was his headquarters for the four years he was surveying here. I don’t know for sure he slept here, but it seems reasonable that he might have.
When I was researching and writing Miserere, one of the things that allowed my characters to make a life for themselves when they fled to West Virginia in 1863 was the presence of an iron furnace. Not far from where I live is this iron furnace, which was in use from the 1830s to the 1880s. As people pushed west, into areas with no established trades or ways of making the things they needed, they had to keep rebuilding things like this iron furnace. I feel a bit torn between admiration for their tenacity and ingenuity, and dismay at what their coming meant for the Native Americans who were already here.
Just west of Winchester is the childhood home of Willa Cather. This historic plaque is all that’s visible now, as the current owners (probably tired of gawkers like me!) have planted a dense patch of pine trees that protect the house from view. Cather wrote of this area in her novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. The mill in the novel is situated on Back Creek, which is good for fishing, but I’ve never found the mill.
History is a funny thing. I’m sure George Washington had no idea at age sixteen where life would take him and the part he would play in the founding of a new country. The soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War were just trying to survive and get back to their loved ones. They had no visions of people obsessively re-enacting their skirmishes and battles 150 years later. And who knew that Willa Cather would grow up to be one of America’s greatest novelists?
Some things are bound to become landmark events in the annals of history – wars, disasters, acts of heroism. Some people are destined to become icons of history. But our day to day lives, lived as honestly and as lovingly and as hopefully as we can live them, make up much more of the day to day living that goes on in this world. It may be that a hundred years from now, there will be no mention of us in books or historical plaques, but that doesn’t make the living any less significant.