The past glinting through the present


We had a marvelous – albeit looooong – holiday break.  There were two highlights that I can’t stop thinking about.  The first was a visit, in the snow, to Old Sturbridge Village on Boxing Day.  Because of some combination of these two factors, the place was deserted.  We were very nearly the only people there.  We walked around in the gently falling snow, and I couldn’t stop thinking about where this country began, and of feeling pride in how tenacious, brave, and stubbornly determined those who came before us were.

Then, the next day, my entire family (my parents, my sister and her husband and two daughters, and Matt, Grace, and Whit) went to see some of my late grandfather‘s pieces of art at an art museum in western Massachusetts.  He donated them before his death.  The pieces of art are undistinguished, I think, from an artistic standpoint, but they hold tremendous sentimental value.  In a room where a large portrait of a Chinese man looked down on us, four of Pops‘ grandchildren looked at some of the snuff bottles that he brought back from his childhood in China and displayed in his homes.

I was overcome with memory.  The portrait had hung on the wall of my grandparents’ home in Long Island, site of so many of my childhood memories.  Then it had moved to the wall of the apartment my grandparents moved to, the apartment both lived in when they died.  The snuff bottles hold a real place in my memory too, particularly the story my mother tells of coming around a corner in the Long Island house to see the toddler me, having pushed a chair against the wall, inches away from grabbing one of the fragile bottles.

This portrait, these bottles, along with the scroll that hangs on the wall of our home and Pops’ fluent Mandarin until the day he died: these were all relics of his childhood, spent in Beijing.  I often forget how extraordinary this small detail is: my grandfather, with his four siblings, grew up in Beijing.  In that small room in western Massachusetts, four of Pops’ great-grandchildren leaned over treasures that he had brought back from his own childhood in Asia:  tiny bottles carved out of ivory and coral, the portrait of a Chinese man.  Their childhood, my childhood, his childhood: the room was full of memory, and years banged together, reminding me of all that had come before.

It is such an immense world, and we are so small.  Two of the four children in that room lived in Israel for a year as small children.  The two grandchildren in that room, now women in their (late!) 30s, grew up largely in Europe.  I felt a flush of shame at my family’s unadventurousness, I’ll admit: we’ve stayed a lot closer to home than anyone else in the room.  But still: all of our paths are different, and they take us into the world, no matter where we go.

Both of these experiences, in their own way, involved the past glinting through the present.  Whether it was with respect to America in general or my family in particular, I confronted where I came from on that trip, was reminded of the spirit of both endurance and adventure that marks my and our history.

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  1. Posted January 8, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Our girls have not left the country. But then Caroline has a tough time with any time change, any change in schedule and she really dislikes museums so it is such balance. See the world but also honor the personalities of our little people… still not sure what is ‘right’.

    admin Reply:

    A balance indeed … as I wrote to Kristen, I think some of this is about knowing our kids and some of it may not matter since I do believe what is the most important is how we orient towards and behave in our ordinary lives! xox

  2. Ari
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    That is so marvelous. Your grandfather’s story is fascinating!
    I love Old sturbridge village. Love snuff bottles! Loved living in China.

    admin Reply:

    It IS fascinating! I tend to forget that, because I’m so familiar with it. Was good to be reminded.

  3. Posted January 8, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I love the idea of adventure marking the history of your family. I don’t think we realize how much we long to have ancestors whose choices we admire, who give us silent encouragement to do what’s brave and take paths we believe in, even when they seem so impractical.

    admin Reply:

    I love the image of our ancestors – even those who are long gone – silently shaping and aiding our paths. xoxo

  4. Hilary Mead
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I agree: stories and photos of Pops growing up in China must have made me feel that it was ‘normal’, not to mention wonderful and complicated, to live as a child in a faraway place. Even without our full comprehension, our ancestors’ stories build our mental model of what is possible.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, they do. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. xox

  5. Posted January 8, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    When my kids were very small, our adventures were certainly closer to home. Now that they’re teens, I’ve felt both a strong urge and a readiness to take them out into the world with me – and what glorious adventures we’ve had! I’m sure you’ll feel it when the time is right for you and your kids, too.

    admin Reply:

    I feel it now – such fun to explore with them!!! So glad that you are having glorious adventures 🙂 xoxo

  6. Posted January 8, 2014 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Stacey hit the nail on the head for me: honoring the personality of my daughter seems to be, at least right now while she’s six, our biggest limiting factor. I am not quite sure how far to push her comfort zones in the name of travel, partly because I do not want to end up disappointed if it doesn’t go well. On the other hand, I’m getting a tad twitchy by not going someplace afar for a change. Without an adventurous lineage like yours I often wonder if that’s why I let it go so much–I’m doing exactly what the last 3+ generations did. But this is the key and you raised it: no matter where we are, we are out in the world too. Great reminder. Though I plan to live vicariously through your trip to the Galapagos!!

    admin Reply:

    I think she’s definitely onto something with that … we need to honor the children we have, while also know when and if they can be pushed to expand their horizons. Traveling is inherently uncomfortable – something I’m reminded of every time we do it. But then, as you say, maybe it’s a moot point since I think it’s more about perspective and what we model in terms of attention, openness, etc. xoxo

  7. Sally Willits
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I love this remembrance, Lindsey. Very tender and hopeful.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you. That’s how it felt!

  8. auntie_jenn
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    this story has inspired me to seek out the portrait of the snuff bottles. hope to wander that way one day soon. thanks for sharing.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, you are so dear – unfortunately they are far from the display floor. Hidden somewhere in the bowels of the building; they brought them out for us! xox

  9. Kate
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I adore that you call it Boxing Day- it’s a piece of the east my parents brought along with them.

    In looking back at 2013, my most meaningful memory is sitting by a creek bed as my children splashed and collected wildflowers. I played in those waters, with the same chosen family surrounding me. The whole weekend was full of translucent visions of the past. Seeing my girls connect to that essential place and those essential people is almost more than my heart can hold.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I love the phrase “translucent visions of the past.” I know just what you mean. How marvelous. xox

  10. Posted January 9, 2014 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    It is such an immense world, and we are so small. That’s my favorite line. And I have so many thoughts on this very topic….too many to share here;) I struggle with the same idea of “worldliness,” or lack of it. But at the same time, I think it is the feeling of home – of the familiar- that makes me feel less lost in this big old world;) Beautiful post! xoxo

  11. Posted January 9, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Oh Lindsey — all of this is stunning, glinting, really.

    This line, though, “It is such an immense world, and we are so small” struck me most.

    Love this, as always.