Year end is often a time of reflection, a time to regroup and make new plans. I rarely make resolutions for the future; I’m more inclined to study the past.
A reader recently asked me why I write so much about the past. That’s a fair question. I’ve been interested in history – in the micro and macro sense – since I was a child.
My maternal grandmother tracked genealogy on both sides and bequeathed me family documents and photographs. Each of these relics is a treasure – a puzzle piece in the family story of immigrants who came to a new country. On my mother’s side that journey started in England and Germany and ended in northeastern Indiana.
My parents took my brother and me to many historic sites when we were children. How better to understand the impact of the Civil War than stand in the cemetery where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address?
My family story is no better or worse or different than thousands of other immigrant families who came to Indiana. Knowing our past can teach us much about ourselves and our world. Knowing the challenges that came from both sides of my family and how they overcame them is a great object lesson for today.
My ancestors came to Indiana behind a team of yoked oxen from the United Kingdom via Pennsylvania. I often think of that when we drive out east to visit our son. The mountainous areas of West Virginia don’t threaten two individuals in a small SUV. Imagine going over that terrain in a wagon behind oxen. Perhaps my ancestors felt they had no other choice than to push on; perhaps what was gained in Indiana was greater than what was lost in Europe. Their ultimate resolve makes me think I can accomplish anything.
A visitor to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., notes that “what’s past is prologue” is engraved on the base of a statue.
From Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” the full quote is, “And by that destiny to perform an act whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge.” Antonio was referring to a murder; in the centuries since the play was written the quote has come to mean that history can teach us what’s ahead.
None of us can know what the future holds. I’m not sure I would want to know, given a magic crystal ball. However, we can perhaps find a clue in our past and learn interesting stories along the way.
May your new year be filled with endless treasure!
Amy McVay Abbott is a freelance journalist and author of “The Luxury of Daydreams.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.