Saturday, February 4, 2012

A History Lesson

In 1973, I was given a desk in the Rare Books Room in the Huntington Memorial Library in San Marino, California.  I hadn’t realized that the Huntington Library has one of the finest collections of early Americana of any library in the country.  Had I known, I probably would have lost my nerve.  But I didn’t, and so I asked if I could do some research there.
            When I explained that I was working on a project to present history in a you-are-there-now mode to children, the curator became enthusiastic.  He took me into the Rare Books Reading Room and pointed to one of the small tables and chair in the middle of the room. One needed serious credentials and projects to be allowed to work here.
            “No electric typewriters, but you can use a small manual,” the curator whispered and waited for a response from me.
            “Um…ah,” I managed.
            “Would you prefer another location?” he asked politely and pointed to a table in the corner.
            “Oh, no.  It’s lovely.”
            “Good.  Now come with me and we’ll fill out the necessary forms and you can begin whenever you’d like.”
            I followed him meekly and signed all the necessary papers.  Then I returned to the Rare Books Room and sat at the small table that now was mine.  There was an old green blotter on top, marked with ink stains, a pair of metal bookends, and a narrow drawer where I could keep pencils and cards.  The table had been well used, had scratches and a small notch in the top edge of the drawer.  Another table was beside mine, empty now.  I wondered who would be the lucky person to sit there.
            The Huntington draws scholars from all over the world, and so, in June, a gentleman from England took over the table beside mine.  He was a headmaster at a school and had taken a Sabbatical to read about his wife’s ancestors, the Grenville family.    George Grenville was Prime Minister in England before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
            The Librarian introduced us and we said our polite hellos.  Every day, we nodded at one another, but never spoke.
            One morning, while we were both engaged in our reading and note taking, I heard him sigh.  “Oh no,” he said. “Poor thing.”
            I looked up.  It was obvious something had happened.  “Are you all right?” I asked.
            He nodded.  “She died.”
            “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I gasped, thinking he’d heard of some family tragedy.
            He took off his glasses and shook his head.  “Oh, it’s not anyone I know.  You see…” and then he explained.  He was reading the account book (daybook) of an English family from the early 1600s. These daybooks were kept by a wife or, in a large household, a housekeeper or butler. On the page were the yellowing figures, revealing a history all their own.  He showed me a date with an entry “midwife.” A child had been born, and it was a girl, purchases proved it so.  He flipped the pages.  She’d grown to be five years old, for the purchase of yardage for gowns proved that also.  And then she became ill—small pox.
            “How can you tell?” I asked as we pored over the pages.
            “The medications prescribed, and the dosage.  She’s their only child.  But she lived.”
            I was relieved.
            “See, they had a party for her sixth birthday with minstrels and puppets and presents.”
            “I’m so glad.  But you said she…”
            “Yes,” he said solemnly.  “She never made it through the winter.”  He pointed to an entry.  “Grave digger. The amount paid is for a child’s grave.”
            We sat in silence, both grieving the loss of a child we’d never known.  “Would you care to go to lunch?” he asked.
            I agreed.  We went to the cafeteria, friends, bound together as human beings who are a part of the drama of life.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah! I really get it. Felt the same way too as you so vividly and poignantly describe it. Great story Ruth and well told! I can't help but be curious about these desks- whose they were - where they were. There's heavy mojo in well used old objects - for me - especially tools, weapons, instruments, furniture, some clothing, books and pottery - but I feel the same way about desks. We have two antique desks in our house. The one I use is a small antique roll top which I love using, and I sense it loves to still be of service. Fascinating, too, how the living story of this family from over 400 years ago emerged from his research. Good post. Thanks for sharing! Keep 'em coming!