Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dr. Griffitt and the ginkgo tree

These days my desk is covered with odd bits and pieces from the past, as my youngest brother keeps methodically scanning old family papers into the computer, making mysterious attachments, and sending them to me, just a few a day. He began this months ago with the love letters of our grandparents, and as that saga came to its end--arrangments to meet in San Francisco, my grandmother carefully packing her cedar chest and shipping it to the new home her finance had bought for $5,000 in a suburb of Los Angeles back there in 1923--I grew a little wistful. No more escapes to the past. But my brother hadn't told me how much the same cedar chest, now in his home, held.

When my grandmother sent it west it contained the linens she'd embroidered, and some pretty china, and her most important contribution to the new household: a complete set of the works of Mark Twain, plus a lot of other books. "You can have a house without much furniture, but not without books" she said, and my grandfather agreed.

And it was a close thing. After months of delicate and ardent correspondence, after gifts of flowers, after a dutiful letter to her family, asking for her hand in marriage--though my grandfather wrote privately "your family had better agree, because I'm marrying you one way or another", my grandmother, a week before she was to board the train to San Francisco, suddenly had doubts. She was always the one who seemed to hold back a little--he'd be saying how happy they'd be together, how much he loved her--and she'd be writing that spring hadn't come to the mountains yet, and did he ever go to church? The week before that, my grandfather had written daily. And then there was a gap of 4 days. And then she wrote that unless she received a letter from him she was unpacking her bags and not going. She just wasn't certain. Did he really love her?
True, said she, there would not be time for him to write after he received this letter. But at least, if he was waiting in the train station, and if he hadn't sent her a letter--well, he need not wait for her. She wasn't going to be there.

He'd written, of course, and off she went, to a city she'd never seen, and they were married on July 18, 1923 by a minister they'd never known, with two witnesses drawn from the streets. And yes, mostly, as the years went by, I think they were happy.

So, reading these last letters, I sighed. "Too bad they didn't write from kitchen to living room later" I emailed my brother. He said nothing, but sent on another odd group of attachments to download and read.

And so I read today a letter from...let me count back--my Great-great grandfather. Or maybe three greats back. Written in the 1868 in a fine hand, to his young granddaughter, Mary, also called Molly by her friends. She was traveling away from home, and her grandfather wrote to her that he was deeply pleased by her demeanor, her modesty, her attention to the treasures of heaven, not the temptations of this world. He bids her be quiet and hopeful, and seek for the beauty in all things. He promises that she will thus live a long life, and assures her that a modest and comely woman, though not wealthy in possessions, will yet be cherished and find her way with excellent good success. And he will always hold her lovingly in his heart and mind and prayers as she journeys.

The modest young Molly would be courted and wed, and bear 11 children, of whom the youngest was my grandfather. She lived to be nearly 100 years old, and died surrounded by many of her children, and their children.

I turn the copy of this letter about in my hands, thinking of the man who wrote it. He was a doctor and a surgeon. I have a photograph of him, given me by my father, and the intelligence and compassion in the eyes of the bearded middle aged man staring out at me always touched me. They were eyes that saw a great deal. During the Civil War, in the 1860's, he served on the Union side (in my family there were brothers who took arms up to fight on opposite sides; there were also men who fled west to avoid the fighting).Doc Griffitt went with the Union Army, tending the wounded and the sick.

He was captured, and taken to Andersonville, the southern prison that many horror stories have come out of. Now we might shrug: we've learned of Abu Ghraib; we have prisons and horrors and wars all over the planet. But for those times, Andersonville was the name of tragedy and death. There were two doctors there, for the hundreds and hundreds of men. There was little food, no comfort, no medicine, little water, little hope.
He tended the men he was with, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.
He found a tiny stream of clear water flowing at the edge of the compound, and from this he brought pure water to his patients.

And there he looked at the green trees.

Long after the war ended--in 1908-- he was asked to go back to Andersonville to identify the graves of the soldiers he'd failed to save, the ones he held and talked with as they died, the ones he helped bury. And he did. And he was asked to help design a monument for the dead of Andersonville prison. He took a little seedling of one of the trees by the pure stream, and had it planted as a memorial. As far as I know the tree is still alive, spreading green leaves and comfort.

There's something in that story that captures my heart. I return to his good wishes for his granddaughter, and realize that this letter was written not all that long after he came out of the hell hole that was that prison. "Pay attention to the beautiful and true things" he writes her. And perhaps he was thinking of the light through green leaves, and pure water.

16 Comments:

Blogger LiVEwiRe said...

Your posts are always so uplifting, each in their own way; they speak of hope. Taking a trip back through the history of your family reminds me that there must be other families that have similar stories. So many stories. Some have been passed on but some have fallen by the way side. The stories you tell of these letters from the chest are really quite inspirational; thank you.

12:08 AM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Yes, Livewire, I often wonder about all the stories we all carry in our blood or the cells of our body--back for thousands of years. Each one of us surely has many stories--but most of us only get to hear a handful of them. I've been amazed at what was saved in that cedar chest.
And touched, because I think the main things that come across to me are present in all our lives, wherever we are--trying to face suffering, trying to be the best we can, falling in love, dealing with the ordinary things in life--and now and then having a spark of amazement.

8:41 AM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger Nyx said...

Makes me think of how important it is to keep stories safe from being forgotten... we don't save e-mails and instead of writing a journal, we blogg... I wonder if my grand children will browse the net, searching for my blog, wondering of life back in the old 2006 :-)

4:15 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger David said...

I wonder how many lives your ancestor saved at Andersonville? I am familiar with what happened there. Your ancestor really made his life count for something! You are lucky to know so much about some of your ancestors. I know a lot of names of my ancestors, but little to nothing about their lives. I know that one of my ancestors was a soldier in George Washington's army during the Revolution. I would really like to read a diary written by that man! No doubt I have some ancestors who either faught in or at least lived through the Civil War. I wonder how they saw those times? I recently saw the movie Cold Mountain. It was awesome, but profoundly sad and at times quite horrific! There are so many romantic notions about the Civil War. However, I think that Cold Mountain probably came closer to the truth than any other film that I have seen about that period.

One of my favorite fictional characters is Lord Leto, God Emperor of Dune, authored by Frank Herbert. Somehow, by the magic of science fiction, Leto was able to recall the life memories of all his ancestors. I have often wished that I could do the same thing. However, I think my head would explode! ;)

10:46 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger woman wandering said...

I hope you don't mind but I loved your post and used a quote on my site then linked back to you :)

Let me know if you are unhappy with it and I'll take it down.

Beautiful writing.

2:28 AM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Mindinside said...

:)

10:49 AM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Nyx, yes, these days correspondence and journals seem very ephemeral, don't they, out here in the cyber region (though I keep written journals and letters as well). It is odd to think of our grandchildren mining the world of blogs to find out what we thought (must remember to leave someone the key to my real name!)
David-sometimes I think we carry memories from our ancestors with us in our bodies somehow--I know I feel most at home in landscapes that look a great deal like the landscapes my great grandparents may have seen in Finland (that's my mother's side). But yes, it would be so nice to really see and know what they thought.
dear wandering woman--of course you can quote freely and link and what not. I'm honored.
and a smile back to you, mindinside!

12:23 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger woman wandering said...

Thank you :)

10:25 AM, August 06, 2006  
Anonymous marly said...

Just back from the Shenandoah Valley, and liking your excavations into the past--the light shed by a lovely, sweet modesty and the dark of the ground.

5:47 PM, August 06, 2006  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

Seems this hopefulness is in your bloodline. It is very inspiring any piece you do on yr family!!

I have a couple of letters from the 90s and well they are not that old but still bring a smile to my face when I go through them. Emails are not that fun :-S

1:45 AM, August 07, 2006  
Blogger David said...

Hi Jarvenpa,
Just a little note for you about my two new posts. The first is a poem, the second is a short adult oriented story. Hope you will like them. :)

10:00 AM, August 14, 2006  
Blogger Foulla said...

my comment has nothing to do with this post, but i do not have youe email address and i wanted to tell you that your comment made me feel..well,warmer!!go wnder!
yes ,what's going on in Lebanon,Iraq,Darfur,..is depressing!!so unfair that i started feeling so useless!!!
but hey,a nice thought from you helped me feel ,well how can i say it, ..better.
thank you

6:25 AM, August 17, 2006  
Blogger jac said...

Wonderfully illustrated !!!

Love the way you write.

2:33 AM, August 19, 2006  
Blogger Kimia said...

Long time no post dear Jarvenpa :)

2:35 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

David, did check out your new posts; Foulla, I'm glad I made you feel a little better--these are harsh times in our beautiful world.
Thank you, jac!
And Kimia--well, I've been busy with the visiting bear, but there is a new post up.
And dear marly, I hope the summer is going well (so many wonderful new publications of your work! And soon--though not soon enough--the Adantis books in paperback).
And dear wandering woman--I am always honored when you stop here.

10:09 PM, August 24, 2006  
Anonymous dorei said...

When my grandmother passed away a few months ago, we were going through her apartment in New York and came across the letters my grandfather wrote to her -- when they were courting, and a few that were written afterwards.

While I love my husband dearly, for a brief moment, I was intensely jealous of my grandmother. They were beautiful paper monuments to 58 years of love and life. My grandmother lived 16 years beyond my grandfather, and she mourned him every day that they were not together. I imagine they're dancing now.

7:52 AM, September 10, 2006  

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