In The Company Of Ghosts

Jamestown, May 2012. Archeological digs in the foreground and a replica of the structure of the barracks in the background.

Time can only disclose or unfold itself in our now, and as it does, all of time and all the world unfolds too.

Adam Frank,  Time and Again

One afternoon, not too long ago Bill said,” Hey, let’s go to Williamsburg next weekend. It’s been on our bucket list for years and I’m ready.”  We’d put it on our list of nearby historic sites to see thirty-three years ago when we first moved here to Virginia, along with those other in our back yard sites, like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Ashlawn, the home of President James Monroe, and Montpelier where James and Dolly Madison lived while our country was just a young thing.  We’ve already visited those places and always enjoy the opportunity to dig into local history as it plays into the history of our nation.

I hemmed and hawed, feeling somewhat lazy. I wanted to write and tend to the garden. Those two activities shine as regular excuses, frequently keeping me from living the more spontaneous life I want to live. But after a good night’s sleep I changed my mind, figuring it would be good to take a weekend off.  At my age, you never know how close you are to running out of time and it’s important to do enjoyable things. Besides that we’d be able to tick it off one thing from our massive bucket list, which includes “dream” trips to Hawaii, South Africa and Mongolia.  Williamsburg, being less than two hours away, is not in the same category as those other three, making it much more affordable.

So on a lovely spring morning we packed up the car and headed out for an adventure.  We took our time, choosing one of Virginia’s most historic and scenic routes rather than the Interstate.  Along that tree-lined corridor, huge plantations flourished and tobacco became king after the British began settling in Virginia. A number of those old homes have been restored and are open for tours. We’d once visited several of them on a quick day trip, always believing that in-person, hands-on visits to places of historic value make the everyday mundaneness of any era extremely enlightening.

With the exception of a history course in college, the study of the past had always been a bore for me.  All I ever needed to do was memorize dates and I passed with flying colors. In the classes I was forced to take in high school, it seems that the whys, hows, and wherefores didn’t matter a whole lot.  But as I think about it now, maybe I just wasn’t that interested at the time, finding attractive young men more to my liking.

In Jamestown, we went directly to the spot where British entrepreneurs arrived in May of 1607, establishing the first permanent colony in what would eventually be known as The United States of America. Wandering through the museum that houses thousands of artifacts as well as human remains gathered in archeological digs, we saw old tools, rusted knives, pottery, bits of jewelry and so much more, all used by those first settlers and those who followed in their footsteps.  A fascinating exhibit of a grave with the remains of a thirty-something year old man, showed how historians go about learning about whom the deceased might be. The kind of coffin a person was buried in, along with other bits and pieces found in the grave, and hand written, personal journals of the time, make guesses fairly simple.  But DNA not always possible is always the clincher.

Outside, on that sun-warmed afternoon, we went on a short but informative archeological tour with a National Park Ranger. We watched as fragments of the past were uncovered while we stood looking down into the trenches, where everyday aspects of life in the early sixteen hundreds came to the surface. Everyone we talked to, rangers and archeologists alike, spoke of how exciting it is to work in a place where history unfolds on a daily basis, bringing change to their perspectives on what life was like for those early settlers. It was impossible for me not to feel the presence of those long-gone souls as they went about their lives struggling to survive the difficulties they were faced with on their arrival in this new world: extreme drought, infestations of biting insects and internal unrest among the local Native American population who were at war with one another.

I thought of my father’s parents who came to this country from Poland early in the 1900s. My grandmother, Michalina Podhajecka, not yet seventeen, arrived at Ellis Island on March 16, 1911. My grandfather Wladislaw Zabski, later know as John Walter Zabski followed in September of 1912.  I felt their presence and those of so many others on a visit to Ellis Island several years ago. Their journeys were not trips of discovery, but a response to conditions in their homelands. They had heard the talk about jobs for all in the land of the free and made their way toward new lives, leaving family, friends and known reality behind them.  I can only imagine the mix of terror, heartbreak, hope, and excitement that must have accompanied them on their odyssey to find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Though my forefathers did not face the same difficulties as the early British who came to an unknown land to discover natural resources that they could take back to England and to expand the British Empire, their struggles must have been similar in that they came not knowing what they would find.  It is one thing to venture out from familiarity, returning to it at the end of each day, and quite another to leave it behind forever, in many cases never experiencing it again.  Both are ventures into the unknown yet choices that effect every tomorrow like the expanding circles caused by dropping a pebble into a pool of still water.

Mesmerized and excited by what we saw, Bill and I reflected on where we might be today had we chosen to be historians and/or archeologists rather than the artists that we are. What ifs follow all of us all through life as we go about making choices based on the circumstances we are dealt. Frightening intersections in our lives where we must choose which road to travel are shrouded in mystery and though we make plans for the future based on which road we decide to take, we never know exactly where we’ll end up. And we have no clue how our actions will affect the future.

At my age I have no intention of crawling down into a muddy pit digging through soil and rocks to find a piece of pottery, a gold coin, or an old rusted belt buckle, but I certainly love the thrill of piecing together the lives of those who came before me.

Though we didn’t have enough time to tour all of the sites, we were equally enthralled the following day when we visited the location of the battle at Yorktown where in 1781, along with the French, we defeated the British in the last battle of the American Revolution, finally bringing independence to our United States of America. Though we celebrate 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the year we gained our freedom, it wasn’t until the signing of the Paris Treaty in 1783, that we became truly free and out from under British rule. In this 2012 election year my bewildered perspective has become more hopeful by seeing what our forefathers were able do even when chaos and disagreement ruled the day.

At Yorktown, I found the peacefulness of that long-ago battlefield quite eerie as I reflected on what happened in that place where I was standing. Though I saw cars traveling slowly along a country road and other evidence of our 21st century world inserting itself in the distance, I found myself wandering all sides of the line of battle. British, American and French flags waving in the breeze across a large expanse of field indicated the positions of the differing armies. I thought about the men who fought here. On all sides, seven hundred and eighty lives were lost here. The number of those injured is unknown, but it must have been significant. What were their hopes, fears, and dreams? Where had they come from and what had they left behind? Where did the survivors go when all was said and done? What does it have to say about our world today? What will those who inhabit this place five hundred years from now think about when they look at what we have left behind?

Those questions naturally led me to think of my father who fought in Italy, France and Germany during World War II.  Married to him the day before he joined the army, my mom always said, “He came home a man I didn’t know.”  He obviously suffered what can only be described now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moody, abusive, angry, and fearsome, making life difficult for himself and the family.  So that I could better understand who he was, part of me would have liked to be with him as he fought his way into nests of Nazis, killing them and watching as his own men were killed. Those of us who have never experienced war have no way of knowing what conflict is really like. All we can do is wonder and imagine our way to understanding and that is not the same as being there.

At home again, I still feel a pull toward immersing myself in the world of history and archeology. But I’m quickly reminded that my journey into writing memoir is similar to the work of historians and archeologists. As I excavate my memories and the lives of my family, I’m discovering relics that inform me of who I am and where I come from. I am a writer and an artist as well as an archeologist and a historian. I am all of those when I spend time talking with a cousin five years my senior, who knew me as an infant. I read through my father’s military records telling me how and where he courageously fought in World War II. I wander in and out of memories and wonder how he must have felt when he first walked into the concentration camps that he liberated at the end of the war. I wonder what exactly influenced my grandparents to come to this country from Poland. What did it feel like to leave their homes with only a few belongings, arriving in a strange, new land where they couldn’t speak the language?  Never having asked them those questions when I had the opportunity, I can only imagine what they might have said.

All I really know is that one day when we are grown enough, we set out on a great adventure. We go down one road and then another. We stop to listen at the crossroads to what our hearts tell us and then we move on. At times it’s a struggle.  At other times it’s less difficult.  It is never perfect and we don’t arrive where we thought we would.  We can never imagine what we will discover about the past or what we might contribute to the future. Each of us is like that pebble, dropped into a still pool, continually changing the status quo.

This entry was posted in family, Life, Memoir, Time, Travels, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to In The Company Of Ghosts

  1. traceywc29 says:

    Excellent post! I really like the way you intertwined history with your personal life and history and then related it to our choices.

  2. jzrart says:

    Thanks so much Tracey, for your comment and stopping by my blog. Every thing we do will become history and affect everything around us.

  3. Jeri Leach says:

    You must have taken Route 5 into Williamsburg! I went to college at William and Mary, and met my husband there. Our first date was at Chowning’s Tavern. His sister was married in the little church on Jamestown Island – it was a beautiful spot for a wedding. But every time i go back to Williamsburg in the summer and endure the heat and humidity, I think about what it must have been like for those first settlers- ugh! What amazing fortitude and conviction they must have had. I have always been fascinated with archeology, but wonder if i would have had the patience to sift through dirt and rocks as carefully and reverently as must be required.

    • jzrart says:

      Yes, we did take Route 5. It is such a gorgeous way to go and little traffic. The heat and bugs of summer are exactly why we went in May. The weather was perfect … not too warm and low humidity.

      There is an interesting article in todays Washington Post in the magazine section about one of those plantations going under, involving both the Williamsburg Foundation and a man by the name of Halsey Minor who is the bad guy and has left a trail of distruction here in C’ville as well. Apparently the Foundation is struggling in many ways and attendance is dropping every year. We’ll probably go back in the fall to do Williamsburg itself.

      Williamsburg is one of Virginia’s most important historic places and one of the state’s most gorgeous spots!

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