“Memory is an act of redemption. What has been remembered has been saved from nothingness. What has been forgotten has been abandoned.” – John Berger, from About Looking
My daughter asked me once, “Why are you so interested in the ancestors?” She was genuinely puzzled, and truthfully, once you get into the genealogical mire of dates and names, it can appear to be mindless preoccupation with past glory. My grandparents’ generation could rattle off the ancestors, and in this part of the country, great pride was attached to this ability. The elders sat the young ones down, or paraded them past the portraits in the hallway, attaching story to the names.
The photograph illustrating this post was taken behind the tombstone of my grandfather many generations ago now, the Reverend William Hutson (1720-1761) who was a minister of this historic circle of a church on Meeting Street. The Circular Church, also called The White Meeting House, was home to a mixture of Protestant dissenters that included English Congregationalists, French Huguenots, and Scottish Presbyterians. The magnificently preserved slate carved stones on either side of William Hutson’s, are of my grandmother, Mary Woodward, and his second wife, Mary Sarrazin Bryan Prioleau. The graveyard is one of the jewels of Charleston, containing some of the most beautiful headstone imagery in America.
But much of my generation, with the revolutionary eyes of the 1960’s, were just not interested in hearing about history that was complicated by the South’s role in segregation. Consequently, many of us do not know the family histories by heart anymore. But the ancestors simply called me, when I tripped over a headstone of a Woodward cousin, in of all places, Miami, Florida, while in college working on a photography project. One might call it serendipity. I remain motivated by the colorful stories that appear as unexpected surprises, like finding artists among us (more later on 18th century Rosella Torrans!) and I suppose I am hoping to revive the Lowcountry tradition of knowing our histories.
Whoopi Golberg said, about her own complicated history as an African American, ” When it becomes habit in us to be able to rattle off our individual histories it will calm our spirits…….” Indeed. The supporting spirits of the ancestors, too, are here, with my every step.
I like learning about our ancestry, the names and dates and cities. I wish I knew more. I wish I could put faces with names, and know the personalities of all the players. I have always felt a pull towards the English for some reason, probably because I was born “Hadley Alston” and read so many Thomas Hardy novels as an adolescent.
Right now I am reading a book on the social and architectural history of the English country house. I like knowing how people lived, like when the bedrooms stopped being on the top floors because people liked the idea of being able to step right out of bed and walk to the garden, and when the conversations stopped happening in formal circles, but in casual groupings that moved around the house. I like knowing these things so that I can know why we have certain conventions.
Now I know why it felt so good to have our wedding in our house last year, it’s how it has been done for centuries, along with funerals and birthday parties and christenings and all the rest, and only recently do people rent facilities out for these occasions. I guess I want to know the details of lives, and see the traits that have been passed down to me and my family. It gives it all more meaning.
Ooou. What is the name of the book on the social and architectural history of the English country house? You have lots of English in those veins, my darling daughter. Woodward, Hutson, Wrenn… And the Alstons might be fun to research. Seems that Charles Alston (1796-1881) of the grand Edmondston-Alston house, at 21 East Battery, had no male heirs to pass that name to you…hmmmm. Let’s just call him Uncle Charles, and tell his story anyway. :)