“History is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul”

History is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul

John Dalberg-Acton

“I wonder if a museum might want this piece,” my mother said, referring to a framed, military service painting that had hung in the focal point of our living room for over 60 years. She was just weeks from dying from the cancer that had been diagnosed only months before. 

Back when I was a kid, the only history of any importance to me was focused on much more recent events–like who had kissed whom the past week in back of the junior high school gym. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand how our family was intertwined with one of the great defining wars in American history. My great-great grandfather was Brevet Brigadier General John Corson Smith, veteran of battles at Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain during the Civil War, and one of nine Galena, Illinois generals who served under Ulysses S. Grant. We had photos of him, books he’d written, even a secretary hand-built by him and my great, great grandmother. All had been passed down to their grandson and then to my father, along with several other pieces including the framed, hand-painted military service record to which my mother had referred. 

Museums, like libraries, are the time capsules of history. Words written and artifacts preserved from centuries ago help us interpret the significance of the past. I hadn’t thought of these Civil War pieces, let alone anything else in our home, as ‘museum worthy.’ I just assumed we’d pass them along to the next generation as we’d always done. But the thought intrigued me. 

“These are extraordinary pieces that need to be kept together,” the estate appraiser said when my mother told her about the Civil War pieces. It had been assumed that we three sisters would split the pieces. “They are quite valuable and represent a unique piece of history. Whatever you do, make sure they stay together and are preserved.”

My mother passed two weeks later. I felt the weight of my executor role squarely on my shoulders. 

My cousin recommended I contact the Galena-Jo Daviess Historical Society and U.S. Grant Museum in Galena, Illinois. With nothing to lose, I emailed them. Would they be interested in some pieces that belonged to John Corson Smith? Within days, I heard back: Yes, they were interested. 

Emboldened, I reached out to friends who connected me with docents from the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington, not far from us. Perhaps they might be interested in the ‘souvenirs’ my parents had brought back from their travels. My sisters and I showed the docents artifacts by recognized and not-at-all-recognized artists and indigenous peoples. Within days, curators were on site. They hadn’t finished coming through the door when one said “I’d love to have that piece,” a painted, Mexican clay elephant candelabra that had sat, unused and underappreciated, on an end table in our family room.  

At one point, one of the curators asked about a mask that I had already chosen to keep. “If you’re going to keep it, you’ll need to put it in the freezer every six months to kill any bugs,” he said. “You can see here, where they’ve already eaten away some of the structure.” Realizing that I was ill-equipped to care for the piece properly, I gave it to the museum on the spot. The curators had to make two trips to take everything they wanted.

In the years since my mother’s death, I have wondered what she would have thought about all this. I think she would have loved the fact that others, too, loved her ‘treasures,’ as she called them. She would have loved sharing the stories of how she acquired them; the history she knew about each piece and the small shopkeepers and artists, themselves, she dealt with in order to acquire them. As my father had told us, she was remembered well by all of the artists and dealers because she truly loved and appreciated their work. I especially think she would have loved watching the white-gloved movers as they carefully packed each precious Civil War piece, as my parents and their parents had before them, securing them in a special truck that would take them away to their final home. My sisters and I believe she would have been filled with pride that we decided to share with the world the things she loved and the history they represent. 

I have been lucky enough to have visited many historical sites and museums; from the beaches of Normandy, to the site of the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China; From the Louvre to the British Museum; Vatican to Coliseum. At each, I have felt the power that history holds over us. The concept of time floats away from me then, and I marvel at man’s accomplishments. 

Do I worry that I have little of the heirlooms from my past to hand down to my children and grandchildren? No. We each kept a few things to pass on. I tell my children and grandchildren about our history and will encourage them to visit both museums. And knowing that I have preserved history for all to see, now and into the future, illuminates my soul.

Nancy B. Franklin

Nancy Franklin has been published in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Daily Breeze. Her satirical pieces have been published in Slackjaw, The Belladonna and Points In Case. Visit her website at http://www.mirthquakes.com or follow her on Twitter, @mirthquakes_.