A Cyclic Poem Written by Time

My great-grandmother was named Mabel Marie Marcroft, but I knew her as Mamo, and she was one of my favorite people in the world. An old lady with snow-white hair, she’d had a long, long life in which she’d already run across both Bob Hope and Pretty Boy Floyd by the time I was born. She’d worn a black dress with heels and pearls at her job at Frost Brothers in downtown San Antonio and smoked cigarettes and got divorces back when women weren’t doing either of those things. Those old ads for Virginia Slims with the slogan ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ always reminded me of my Mamo- a classy old lady with a bad case of idol worship who adored rubbing elbows with the wealthy socialites she dressed as a bridal consultant, she really had come a long way from her youth in the sticks in rural Missouri. She used to tell the story, still with awe in her tone, of how she once saw the Northern Lights from the back porch of her mother’s home in Bolivar, Missouri, during World War II, and thought at first that it was some new atrocity from the Germans. Missouri was way too far south for the Aurora, and remember that in just a few years from that wondrous night, a new weapon would be unleashed on the world in the form of a mushroom cloud over Japan, so the possibility that the enemy had somehow caused that light show in the night wasn’t as far-fetched as we might think it now. Mamo stepped out the back door for a smoke, and was suddenly enveloped and surrounded by the most beautiful sight she would ever behold; her wonderment at the spectacle drew her out into her mother’s yard to stare up in bewildered awe. She told that story for the rest of her life, and she told it to me, her darling favorite, many times. And now, twenty-five years after her death, that night my great-grandmother saw the Northern Lights in Missouri, has become a little piece of history- all because she passed it down to me.
History, to me, used to be an easy A back in school, and something which, like math, I expected would have absolutely no bearing on the rest of my life. It was who had been president in what year, it was the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of San Jacinto and the bare-bones fact of the Civil War, but it was absolutely uninteresting and uninspiring, and I memorized the facts to regurgitate them at test time and then dismiss them from my memory forever after. I never thought of myself as what I am, and what we all are, in actual fact- a repository of all kinds of real-life history, and the product of generations of my family’s stories- as one link in the chain connecting all of my ancestors with the children I would have some day, and their children and their grandchildren after them. I had nothing to do with Grover Cleveland or the Monroe Doctrine, but as long as I held my great-grandmother’s memory of those wartime Northern Lights in my own mind like a scene in a snow globe, I was holding her history, and the history of my family, in guardianship for people yet to be born. We who delve into our family’s history at sites like ancestry.com are able to find out birth and death dates, marriage and military service records, but what wouldn’t we give for a priceless footnote like that on an unknown ancestor’s life: 1942, Mabel was amazed to see the Aurora Borealis in Bolivar, Missouri, and it profoundly affected her. 1865, Uncle Virgil learned of President Lincoln’s death and dropped to his knees to pray in his field. 1917, Aunt Lorraine danced every dance with her boyfriend James, who would leave the following week to fight in France where he was killed. She married Uncle Peter the following year.
What I was never told in school, and what every teacher of history should be required to tell their students, is that history is not only Lincoln’s assassination in the Ford Theater while watching ‘Our American Cousin’, nor the shot heard round the world when the first American revolutionary saw the whites of their eyes, but it is all of the things that will be forgotten if someone doesn’t gather them up and tell the story to someone else. History is not just the Lusitania torpedoed one Spring afternoon off the southern coast of Ireland, it is also my grandfather’s birth in the mansion his father built in Terrell Hills, a week after the unsinkable Titanic went to the bottom of the ocean. It is my great-grandfather Weinburger, a generation out of the Fatherland, arrested on the streets of his hometown in Michigan for speaking German during the First World War; his deep sense of betrayal would cause him never to speak his first language in public again. It is my great-great uncle Simmons, in a Doughboy’s uniform somewhere in France. December 7, 1941, is a date which will live in infamy, not only in the collective conscious of a nation but in my father’s memory as a two-and-a-half year old boy, bewildered and terrified as his mother ran from the room where the radio was to be sick down the hall. The picture of that infamous morning remains vivid to him, seventy-three years later, and by his sharing, I too can see that December morning, through his eyes and his mother’s, who died before I was born. It is more than a recording of a president’s famous words, it’s a picture of stunned horror in one household in San Antonio, perhaps indicative of the mood that gripped the whole country that day they heard they’d been blitzed on their own soil and that their country was suddenly in the grip of bloody, brutal war.
What makes a young woman’s glimpse of the Northern Lights in Missouri, or a grandmother’s reaction to her stark fear on the eve of war, into history? My grandfather Hagy’s birth became history the moment it was recorded, and great-grandfather Weinburgers’ arrest presumably left a paper trail as well, but how do the other stories count as history? Mamo left the porch that night so long ago to wander in a daze out in the swept yard of her mother’s house, staring in awe up at the show in the sky, and those few moments of wonder might have been forgotten, or may have stayed in her own mind and died along with her, but what transformed them into family lore, and into history, was her simple act of telling. My father remembered Pearl Harbor Day and the particular way in which it rained down on his own family, but his memory became history when he told me, and now I’ve written it down. ‘The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down,’ states A. Whitney Brown in The Big Picture. Instead of his story of that infamous day going out of existence with my dad- a long, long time from now, God bless him- his recollection has now entered the anecdotal narrative of our culture, and some future student of history, searching for what it was like in America on the dawn of World War II, can find this story and it is here, it is real and tangible and has weight. It is history.
In Boerne, in Kendall County, so many things have been saved from dying by the simple act of telling. In 1949 during the centennial celebration of Boerne, local historians Emilie and Fritz Toepperwein told the story of the charcoal burners who lived along the Guadalupe River near Kendalia and Bergheim and so saved their story from oblivion. These were people cut adrift after the Civil War and Reconstruction left them penniless and homeless, who landed in the hill country and were allowed by local landowners to camp near the river and clear their acres of cedar, which they burned to sell as charcoal. These men and women built communities in those woods, from salvaged lumber and wagon boxes, of tarps held up by string tied between two trees, and there they raised their children in the haze of the cedar smoke. Bergheim was founded for the cedar choppers- Andreas Engel ran a trading post at Engel’s Crossing on the west bank of the Guadalupe for nine years before he established the store and post office in his new town of Bergheim. Engel traded goods with the charcoal people in exchange for their coal, which he would then sell himself- one cedar burner, years later, would say, ‘Us charcoal people should love Mr. Engel, as he kept many a one of us from starving to death.’ Letters for the people of String Down, Wilke Bend, Happy Valley and Richter’s Flats- the little villages that made up Charcoal City- were often addressed to the Guadalupe Post Office, which made for confusion with the post office in Guadalupe, Texas, so they changed the name to Schiller, Texas, and another little town was born, and memory of it may have vanished along with the few living people who remembered it ever existed, if the Toepperweins hadn’t written it down. The cedar burners, with their blackened hands and faces and the women in their stove-pipe bonnets, looked down upon by the ‘proper’ citizens of Boerne as rubes & outliers, may have disappeared from the face of the earth and from our knowledge when the charcoal business dried up with the advent of electricity in the 1920s, but the Toepperweins made sure that culture in that place and time did not die with the last of them, and now a copy of their pamphlet sits in the library where people a hundred years from now can read about their lives on the banks of the Guadalupe. Their dances at Anhalt and the Christmas trees they hawked on the streets of San Antonio at Christmas time along with their loads of coal, door to door; that chinaberry and pecan made the best axe handles and that it was an eight-mile walk to church- ‘We used to have some happy times in Charcoal City- come of a Sunday we used to have picnics, dinners, big suppers, watermelon feasts, foot races, horse races, prayer meetings and singing sociables and dances. I can tell you, everyone was mighty welcome and friendly in Charcoal City-’ all those things would have died out of existence when the last family packed up their meager worldly goods and drove away from the Guadalupe, but the Toepperweins sought them out and talked to them, drew out their stories and wrote them down, and now the charcoal burners of the Hill Country are a palpable, tangible piece of history.
Looking through old numbers of the Boerne Star, I came across an issue from the seventies featuring an old postcard picture of a building on the site of the new Heath Library, with a caption asking if anyone recognized it and knew what it was. I don’t know if anyone wrote in to the paper about it, but I, in the twenty-first century, was instantly able to recognize the old building as St. Mary’s Sanitarium, a tuberculin hospital to which Dr. Herff sent his lung patients back in Boerne’s resort era. It had begun as a nursing home for priests suffering from the ‘white death’, but had then received patients from all walks of life as Dr. Herff recommended people from all over the country to come to Boerne for its healthful, life-saving mountain air. Next door to St. Mary’s was a Catholic School, Holy Angel’s Academy, run by sister nuns of those who ran the sanitarium, and both of those buildings are long gone now, and evidently forgotten by the 1970s- a mere fifty years after their demise. The site had only ever been a big wooded lot along Main Street during my recall, but I knew instantly what that old picture depicted because a guy named Garland Perry rescued St. Mary’s and Holy Angels from limbo and wrote about them, he fleshed out their stories and found people who remembered them, who’d graduated from Holy Angels Academy and knew the people who’d stayed at St. Mary’s Sanitarium. Garland Perry was another historian who saved the past and made it real by writing about it, who gave weight and sound and smell to our past. Here was a guy who wasn’t even from Boerne, who’d lived and worked in Houston until he retired here and then went on a search for the past and the people who could connect him to it. He interviewed Henry Fabra and Max Theis, the Herff twins and Rose Esser Kemp and wrote down their memories and stories, and so now we can feel and see and touch that past- Henry Fabra in his horse-drawn meat wagon, driving through the streets of town in the mornings calling ‘Meat! Fresh meat! Meat for sale!’ and the hausfraus coming out to their gates to buy their food for the day; the dances the Kronkoskys threw up on the hill for the young people of Boerne and the soldiers stationed at Camp Stanley, the beer they were still able to serve right through Prohibition and the sparkling lights everywhere that made the place look like fairyland; the first motorcar they had ever seen, scaring a group of picnicking schoolchildren off of a country road near Kendalia.
I remember thinking, back when I was in high school, I suppose, that all of the history had been written, that everything that happened anymore was well-documented and that anything I could add would already have been said. And today, we can be sure that all the big things will be remembered- no future generations will have to rely on unearthed shards of pottery and the crumbling pages of old diaries to piece together what life was like in 2014, or 1989, or 1976. But no history book will look and sound like your own history, and who will tell your grandchildren how it felt to you, in 1989, for the country to go to war for the first time since the horrific mess in Vietnam? And who but me can tell how I stood out on the hill where my family lived on Bicentennial Day in 1976 and hear the church bells ringing, altogether across the United States on her 200th birthday, carrying all the way on that hot, blue, cloudless day, from Boerne to our house in Pleasant Valley? When I was a child, all the old people had been born in the 19th century, and when I worked at the nursing home when I was in high school, most of the people who lived there had grown up in a very tiny, interrelated Boerne together, had been born around the same time and had gone to the school where the City Hall is, had dated each other and had gone to each other’s houses or had despised and avoided each other as much as was possible in a village the size of Boerne- who knows? I missed the opportunity to sit down with those old people and find out what their world had been like- my great-grandfather Hagy, who had built beautiful homes in Olmos Park and Alamo Heights, who had seen come to pass radio and television and cars and airplanes and submarines and Elvis and hippies and world war, who had seen his own city grow from a small town to one of the biggest cities in the US- what would he have told me had I asked? I missed the opportunity to talk to the people in the nursing home who could have told me- what? Now that I’m pushing fifty, I know the importance of asking the people who lived it what their world was like, what history they can tell me and that I can write down and save from limbo, from dying with them. I can tell you this- I was born on the same day in history that the Munsters first appeared on television; I was born on the day that the Warren Commission delivered its infamous report on the assassination of President Kennedy to President Johnson. My mother was feeling labor pains and drove my father and that beloved great-grandmother of mine, Mamo, out of their minds by refusing to leave for the hospital until Ozzie & Harriet was over. I was born just months after the Beatles first hit America like a ton of bricks, the same year as the Cibolo flooded and washed away Riverside Grocery, fifty years ago. Some day I expect my own kids to finally become interested, and then I’ll repeat to them all the things they’ve been bored by before- watching TV footage from the Viet Nam war and being terrified by the ‘gorilla’ fighting, not knowing what was going on the other side of the world in the jungle but feeling sick every time it came on the news because I’d seen the picture of the crying man with the gun to his head. Glimpses of the Manson girls singing in the hallway of the courthouse. My mother crying in the kitchen when Martin Luther King was killed. Sitting with my aunt in a line so long you couldn’t see the end of it at the gas pump during the Arab oil embargo. The principal coming over the intercom in tenth grade announcing that President Reagan had been shot.
One line from facebook actually got me to thinking about the importance of telling our stories and writing down those of our elders- it was just a comment from someone from Boerne, and I can’t remember exactly how it went and can’t find it now, but it was something about an old house where the author used to hang out, and ‘those cinnamon toothpicks on the front porch summer days.’ That stayed with me- those cinnamon toothpicks on the front porch summer days. So many memories that would never make the textbooks- the smell of those cinnamon toothpicks on the schoolbus on the chilly morning ride to school, and the boy who sold them, a born businessman in his overalls and boots, with a pair of tweezers tied to the bottle with which to neatly extract a cinnamon stick. Summer days and the smell of baking caliche, the taste of water from the hose and the sticker burrs in the tough soles of your bare, dirty little feet, another summer day and those same bare feet skipping along the scorching concrete at the side of the old Boerne pool, the strong smell of bleach and the taste of cold Dr. Pepper from a can, the news on the transistor radio that Elvis had died and the mothers sitting in the shade, softly weeping. A snowy day in high school, driving through the unfamiliar white landscape of your own neighborhood with your boyfriend; another winter day wrapping your baby’s feet in bread wrappers to go play outside in the thirteen inch snowfall- as foreign and exotic in Boerne as the Northern Lights in Bolivar, Missouri. The history books can tell you that Ronald Reagan was president of the US that snowy day in 1985, but only I can tell you how we slid down unpaved East Highland Street on a cardboard box and how my baby daughter’s laughter rang like a bell in the otherworldly frozen still of the day. That’s the real history- it’s in the lives of the people who lived it, it’s in the stories that only we know, in the sounds and the flavors and the smells of those memories. Go talk to your elders and let them tell you their stories, and write them down. Don’t let your opportunities slip away- make history right now, today.


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