Friday, 2 January 2015

A Brief Time of History

A body of fifteenth century Nahuatl poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of the Mexican city of Texcoco (1429-1472) reiterates one particular theme over and over, specifically that we live upon the surface of the earth and may only be here for a short while; that our lives are neither so great nor important as we may believe.

We will pass away. I, Nezahualcoyotl, say, enjoy! Do we really live on earth? Ohuaya, ohuaya.

Not forever on earth, only a brief time here! Even jades fracture; even gold ruptures, even quetzal plumes tear: Not forever on earth: only a brief time here! Ohuaya, ohuaya.

These words have held some resonance for me ever since I first read them back in the 1990s, and since I came here, to live in Texas, I've really begun to appreciate the sentiment.

Growing up in England, I have lived in dwellings more or less identical to those in which my grandparents lived but for the minor details of a telephone line and inside toilet. I have visited the hotel in Dunchurch in which one of my grandfathers worked as a boy. One side of my family traces some of its ancestry to Scotland by way of Liverpool and Northern Ireland, whilst the other side - from what I gather - ranged across the Midlands between Norfolk and Shropshire, wherever work was available. All of this occurred within a radius of a few hundred miles from where I grew up. The United Kingdom is an island, the very centre of which is found in the village of Meriden, a few miles from where my parents presently live. It doesn't really matter where you go in England, because wherever you stand, you will almost certainly be aware of its history on some level, history running thousands of years deep with you in the middle. This was at least my experience, and whilst such a richly layered inheritance may provide a strong sense of identity - or whatever else it is one may be seeking - it can seem equally daunting, even oppressive.

America, or specifically Texas, is very different. Internet dwelling morons may pass snide commentary about the United States having a sum total of two-hundred or so years of history, which of course ignores the entirely legitimate history of those who first made their way here, hunting, growing crops, building complex architecture and social systems of several thousand years antiquity; and I've read enough to appreciate that there was never anything backward, primitive, underdeveloped, or in any way uncivilised about the people who yielded this land to European invaders, of which I am but the latest. I try to keep this in mind as it seems the least I can do, but their history is closed to me. Regardless of my fine intentions, it is not something I can directly experience.

So I now experience geographical history through my wife's family, and the difference to that to which I am accustomed is disconcerting. I have spent some time scanning old baking recipes written out by my wife's grandmother, and they speak of a very different world to the one around me, something which seems suspiciously akin to the old west I recall from western films watched as a child, something much further removed than the distance from here to the house without telephone line or indoor toilet. History is much closer to the surface here. We are standing upon it, and it seems a very thin layer.

A week or so back, Bess and I went to the funeral of Hilda Huth. She lived to 103 and the funeral was attended by many of Bess's paternal relatives, her uncles Carl and Johnny and others. This was the Germanic familial branch, people who came here amongst the great many other Germans to settled this part of Texas in the 1830s or thereabouts. My wife has relatives who still regularly pull on the lederhosen to celebrate Oktoberfest right here in the United States, relatives for whom German remains their native tongue regardless of having been born here.

I never met Hilda, but it only seemed right that we should make the effort and attend the service. She was born in 1911, and for a few minutes I suffered the unfortunate impression that the preacher had composed his address primarily through consultation of Wikipedia; but once he was done with a somewhat dry catalogue of those changes which Hilda Huth had witnessed during her lifetime, his discourse became more personal, more interesting, and more obviously the testimony of one who had known the woman. Hilda had been likeable, very generous, and had apparently killed rattlesnakes on a weekly basis, finding them something of a nuisance when they got into the house or garage. By the end of the address, I felt as though I had known her. This was turning out to be an unusually moving experience, something going beyond the formal requirements of showing one's face.

I wrote and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Bill Edney, my landlord, knowing full well it meant little to the sea of relatives who had barely known the man but nevertheless felt no particular shame in turning up at the first whiff of inheritance. The next funeral I attended was that of my grandfather, a farming man who had never shown the slightest interest in either the church or its belief system, but who had very much enjoyed a pint or two of an evening.

'Arthur was not a religious man,' the priest conceded, before going on to speculate about my grandfather enjoying a celestial pint in that pub in the sky with all the other dead people, underscoring this faintly insulting image by getting the names of my father and his various brothers and sisters mixed up.

Thankfully, Hilda Huth's send off was more dignified, and if not exactly happier, then at least a more appropriate response to her passing. After the service, Bess and I found Uncle Elton, Hilda's surviving brother whom we had spoken to at the viewing the previous evening. As we talked, he told us of his time in Korea during the war, witnessing the mass graves of Chinese troops. He had retained quite a strong German accent. I listened and found myself marvelling at how far all of this lay outside of my ordinary experience.

The next day we drove to the hospital out at Stone Oak. My wife's cousin had given birth to her second child. These were people from the other side of the family, Irish and English with a dash of Swede according to the DNA tests. These were yet more people I had never met, and although I knew roughly what to expect I had no idea how it would work out. I had spoken to both Jenni and Ellen, mother and grandmother respectively, by means of the usual social media channels, but it can be very difficult to get the real measure of a person by such means. I knew Ellen to be of what I suppose you might call traditional Texan stock, with strongly held religious convictions, and that Skip - Jenni's husband and father of the child - was some sort of punk rock preacher. Their first child was named Texas - or Tex for short - and the new baby would be christened Tennessee, thus fully acknowledging the home states of both parents. All I could say for sure was that these were not the sort of people one met growing up in rural England; but my wife told me they were good folks, and I trusted her, and she was right.

We found Jenni's room and settled down to the business of cooing over the baby and getting to know each other. Ellen and Jenni were, as promised, wonderful, warm, and witty, immediately putting me at my ease and inspiring painful pangs of regret at every occasion on which I had posted a facebook status message making use of the word fuck. Then I got to talking with Eli - Jenni's father - about our shared love of science-fiction, specifically the novels of Asimov and Frank Herbert. Being English, I still suspect I had a certain novelty value, but I tend to believe that good people are pretty much the same wherever you are or whatever language you may be speaking, and so I was made to feel very welcome; and it was a tremendous pleasure to meet this new branch of my extending family tree, one of which the existence I could not have anticipated just five years ago.

Talking to Uncle Elton, then to Jenni and Eli and Ellen, I was reminded of how we are all recent arrivals in one sense or another. Even if these people weren't themselves settlers, their recent past had touched upon wooden shacks built in the desert, single room schoolhouses on one of those dusty trails you hear so much about without ever quite realising that they actually exist. Our history only goes back so far before the tracks reverse across the Atlantic; and we exist only for a short time on the surface, as Nezahualcoyotl observed. For all the imperfect genesis of the United States of America - as so generously identified with such frequency by Europeans who can't tell the difference between a people and its government - this is why so many still come here and will continue to come here. This feels like a place which still has possibilities no matter how poor the odds may sometimes appear, because it isn't quite weighted down with a thousand years of redundant European history. Regrettably this means we have been free to make our own massive mistakes, and make them we have; but there at least remains the spirit of possibility in what little time we have upon the earth.

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