What kind of evidence do previous generations leave to show that they lived? I sometimes find myself thinking of them as characters in a book. Pictures add some life, but still portray them as one-dimensional beings. Did they really live in the full sense of the word? Did they have experiences we may still have today or share the same feelings? We cannot brush against them in time, but may find a connection in place or through writing. When we walk the halls of an old home or school (though the building has changed hands many times since) we can sometimes imagine them walking in the same hall. Our life somehow intersects with theirs. If we read the teasing post card sent to a younger brother (delivered decades ago, yet not so different from the text we just sent our own little brother) we start to see what made their life meaningful.
The other week at a yardsale, I found a 1939 yearbook from Lynchburg College. I loved finding a piece of local history, but was even more thrilled that the yearbook was filled with personal notes from friends and faculty beautifully written in the margins. Dorothy Dancy’s name was on the inside cover. By the time I got to the back cover and had pieced together the little notes to her, as well as her official mentions in the sophomore class and various clubs, I felt that I could envision her in more than one dimension. She was from North Carolina, but had moved to Lynchburg. She was a thespian and had starred in The Importance of Being Earnest that year. Most people referred to her as “cute” or “little”. She had worked at the library and many teased her about how she had made them all be quiet. One girl joked about the time they had ended up with two cute senior boys in the gym. Yes, she underlined “cute”, not me. Others gave fatherly advice, some offered clichés.
In doing a little more research online, I found out whom she later married (to my disappointment, he was not another student mentioned in the yearbook). In the index of students, it listed the street addresses of the local students. I know the family that now lives in Dorothy’s house. Five or six other students lived within just a few blocks of me. I am trying to imagine the people in the yearbook walking around my neighborhood. They probably passed in front of my house regularly and maybe even had been in it. I wonder if they rode to school together, or went fishing on the James River, or went dancing down town. I wonder how many of them died in WWII not long after those yearbook photos were taken. I wonder if there is any student from that yearbook still alive, maybe still close by in the city of their alma mater.
At the same yardsale, I also found a scrapbook a mother had made for her son (Proctor Hoskins) in the late 30s and 40s. School supplies lists, handwriting practice, and coloring pages were stuffed in the book. A record of birthday gifts and a small account of his 4th birthday (at a local address) gave me a picture of life back then. Childish drawings showed fighter planes taking out planes emblazoned with the Nazi swastika. In doing some research online, I found out that the boy’s father had been serving in the Navy most of the time the scrapbook was being put together.
I also have one other local scrapbook that I got as a Christmas present several years ago. These two new finds made me pull it out again. It was put together by a teacher at Madison Heights High School who was also the secretary for the Virginia Education Association. The book includes personal mementos, a church membership card, WWII era newspaper clippings, local political slogans, and funny hand-sketched cartoons. It also included many items about her students. She included several book reports which had been beautifully illustrated by the same boy. It turns out that the boy became a professional artist and even wrote a book about art (which I, of course, had to get). Many play bills and programs were also included.
I will probably never be able to fully satisfy my curiosity about these people. However, the wondering makes them more real to me, which I hope honors their memory. It is also a reminder that I will probably not be remembered many generations after my death. I hope my possessions and words that do survive after me reflect the kind of life I want to have. Live life with purpose and know it is only a spiritual legacy that lasts forever.
Photos are my own.