What have you forgotten that you wish you remembered?
Now, that’s a bit of a paradoxical question, isn’t it? Regardless, it’s one of the chief questions in the realm of historical preservation. One must be methodical in their understanding of what is worth remembering and how to remember it best.
While personal memories are a nightmare to arrange and preserve, collective memories are far more malleable, adding another layer to the difficulty. After all, isn’t it all too easy to forget, misremember or craft a memory entirely from nothing? Meanwhile, the collective historical record is largely an amalgamation of such personal memories — no matter how accurate — woven into one.
That is just a glimpse into the quite confusing philosophy of history: a field that often reads like a book of riddles where every answer is up for interpretation. Now, the reason for raising the topic of memory is that this past Saturday, Nov. 11, was Remembrance Day, a memorial dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the armed forces of countries across the world. Beginning in 1919, the tradition is nearing its centennial.
The day is primarily celebrated in — but not limited to — the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries, where an entire service is undertaken to preserve the memories of those killed in action. One of the most widespread practices is the use of the red poppy as a symbol of memorialization, and it can be seen all across the country. When studying the day and its roots, one will find that among the many diverse ways of practicing remembrance, there rests the recitation of the Kohima epitaph. Onto the monument are the engraved lines: “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”
This week in history, I’d like to look at the stories of those who gave their today for our tomorrow. While not always in the context of war, human progress is thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before us, and that makes them well worth remembering.
On Nov. 13, 1789, Benjamin Franklin gave up some part of his afternoon to pen the words, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” His letter was sent to the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy.
Perhaps Franklin’s most powerful words on the role of government and the form of the new nation are iconic, and well remembered. You may even see it on t-shirts or hats; however, what is often overlooked are the lines that follow: “My health continues as it has been for some time, except that I grow thinner and weaker, so that I cannot expect to hold out much longer.”
We often forget that the people in our history books lived real lives. I don’t mean to say that in a meaningless way, and I can hear the reaction: “Of course they lived lives, they’re humans!” However, it’s easy to be blinded by the name and facts on a page, or even the lucky photo in a textbook. All these inanimate records of someone’s life detract from the memories that were actually made, or the afternoons they actually spent writing away through poor health.
Perhaps it’s just a historian’s curiosity, but wouldn’t you like to shake hands with Napoleon, or meet with the legendary Japanese Emperor Jimmu — if he existed? The goal of historical preservation is to let you do this, to let you have a tangible grasp of history that is worth keeping as your own memory.
Another example of simple actions leading to powerful memories is when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid down the cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 1939.
The monument still remains a prominent symbol in the capital, with its dome and columns standing on the very stone that FDR put down. Inside that stone are several works written by Jefferson as well the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. While at the risk of being speculatory, somebody took the time out of their day to procure those documents, manufacture each and every stone and value the memory of Jefferson enough that 200 years after his death, the monument in his honor would be constructed.
History is a perpetual struggle to not forget those who came before us. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the present world around us, to walk by monuments and memorials, to see flowers and epitaphs and think nothing of them. Indeed, many of us would rather look at the text that just came in on our phone than look at some fading statue.
So, the question remains: What have you forgotten that you wish you remembered? Maybe by looking at the things around you and considering what makes a memory important can help lead the way to remembering what you’ve forgotten.
And that concludes this week in history! I hope this foray into historical philosophy wasn’t too mind-boggling. Keep an eye out for a special Thanksgiving issue coming out later this week that will return to the usual topics of the column.