On that blazing bright day in early August, I stood with my grandson inside a museum housing relics from what some still call “The War of Northern Aggression.” Some call it that in the South, anyway, which is where we had come on this family vacation.
He and I had paused to let our eyes adjust to the dim interior, I holding the flower we had just bought outside, a palmetto “rose,” skillfully woven out of the fronds of that tree. It was then that the elderly lady who took our money began engaging us in conversation.
“Are you back in school yet?” she asked the 11-year-old.
“Not yet, “ he smiled, and I instantly wondered if I should have counseled him to say “No ma’am,” and “No sir,” according to the etiquette practiced in this region.
But if she noticed the absence of this social nicety, she showed no sign of it.
“When I was a child, school never started until after Labor Day,” she said. “Our children are already back now.
“Where are you from?” she then asked, and we named our northern state.
Did she stiffen just a little? I wasn’t sure but I think she may have. Did I stiffen a little when my gaze fell on the bumper sticker available for sale? “Heritage, Not Hate” read its text, under an image of the Confederate flag.
Let me extend myself a little more and see if we can find some common ground, I thought. “It’s a beautiful building,” I said, indicating the space inside this 1841 structure.
“Yes,” she said. “Confederate soldiers came here by the hundreds to enlist in 1861.”
“For sure the past is all around us,” I remarked.
“My people fought for the Confederacy,” she replied.
“Oh! Did they all come home?” I asked, mindful of the fact that more American lives were lost in this war than in all our other wars combined.
“Yes they did!” she said, with emphasis. “Oh dear,” I thought. Was this an insensitive question, coming as it did from a northerner?
I searched my memory for anything I knew about Civil War battles and came up with only one:
“I think of Gettysburg alone,” I said. “All that loss of life!”
I went on. “I think of the accounts – even the old bits of film – of Union and Confederate veterans meeting 50 years later, and even 75 years later, a few of them. I think of the way they greeted one another so warmly, shaking hands in the very spot where so many fell.”
She paused a moment.
“I couldn’t do that,” she then said.
“It’s hard for people, I know!” I said. “My mother used to tell me how, in the years just after the Second World War, many Americans still harbored hostility toward the Japanese.”
“Many still do,” she said, and closed her mouth firmly.
Then it was my turn to go silent, because that has not been my experience at all. The 11-year-old and I thanked her for our tickets and moved in to the exhibit hall.
My sister in Florida tells me that way back, when a hurricane would come, an indigenous person of our southern coastal region would lash himself to a palmetto tree until it had passed. They knew that this short, deeply-rooted plant would never topple.
Maybe we are all “rooted, in this way,” all inclined to maintain the view of the world as it was first communicated to us. I just wish we could start feeing less “dug in” somehow. I wish we could be like those old soldiers and meet across our differences, our hands extended in fellowship.
Now watch these Civil War Veterans on film, from the documentary Echoes of the Blue & Gray