Category Archives: holidays

To Be a Public Servant

To Be a Public Servant    —by Jinny Batterson

In the many memorial tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, one of the phrases most often used goes something like, “He exemplified a life of public service.”  Though “Bush 41” generally downplayed his accomplishments, he served with distinction in the U.S. military during World War II, and as a young man later succeeded in a variety of academic settings, sports competitions and business enterprises. He was part of the American political landscape for over thirty years in both elective and appointive offices—member of Congress, special envoy to China, head of the CIA, Vice President, and President. 

Perhaps as we pay George H.W. Bush deserved tribute after a long, distinguished life, we may take a minute to ponder the more general question of what makes a public servant.  Does a particular office confer it? Is there a curriculum or course one can take to learn public service?  Is it ingrained, a character trait one is born with?

My guess is that, like many aspects of life, being disposed toward public service is part nature, part nurture. The senior President Bush was born into privileged circumstances, but was also schooled to honor his responsibilities to the larger community. If we sometimes under-appreciated his efforts while President to create a “kinder, gentler America,” his intention to generate such a shift in emphasis was evident, and he used his office and the tools at his disposal to try to nurture public spiritedness. 

Most of the public servants I have known have been neither holders of high political office nor members of the military. While not often in the public eye, not necessarily in physical danger, they’ve nonetheless been necessary to the flourishing of our lives. They’ve been data entry clerks, or customer service representatives, librarians, researchers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers—each fulfilling a task to improve the way the public sphere works.

Let’s honor President Bush’s legacy by paying him tribute, and also be renewing our commitment to public service and public servants at all levels. Some opportunities for public service are described on the website of the Points of Light Foundation—https://beone.pointsoflight.org/. Others abound in different areas of the internet. Find one, and become a public servant, whatever your other title(s) may be.

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

China Memoir–Launched and Languishing

China Memoir, Launched and Languishing   —by Jinny Batterson

Memoir front cover

In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.

After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.    

As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative. 

If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan.  Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.   

III

III     —by Jinny Batterson

A veteran of dramas both global and
intimate, he was sired by a socialist
who alternated families while shepherding
a mid-20th century experiment in cooperative living.
As soon as he could, he escaped to serve time
in the Navy. Afterwards reticent about his military
experiences, he let drop only something vague
about intelligence and early computers.

Out of the service, he worked for a time
as a banker, then shed most
trappings of conventional life and
headed to hippiedom’s heyday:
1960’s San Francisco.
.

He studied acting, acted for years as a catalyst
for companies and organizations wanting to make
better use of technology. Along the way, he jettisoned nearly
all of his name, becoming just III. His only personal
concession to technology: a telephone with a number that
spelled out “TANTRUM” plus a basic answering maching.

I knew him later in life, a graying pony-tailed
“jiggler” at our small annual conference,
noted for his deep-throated laugh, his facilitation skills,
a deep aversion to being photographed.
In multiple conference sessions, he coached us:
“Boundary is everything.”
He honored the boundaries of us non-smokers by
limiting his cigarette consumption to the outdoors.

He allowed just one physical likeness: a basic pen-and-ink
sketch a friend drew, strictly for promotional purposes.
Despite III’s pared-down lifestyle, he became a packrat
of conference clothing, saving all twenty-five garments from
his years of participation. After outliving his father by almost
a generation, he died of a stroke. I mourned,
first from afar, later at a Pacific beachside
service his partner organized, bringing along
hand-me-downs from III’s conference sweatshirt collection.

Our advance crew filled a fire pit on a chill misty afternoon.
Once the fire blazed hot, we wrote or sketched some
of our favorite III memories. Shivering in our sweatshirts,
we let the fire devour the papers, arcing their residue skyward.
We told III stories to the young, lamely imitated III’s signature guffaw.

Not until I returned from the beach
did I notice a small burn mark on this year’s
sweatshirt sleeve–the size and shape of a cigarette ember.

III memento

Happy Interdependence Day!

Happy Interdependence Day!    —by Jinny Batterson

For a good many years now, I’ve bracketed an insertion into my July 4 Independence Day greetings to friends in the American expatriate community:

“Happy In(ter)dependence Day!” I extol them.  It has seemed to me increasingly evident that in an era of global communication and commerce, celebrating “independence” needs a counterweight. We have become more and more dependent on one another across all sorts of boundaries. So I was pleased to find that others more widely known than I am have come up with similar themes. Perhaps the most widely publicized is a September 12 holiday proposed in the years just following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  In 2003, a group met to create a day to celebrate our global interconnectedness, and settled on September 12, the day after the terrorist assault, as a day for an annual celebration. According to Parag Khanna, one of its founders:

     “For the event’s organizers (the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland), Interdependence Day is intended to be crucially different from 4 July. Where Americans alone celebrate the latter, the idea of interdependence unites all peoples across national boundaries in a common human destiny. At the same time, there is an element of deep continuity: for Americans in particular will have to struggle as hard to realize the promise of interdependence as they did for independence.”  (For a fuller explanation, please check out the following link: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/americas-interdependence-day.) 

     I’ve just returned from a cross-country U.S. trip, benefiting from collaborative practices among airline personnel, colleagues, other passengers, and airport employees to adjust schedules and seating to get as many of us as practical back to our homes on the U.S. Atlantic coast in advance of a strong hurricane. My guess is that our skills at interdependence will soon get a good bit of practice, courtesy of Florence and/or other storms later in the season. My best wishes to all for adequate shelter from the storm—Happy Interdependence Day!     

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled    —by Jinny Batterson

At this year’s Labor Day, I’m likely to be engaged in intense mental labor with friends and former colleagues, trying to make some sense of the somewhat shaky state of civil society in the United States of America in 2018. As the holiday approaches, my sense is that our uneasiness arises partly from confusion about being entitled, endowed, or enabled. Below are some as-yet-unfinished thoughts about how the three might be interrelated:  

A decade or so ago, a leader at an educational institution I value complained that students there had “a sense of entitlement.”  I wasn’t sure what he meant, and I wasn’t in a position to either validate or refuse his claim. Just now I looked up the definition of the phrase, and this is what a search engine produced:

“If someone has a sense of entitlement, that means the person believes he deserves certain privileges — and he’s arrogant about it. The term “culture of entitlement” suggests that many people now have highly unreasonable expectations about what they are entitled to.”  (from www.vocabulary.com)  

         I suppose the term “entitlement” derives from the honorific and/or hereditary titles that certain members of European nobility were given. Over time, such entitlement does not need to have anything to do with the person’s character or accomplishments. It cannot be revoked. 

The most famous phrase about “endowed” comes from one of our founding documents, the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

A more recent application of “endowment” is the endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion), the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. Someone who has been “endowed” with say, a house, or a job, may feel that this endowment is permanent and react strongly when there is a perceived threat to his/her ownership. Institutions can also be “endowed” materially—we periodically hear figures about the size of Harvard’s endowment, not  often paying attention to the variability of such funds over time. In a different sense, we may talk of Dolly Parton’s “endowment,” likewise a not-entirely-permanent trait.  

What appeals to me more than either of the previous terms is “enabled.” To me, this term infers more active engagement by the person who’s enabled.  Some stories of enablement based on events at Special Olympics competitions and other sporting events give examples of teamwork, in which someone who may fall behind in the traditional sense is enabled by teammates to finish his/her race, enabling all to succeed together. The term is also used for the process of retraining someone who has lost previously available skills due to illness, accident, or other impediment.  

Reverting to endowment, though, I quote from the lead article of the constitution of my adoptive state of North Carolina. Borrowing from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the framers of this post-Civil-War constitution added a fourth endowment: the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.  

  May we all find ways to better balance entitlement, endowment, enablement as we move forward.    

 

  

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley   —by Jinny Batterson

Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe.  Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.

While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France. 

According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.

Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted. 

Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age.  The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time. 

The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.

As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy.  May we use all these tools well.     

A modern roadside ad in a town full of prehistory

Aubrac’s Fields of Wild Jonquils

Aubrac’s Flelds of Wild Jonquils    —by Jinny Batterson

In late May, as I was walking across a sparsely settled upland French plateau along a stretch of one pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a delicious fragrance—delicate and sweet and lingering. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Despite, or perhaps because of, a fair amount of rainy weather, the meadows and woodlands abounded in spring blooms, many of them unfamiliar to me.  That evening at the small guest house where we had booked a room, I noticed a vase of flowers with the same delicate fragrance. I asked the proprietress what these small white blooms were called. “Jonquils des poètes,” she told me in French.

I’m not sure what the English equivalent is. The internet pictures I’ve found of “Poet’s jonquils” look similar, but not identical to the flowers I remember from my trip. A few days further into my journey, I arrived midmorning at the tiny town of Aubrac, after spending a couple of hours crossing several miles of minimally fenced upland pastures dotted with jonquils des poètes, some being contentedly munched by local cattle. The weather was cool and misty.

At the near edge of town was a forbidding-looking Romanesque structure. A guide was explaining to a group of tourists in a language I could not understand the wonders and historic significance of this church. According to the French signpost I could partly understand, this former Benedictine monastery was at least a thousand years old and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier structure.

Most of the other buildings along the road and edging the upland pastures were hotels, hostels, or small inns. I noticed one small cafe/guest house that seemed to be open. Several of us stopped and picked out an outdoor table under a protective awning. A warm drink seemed a good idea. It took a while for anyone to come to take our orders—after a bit, an elegant young woman showed up, apologizing somewhat for the delay, explaining that she and the other town residents were all still stressed out from the previous weekend’s “transhumance” festival that annually draws thousands to the area. I’d seen pictures and postcards of this celebration of the opening of common upland pastures for the area’s prized cattle. A nearby town square was still littered with floral garlands and signs from the festival. (Find a set of commercial pictures of the 2018 festival here: http://hotel-lion-or.com/aveyron/fete-transhumance-aubrac/

When our hostess finally brought our coffees and hot chocolates, she stopped to take a smoke break and we began to ask her questions. All of us were curious about the town, whose year-round population has dwindled markedly from a peak over a century ago. Until the late 19th century, our hostess told us, Aubrac had been a traditional farming village, but the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of earning an adequate living caused many farm families to leave the area and seek better lives in French cities. Lots of the adults became small shopkeepers or restaurateurs in and around Paris. However, they retained cottages in Aubrac and continued to bring their families for summer vacations in their former hometown. At about the same time, some area doctors discovered that the clean, cool air in the Aubrac highlands helped tubercular patients. Several tuberculosis sanatoria were opened over the next decades—some have since become hotels or hostels. Most of the local economy now revolves around tourism, compressed into the three or four months of warmer weather. The local cattle, a special hardy breed, supply photo opportunities as well as milk or meat. 

Our hostess explained between puffs that she was even busier than she’d expected post-festival: her five rooms were all rented for the week—a group of businessmen from New York City had come to explore the option of buying quantities of jonquils des poètes to use in a new upscale perfume fragrance. She said that this particular type of jonquil only grew in the wild and had not yet been successfully cultivated.  Some of each year’s blooms already were collected by locals to supply French perfumeries in the southern city of Grasse, a noted perfume center.

I never got to meet the businessmen, who most probably were jet-lagged and perhaps also technology-deprived in this isolated small town. My current exposure to a former-NYC-businessman-turned-politician has temporarily soured me on the ethics and business practices of some.  My hope is that if a deal is struck, the good people of Aubrac will be fairly compensated for their labor and their wild-growing fragrant white blossoms.  I also hope that enough flowers will be left in the fields so that cattle, pilgrims, and residents can continue to enjoy their essence in their native habitat.    

A Lot About Aligot

A Lot About Aligot   —by Jinny Batterson

In late spring, I went with my husband Jim to central France for an extended trip. The first part consisted of a scaled-back pilgrimage walk along part of the “Camino Saint Jacques de Compostela.” Jim had contracted with an outfitter to haul our luggage and to reserve private rooms at fairly evenly spaced B&B’s or small inns, about ten miles apart, while we hiked one branch of a pilgrimage route for two weeks.

The particular section we chose to walk went from the small city of Le Puy en Velay, site of a well-known shrine to a black Madonna, to Conques, a tiny village nestled in a steep valley, home to a set of relics of an early French Christian martyr, Sainte Foy. Though much more comfortable than a longer pilgrimage walk Jim had done earlier with young friends, this trek had enough variables and unknowns in trail conditions and weather so it was still something of an adventure. We were lucky with both trail and weather, getting lost only briefly, and thoroughly drenched just once.

Much of our walk was through an upland plateau region generally known as the Massif Central, including the most sparsely populated French department, Lozere, with more cows than people. After we left Le Puy, we were mainly in countryside, dotted here and there with small villages, ruins of old castles, historic churches and shrines, crosses at many trail junctions, plus lots and lots of cows. Early in the trip, several communal suppers with other pilgrims gave us exposure to a local dairy specialty dish, aligot, one with an ancient pedigree.

Variations of a local legend say that in the sixth century, three area bishops were convened by the local ruler to help settle a dispute. As negotiations dragged on, the bishops got hungry. Each took out some special ingredients he’d brought with him and gave them to a local cook to turn into a meal. The bishop of St. Flour had brought lots of potatoes (or, in an earlier version of the story, bread). The bishop of Rodez had brought cheese and milk and butter, while the bishop of Mende had brought salt and garlic.

The cook decided to keep things simple. He first cooked the potatoes, then added the other ingredients to the mix, stirring briskly to blend everything together. The bishops enjoyed the dish so much that they all vied to take any leftovers home, but the remains of the mix were so thoroughly stuck to the bottom of the pot that the dish remained local to the upland plateau where they’d met.

The several iterations of aligot we experienced came with a great deal of ceremony—the cook in charge would appear with a large cauldron which was placed on an equally imposing trivet near the common dining area. The cook would then proceed to lift a big wooden spoon out of the pot to show how smooth and flexible the mixture was, then transfer huge glops of the stuff into serving bowls for us hungry pilgrims. To me, aligot seemed a sort of cross between garlic mashed potatoes and cheese fondue. It congealed quickly as it cooled. Though quite nourishing and warming on chill, rainy evenings, it could sit heavy on the stomach. It digested better if washed down with local wine or beer (or maybe even something stronger).

Once we completed our walk, descending from the plateau into milder weather in other regions, we sometimes had the option of choosing aligot as an accompaniment to our meal, but we usually passed. Aligot, as the bishops surmised, needs a wild, chill setting to reach its full potential.   

     

         

Statues and Time Immemorial

Statues and Time Immemorial   —by Jinny Batterson

Growing up in our long-generation family, I sometimes would hear an older relative talk about an attitude, custom, or monument that had been around since time immemorial.  I figured the expression meant a very long time ago; rarely did I wonder what attitude, custom, or monument was under discussion. As we approach this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve thought a good bit more about what we memorialize, what we don’t, and how an aspect of human life continues to be remembered, even into “time immemorial.”

The past year or two has seen a lot of controversy about prominent memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians.  Most of these memorials were erected well after the end of the American civil war, not as a tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers, whose graves generally were elsewhere. Rather, the statues were strategically placed to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and to buttress attitudes and institutions of white supremacy. 

During the decades when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy, I got frequent exposure to several equestrian Confederate monuments along a mile or so stretch of expensive vintage homes on tree-lined Monument Avenue: J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson sat astride their mounts at prominent intersections. Near where I currently live, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is embroiled in controversy about the removal or contextualization of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial statue erected in a highly visible location on that campus in 1913, funded jointly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni.

Back when Stuart, Lee, Jackson, and Silent Sam were installed on their pedestals, I hadn’t been born yet, but I was around when Richmond debated placing a statue of African-American tennis hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe along Monument a bit further west. After substantial controversy about the erection and placement of the Ashe statue, Richmond’s City Council eventually approved a Monument Avenue location. Sited at the corner of Roseneath Road, the statue was unveiled in 1996 on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday. Ashe has no horse, but is standing on his own two feet, holding aloft a tennis racket in one hand and a set of books in the other. A group of four children gesture eagerly toward him. Ashe had given permission for the casting of his likeness shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from a blood-transfusion-acquired AIDS infection.

During recent decades, statues of several former dictatorial leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein, have been toppled or destroyed as their regimes or dominance came to an end. Will any of these leaders be remembered centuries or millennia from now? Will they instead share a fate outlined in Shelley’s romantic poem about a fallen monument to Ozymandias, “king of kings”?:   

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

If, eons from now, earthlings continue to create and honor statues, my bets for meaningful reminders are not on the cruel or despotic, but rather on heroes of sportsmanship and learning like Arthur Ashe.