Category Archives: history

Universal Questions

If popular culture is to be believed, all of our questions will ultimately be answered when we die.

I may be a bit impatient, but I’m not ready to find out if that’s true. I’m not even all that eager to have all my questions answered.

For the moment, I’m quite content to muddle along and think that wondering is the essence of living.

And wonder I do.

I know there are people who believe there is a master plan or that we just have to trust fate. But, in reality, there are more seven billion people on earth. If even one percent of those people are similar to me, they are constantly doing something random and unplanned that could change everything.

There are just no easy answers about how the universe works.

I first learned that during a summer in the late 1970’s.

My family was spending our summer vacation exploring Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.

Knowing my parents, the trip was well-planned. But even the best planning doesn’t take into account when little girls have to go to the bathroom.

My dad grumbled as he pulled our Oldsmobile 98 sedan into a parking spot at a visitors’ information center. As my mother and I headed to the women’s room, we paid little attention to the car with Michigan license place that nosed in next to us.

But my dad was paying attention.

Which is why he chose to watch a slide presentation about some geological event that had occurred at some point in history at our current location. I have no recollection of what the event was or when it occurred. All I know is that when my mom and I sought out my dad and brother, they were watching the presentation.

Or they were at least pretending to watch.

My dad was sitting in a metal folding chair wearing a foolish grin and pointing to the people in front of him.

Those people were my great-uncle Vilas and his new girlfriend, Betty.

Uncle Vilas, who was from the Detroit Michigan area, had visited us once in Oregon, but I really didn’t remember him. My parents didn’t even know he had a girlfriend, even though his wife had passed away years before.

All we knew was that, by some unbelievable coincidence, we had pulled into a visitors’ center in Montana at the exact same time.Uncle Vilas Bates

After the slide show ended, my mom tapped him on the shoulder. When he recognized her, he was initially shocked then broke into a wide grin. We spent time in that visitors’ center catching up. Then we went our separate ways.

That was the last time we saw my Uncle Vilas. He died a few years later in 1986, but my family always talked about the coincidence.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I was asked to judge a Boys and Girls Club state scholarship competition, and the national coordinator was from Adrian Michigan, where my mother was born. As we talked about the coincidence, I discovered that her parents had graduated from high school where and when my Uncle Vilas was principal.

My immediate reaction was “it’s a small world.” But sometimes, that’s just hard to believe,

michigan state bandI began to a do a little more family research and discovered that Uncle Vilas, like my son, played a brass instrument in a band. I also discovered that he, like I have, spent his career in service to others rather than in the business world.

I’m still not sure if that means anything more than he seems to pop into my life at the most unexpected moments.

But I’m willing to wait for the answer.

365 Reasons to Smile – Day 2

HoustonBatesfamilyI’ve always been interested in history, and my own family history is no exception. Because of that, I’m grateful to have been trusted with old family photos.

From the tintypes to stiff cardboard photos to fragile albums that are falling apart, I treasure those photos and the secrets they hold.Andrew and Hannah Bates

If nothing else, they remind me how lucky I am to be a woman who can choose to wear shorts, or pants or a skirt. They remind me of modern conveniences. And they remind me that I owe my life to all the people who have come before me.

I’m carrying their DNA and carrying on their legacy.

And that’s why old photographs always give me a reason to smile.

batesfamilyDay 2:  Old Photographs

Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street

The Bridge that Mrs. Henderson Built

Life speeds by as a changing tide of both small and big events that leaves in its wake only memories and eventual acceptance that nothing ever stays the same.

It also allows us to witness what others will someday study as history.

Mrs. Henderson and Trina 1979

Mrs. Henderson and Trina 1979

When I was young, I truly believed that the distance between me and any historical events was immense. Even though I loved studying history and was a voracious reader of biographies, I still thought that events simply happened, were over and everyone moved on.

And then I met Mrs. Henderson.

Born on February 5, 1885, Blanche Henderson was literally a pioneer. In 1904, at the age of 19, she graduated from the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) with a degree in pharmacy.

A few years later and on her own, she became a homesteader near Madras, Oregon. After she married fellow homesteader, Perry Henderson, she surprised herself by becoming a teacher.

As far as I know, she never had any of her own children, but she obviously loved kids. And she showed that love to me.

By the time I met her, she was a widow living alone in a small, two-bedroom house with minimal furniture. She was also well over 90 years old.

I have absolutely no recollection how our friendship began, although I’m guessing my mother, a journalist, introduced us.

Once those introductions were made, the unlikely relationship began. My mother would take me to visit Mrs. Henderson, and she would always serve me half-melted ice cream from a freezer that wasn’t keeping her food cold enough.

Neither of us cared.

What I did care about was listening to her stories, and what she cared about was sharing them.

As I thumbed through her coffee table book of Norman Rockwell prints, she told me about attending the 1905 World’s Fair in Portland. She even gave me a fan from it, a souvenir she’d kept all those years and that I still treasure.

She told me about witnessing a stagecoach robbery when she was a little girl. “I thought the men had dunce caps on their heads,” she said. “My father had to tell me they were holding their arms about their heads because they were being robbed.”

As Mrs. Henderson talked about her experiences and about how the world had changed, I began to recognize that, what was history to me, was simply life to her. And wanted me to be able to touch it too.

Mrs. Henderson died shortly after my family left Oregon, but the lesson she taught me has stayed with me: each person can be a bridge between the past and Mrs. Hendersonthe future.  But that only happens when we reach out to future generations and develop relationships with those whom we may think we have little in common.

Thanks to Mrs. Henderson, I’ve actually touched the historical 1800’s. If I stretch myself far enough, I might be able to reach the 2100’s too.

The Cost of My Opinion

The bloodiest single-day battle in American history occurred approximately 15 miles from my house. Nearly 23,000 soldiers died, were wounded or went missing after twelve hours of combat on September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War. The lingering echoes and impact of that battle are still felt more than 150 years later.

Both the Union and the Confederacy experienced devastating losses, and historians have never declared a true winner. But for me, my family won.  My great, great-grandfather James F. Bartlett (his biography and obituary are on this website right below Edward Bartlett’s) fought with the Massachusetts Infantry and survived. although he did sustain injuries on May 6, 1864, at the Battle of the Wilderness.

John Snyder gravestone Elmwood Cemetery

John Snyder gravestone Elmwood Cemetery

Ironically, my husband’s great, great-grandfather, John Snyder, died in June 1864 of wounds he sustained at the Battle of the Wilderness while fighting with the Stonewall Brigade.

Years ago, a local historian gave my husband and me a tour of John Snyder’s town and legacy. The tour ended at Elmwood Cemetery in Shepherdstown, where he is buried.

Newly married, I was actually interested in John Snyder until our volunteer tour guide pulled out a Confederate flag for my husband to place on his great, great-grandfather’s grave.

I loudly proclaimed that the Confederate flag had a very specific meaning, and my husband was not allowed to touch it. He tried to explain the flag was meant to honor his great, great grandfather, but I declared that the Confederate flag had nothing to do with honoring anyone. My husband placed the flag on the grave anyway.

Years later, I recognize my words were nothing but rude, and I had absolutely no right to be indignant.

I’ve never put my life on the line for my beliefs, and I have no right to judge those who did. All I can be is thankful.

The passage of time can change perspective and opinion about what is best and sometimes even what is moral, but it will never change what is honorable.

My children carry the blood of two honorable men who fought for what they believed during a time when our nation was completely divided. They also carry the last name of a man who lost his life fighting for what he thought would be a better life for them.

On Memorial Day, I have no right to argue about putting a Confederate flag on a soldier’s grave. Instead, I should simply be grateful that I have the freedom to make those arguments.

That freedom didn’t come without a price, and today we honor those who paid it.

When Tears Aren’t Enough

I’m rarely at a loss for words, yet I had nothing to say last week when my daughter asked me the simple question “why?”

Instead of answering, I stood silent as a single tear rolled down my cheek.

shoesWe were visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I’d been there previously, but my daughter hadn’t. She’s been studying the Holocaust in school,  so I thought she was mature enough to fully appreciate the exhibits and the message.

For the most part, she was, and we took our time going from floor to floor as the timeline of events leading up to the Holocaust unfolded. Then we got to the floor with evidence of the Holocaust and all its atrocities.

We stood inside one of the small, bare and unheated railroad cars that transported up to 100 people to the concentration camps. We stuck our heads into one of the actual bunks from Auschwitz. And we stood next to piles and piles of shoes that were taken from prisoners right before they were gassed.

But nothing affected my daughter more than a photograph of braids in a larger pile of hair the Nazis had collected. (They stuffed mattresses with the hair collected at concentration camps.)

Braids define my daughter. She almost always wears her long hair in one or two braids, and this month, she taught herself to french braid. That made the photo of the braids very personal.braid

The photo and her reaction struck me too. They reminded me of how incredibly precious my daughter is, and how incredibly precious all the daughters that died in the Holocaust were.

And because of that, I just couldn’t answer her question “why?”

How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people need to point fingers and find someone to blame for difficult times? She lives in a world where that happens on a daily basis. People find it simpler to blame a person or a group of people than they to understand that situations are complicated and are rarely the fault of one person or group.

How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people will simply accept what they read, see or hear when that message justifies their own belief system? She lives in a world where people spew “facts” that are completely inaccurate just because they were presented as the truth.

How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people place their material possessions and personal bank accounts above the health and safety of others? She lives in a world in which people complain that their tax dollars are being used to help those in need.

How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people are comforted by the belief that there is only one legitimate faith. She lives in a world were so-called Christians condemn other religions while claiming ownership of a morality.

How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that people are comfortable condemning those with different political beliefs and world views? She lives in a world when people use nasty words to define anyone who thinks differently than they do.

And how can explain to an 11 year-old girl that people who loved each other were killed simply for who they loved? She lives in a world where people still claim that some love is an abomination and sinful.

Any explanation I could provide as to why the Holocaust occurred would simply reflect a world in which she lives. And I didn’t want to scare her.

Instead, I scared myself. And no matter how many tears I cry about the Holocaust, I know they aren’t enough to stop the hate that still exists in the world.