I attended the funeral of my best friend’s father last week. It was bittersweet for family and friends: relief that he was no longer suffering from cancer, but grief that he was no longer alive to be a son, brother, husband, father, or grandfather.
At the visitation and the memorial service, I saw a number of people whom I had not seen in years. Some looked and sounded almost the same; others looked and sounded very different. It was surreal at times. In my mind, their images and their relationships with me were fixed at a certain time of my life, yet we’ve all experienced the many twists and turns of life in the intervening years. None of us are the same people we were twelve, fifteen, twenty years ago.
The experience made me think of a piece I wrote in July 2008, shortly after our move back to Tennessee. Here it is in slightly edited form:
Moving to Lebanon, Tennessee, has been a homecoming of sorts for me. I lived in Lebanon while attending Cumberland University, my alma mater and new employer, from 1992-95. My return has prompted some introspection about several things.
Living in New England was a great adventure, but it was never my desire to make a permanent home there. Still, it was nice to be unique. I was the token southerner, the expert on rednecks, race relations, and racing. Never mind that I hate NASCAR and never knew an African American until I went to college. (I will cop to knowing something about rednecks.) Students loved my accent (or, at least, said they did to my face), and many people asked me interesting questions about the South. It became clear early on that most New Englanders knew as little about the South as most southerners knew about New England. But despite some close friendships that developed during my four years in the North, New Englanders were not my people.
After only a week back in the South, however, I am realizing that I am a stranger in my native land. I seem to fit in—I have the drawl, an awareness of the historical zeitgeist of the region, and the love of SEC football—but I have changed in the past four years. In New England, I taught at a university that was notoriously politically and socially liberal, which made me aware of how provincial living thirty years in the South had made my thinking. Going back to my alma mater in the position of professor instead of student has also caused some pondering. Several of my former professors will now be my colleagues. Will they remember the 19-year-old who showed up to classes in his first semester carrying a solidly built Samsonite briefcase? Will they remember me as the introvert who was fashion challenged? Will they take me seriously as a scholar? In many ways, it will probably be like trying to convince your parents that you are no longer a child who needs to be told what to do but an adult who is capable, maybe even more capable, of making major decisions.
Being back in Lebanon has also been interesting because everywhere I go, I expect to see someone I know. The town has about 20,000 residents, and, while in college, I seemed to encounter many of them while working at a local grocery store; in fact, one of the first people I talked to in town after moving back was a woman with whom I had worked. I remembered her as a very sweet teenage girl, but I wondered how she remembered me. I am sure that she has changed as much as I have in the last thirteen years, yet my image of her is from that time working together.
The encounter reminded me of something that my wife and I were talking about. I mentioned to her some people I used to know in college and how I probably wouldn’t be calling them to hang out when we moved to Tennessee. She reminded me that I was not the same person I was when I knew them and that maybe I needed to give them a chance to show that they had changed as well. The conversation made me very aware that memories of people from the past often become frozen in time and do not reflect the changes that we all undergo as we grow older.
As I reread the above, I realized that we often do the same thing when we speak about historical individuals. We attribute to them static characteristics and traits, when, in fact, they changed, as we all do, throughout their lives. Maybe the anecdote that was recorded for posterity was the only time that they acted that way because they were having a bad day. Maybe they grew out of that habit after a few years. Maybe they rued a momentous decision that affected their lives and the lives of those around them.
If they knew what historians said about them now, maybe they would regret that people remembered them at their worst.