Saturday, May 23, 2009

We Behold As In a Magic Mirror: Introduction

They sit side by side clothed in Sunday best, with stiff blued collars, buttoned-down sack coats, and hound’s tooth trousers. They sit in armchairs like little men. The older brother is resolute, sitting up straight with steady gaze. The other, younger by four years, sits with eyes cast slightly downward and to his right. He looks distracted, even sad, as if inward looking on some unfixed point, unable--or unwilling--to stare ahead for that long exposure. Perhaps some itinerant daguerreian portraitist, plying his trade among the small towns and hinterlands of Maine, made the two boys’ likeness. The photograph may have set up shop in the front parlor of their home on Sumner Hill.
Just up the hill from the home where those boys grew up, and where that likeness may have been made, is a country cemetery. Two gravestones stand side-by-side, now slightly askew, among the fallen leaves of late autumn. It is November and the limbs of the trees are bare, starkly etched against the gray sky. Two small American flags placed in metal stanchions, their red, white, and blue startling in that otherwise monotone landscape, flutter in the cold wind blowing across the hill. A gunshot is heard off in the woods, and then another; some deer hunter abroad on that raw, cloudy day. A dog barks, then silence. I stand still gazing at those stones and read the inscriptions:
son of
Hiram &
Sophronia Heald
May 17, 1864
of wounds received in 
the battle of the Wilder-
ness, Va. May 14, 1864;
Æt. 21
A member of Co. C.
20th Me. Reg’t

Sleep on brave soldier!
a life sacrificed, but a Country saved.

And beside that marble stone, the other, identical except the inscription:

son of
Hiram &
Sophronia Heald.
died at the U.S. General
Hospital, Annapolis, Md. 
Oct. 10, 1862
Æt. 23 yrs. 6 m’s.
A member of Co. D. .
29th Mass. Reg.

He was an exemplary and promising
young man and beloved by all who
knew him. He went forth patriotically to
sustain the Constitution and Flag of his
Country, cherishing each as his own life;
and he gave his life for them.

In the twenty-first century, it seems we have lost this living connection with our ancestors. And, yet, many of us desire to be woven again into the fabric of the lives of those who have gone before. In his historical address on the occasion of Sumner’s bicentennial in 1898, the Rev. Lucien M. Robinson spoke these words:

Gazing backward along the track of past ages of the world’s history, we note with interest the changes wrought by the passage of time. We behold as in a magic mirror the mighty men of bygone times. We enter the tent of the general, talk with the philosopher, and listen to the poet. But amid that throng are also our own ancestors, and how eagerly do we scan the multitude to discern their forms, and how gladly would we question them as Dante or Virgil did of old, about their life while here in the flesh… The very instinct of our nature binds us to the past and links our fates with those of our forefathers. We are all children of the ages, inheritors of the past.

We are all children of the ages and long to feel connected, to be a part of a family; one small yet, we hope, precious part of a greater, all embracing whole. Because who we are is bound up in that greater whole--that “beloved community” as the Quaker writer Thomas Kelly once called it--of all those who have gone before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come. Christians call that body of the faithful the “communion of saints."

Gazing even more intently into that “magic mirror,” we may see that it is a vast room, a room without walls expanding infinitely outward, and there is no end to the people in it. Expanding ever outward, it embraces all of creation. And every life, in some sense, is extraordinary. Every life is touched by the eternal.
Franklin and James died tragically, at a young age, twenty-one and twenty-three years old respectively. The sheer number of the Civil War dead threatened Americans’ ability to grieve and to mourn, to honor and to hold dear those who had died. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust has suggested that the Civil War, not World War I, may have been the first modern war and as such “inaugurated the loss of innocence, the threat of meaninglessness that characterize modern life.” 

Having no record of how their parents, or their brothers and sisters, responded to Franklin and James’ deaths, we must ourselves imagine it. And we must ourselves, by remembering them, continually make their lives, and their deaths, purposeful. It is for us even now to honor the dead and, we trust, by so doing, to make ourselves truly alive.

Excerpted from We Behold As In a Magic Mirror: Two Heald Brothers From Sumner, Maine

(Photo: Benjamin Franklin Heald 1843-1864; James Hershey Heald 1839-1862; Daguerreotype, Unknown Artist, circa 1852?)

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