Guest Column

Homeward Bound

The longer I live, the closer I come to my beginnings, and I even find myself, in my 75th year, passing beyond my beginnings, to the Scots ancestors I can name and, before them, all I can't name but who gave me legs made for kilts, a need for aloneness, and a love of gray, rainy days.

My back is pressed against the millennium and I find I am living backwards through this century, hurtling past the Vietnam War and the Korean War to my war, World War II, the one in which I fought and thought I would leave behind in Europe, back beyond to the Great Depression, then to the 1920s and even before my birth to the myths and memories I inherited from my parents and from my grandmother, who was born in the middle of the 19th century and who really raised me.

The last time I saw Grandma I was shipping overseas and she thought I was off to fight Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, as her Uncle Donald had, the uncle for whom her son and grandson were named.

In combat in Belgium I once dug a foxhole and found the buttons and bones of a soldier from an earlier war and wondered if he could have been a relative in the Black Watch of Scotland.

When I was young I thought I could escape my family, even my own past. Home from the war, surprised to be alive, I returned to Durham and Main Street where I had marched with an Army ASTP unit in 1943. Now that past is intertwined with my present, and I write in my head about the war as I walk the streets where I delivered sheets and shirts from the Durham Laundry more than 50 years ago. I pass a house and realize I know where the second floor laundry hamper is, the shelf where the sheets are to be laid just so.

I have grown comfortable with an uncomfortable life of retrospection, reliving what I tried to forget about my childhood—the shaving strap whippings and worse—trying to fit myself into the skins of my unhappy parents and to understand their behavior. I thought I would understand when I grew up, but the older I became, the more critical I became. Now I hope for the compassion that my mother, at least, could not give me.

I look beyond them to the grandmother I knew and to her life before I knew her when she was taken off a Hebrides island at 18 and sent to London to serve as a companion to the wife of an absentee landlord in Jack the Ripper's day. At 23, she was cast back home as a spinster, given to a widower in an arranged marriage and sent to America. Three times she crossed the North Atlantic, eventually finding herself a widow with five children in an alien land. No wonder she was so tough, so stern.

My memory visits her uncles, long dead before I was born, one for whom I was named who did fight Napoleon at Waterloo, taking a ball in the leg, the other brother picking up his flag and advancing against the enemy.

Living backwards, I feel the perverse independence that made my family reject the easy Calvinist liberalism of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland for a tougher, more judgmental Baptist belief.

I travel backwards, on the magic carpet of reading and imagination, to before the ethnic cleansing of the Highland Clearances when the English drove the Scots from their land and the clansmen were replaced by sheep; back to the great forests of Scotland, back to a lone ancestor in a small, handcrafted fishing boat bobbing on the ocean under a dark winter sky out of sight of land.

Living in this past I have never known until now, I find my stubborn independence, my need for solitude satisfied now by morning hours alone at my desk telling stories the way grandmother told me the stories that she had heard around peat fires as a girl, the stories my ancestors told to explain the world far before this millennium.

As I read the history of a thousand years ago and then a thousand years before that, as I daydream and explore what is remembered by my genes, I find a comradeship with those who lived before and share with them my mourning at the loss of a child, my joy at the finding of this wife, the fear I felt before battle, the delight of holding grandchildren high above my head and the happy sounds they make before words are known.

Donald M. Murray, Class of 1948 and professor emeritus of English, writes the "Over 60" column for The Boston Globe.

blog comments powered by Disqus