While cleaning out my closet the other day, I thought about Emily Dickinson. Emily had instructed her sister, Lavinia, to destroy all of her letters and manuscripts after her death. The ever-dutiful Lavinia carried out her slash and burn mission until she discovered more than 1,700 poems hidden away in Emilyâ€™s home. Duty to her dead sister went out the window. As a result, Emily, an intensely private person in life, has been vaulted to the stature of one of Americaâ€™s greatest poets.
Only a few of Emilyâ€™s poems were published during her lifetime, all anonymously, and not all with her consent. Now Dickinson scholars, and just about everyone whoâ€™s taken an American Lit class, dissect and analyze the personal lines Emily quietly penned.
Those of us who love poetry are thankful to Lavinia. But, what would Emily think about the fame and scrutiny showered on her most intimate thoughts?
I thought of Emily because of the box I found in my closet. It was filled with letters written to me by a guy from my past. Glancing at the envelopes carried me back to that long ago place and time. That relationship changed the direction of my life, or at least it set me on a path that brought me where I am today. That guy was important to me then, but not now.
Without reading a single letter, I threw the entire box in the trash. At one point I felt sentimental enough to hang onto those letters, but that sentiment has faded along with the memories. And, yes, I realize my great-great-granddaughter wonâ€™t have the chance to pore over those letters while trying to piece together my life 100 years from now.
Family historians tirelessly pursue paper trails our ancestors left behind; but, have you ever come across something, like Emilyâ€™s poems or my old love letters, that they probably didnâ€™t want you or anyone else to see or know?
You might say that anything left floating around after a person is dead is fair game. In fact, most of us would jump for joy if we found a stash of letters or a diary belonging to one of our ancestors. We truly value those pieces of ephemera that morph our ancestors into three dimensional people–people who loved, who cried, who experienced joy, and who endured loss.
It appears that my ancestors were as un-sentimental as I am because Iâ€™ve yet to find much in the way of personal documents. I have, though, found public records that have exposed the rough and raw edges of their lives.
Sometimes I feel a little like a peeping tom, especially when the sordid, sad, and just plain pathetic details emerge from the records. For example, imagine a crazed woman chasing a neighbor down the street with a butcher knife. That spectacle might make you chuckle and remind you of a B-grade slasher movie. That was my first thought as I read the testimony from the annoyed neighbor in the court records. But, it was no laughing matter for my anguished great-grandmother and her siblings when they petitioned the court to commit their troubled sister to a mental institution.
Recently, a cousin of mine discovered that his renowned family patriarch never bothered to divorce his first wife and neglected to marry his second wife even though they lived together for more than fifty years. The fact that the two women were aunt and niece makes the story even juicer. Yet, the pain, shame, and frustration that the second wife felt was clear in her application for a Civil War widowâ€™s pension. Only one of her many children knew the truth about their parentâ€™s un-wedded bliss, and the grieving widow wasnâ€™t anxious for the tale to be told.
What are the morals of these cautionary tales? In other words, does everything we discover about our ancestors need to be told? And, to whom do we tell it and how? Iâ€™m not sure if thereâ€™s a definitive answer. For me, I just want to remember that these were real people, and no matter how much dirt I dig up (and Iâ€™ll never stop digging), Iâ€™ll try to treat the dirty laundry and personal intimacies that I uncover with a measure of respect and discretion. Does that mean Iâ€™ll censor my research findings? I donâ€™t think so, but, in some cases, maybe I will.
Emily Dickinson, the recipient of massive unwanted personal exposure, wrote this poem about the tell-all concept:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant â€“
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truthâ€™s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind â€“
Will the ugly and unfortunate truths about our ancestors blind us? Not hardly, but it might make a few of them rattle uncomfortably in their graves. It all boils down to respect. How much respect do we owe our dead ancestors? You tell me, because I donâ€™t know the answer.
So, by destroying those letters did I deprive future generations from the thrill of the hunt into my life? Well, maybe they will come across this essay and use the clues here to start digging. I suspect they might be able to figure out who the guy was. But, they wonâ€™t know the intimate details of our relationship and I donâ€™t regret that. Unless–unless, he saved the letters I wrote him. . .
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