This week has been blessed with an offering of fascinating, moving speakers. All of whom reminded the listeners of the gifts and sacrifices these individuals had given a nation.
Monday evening the Elijah Iles House Volunteer Appreciation Dinner wrapped up with a performance by Ms. Kathryn Harris as Harriet Tubman. Ms. Harris was enthralling, and educational, as she gave a overview of Harriet Tubman's life. I had known that Mrs. Tubman was a remarkable woman, but I had not realized to what extent. It was hard to conceive of several 3 months to 6 month journeys, mostly on foot, as she led her "passengers" from Maryland to either Pennsylvania or Canada. Or that she was the only woman to lead a Union ambush, and free several hundred slaves. Or that she went on to work for the Federal government, and later ran a "old folks home" - all without the ability to read or write. And that she lived till her 90's.
Then, last night, I attended the Sangamon County Historical Society's (SCHS) Pre-Veteran Day Salute, which was held out at U of I - Springfield's Brooken Auditorium.
I came in a little late, but was able to hear most of Mr. Mark DePue, Director of the Oral History program at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, interview of Mr. Kenneth "Tuck" Belton (WWII veteran), and all of Mr. Bernie Goulet's (Korean War) interview.
As I listened to these two men it was obvious that the experiences in these two wars had not dimmed in their memories. For the listeners it was like hearing of a dire movie come to life - hard to imagine anyone living through such circumstances.
How could you not be moved as you listened to these two men?
Such as when Mr. Belton, who fought with the Resistance in Holland, recounted having to stand by and watch 10 Dutch men being gunned down on the street. The only thing keeping him from reacting was the touch of a young woman's hand - warning him to hold back.
To imagine what it would be like to have to portray a deaf/mute, and refrain from any response when the enemy tested you with a loud sound.
Or when he told how he had to hide in a patch of woods in January. He said that a furry dog came by - that he wished that dog could be with him now - as the dog saved his life. He bundled the dog into his coat, and the two slept beneath those trees, in the snow, that night.
It would have to been a hard heart not to feel the grief as Mr. Goulet told of the company cooks crying when they realized their men would not come back.
Or when the officer who was Mr. Goulet's mentor, was gunned down only a few feet ahead of him.
Later there was a little reception, and I took the opportunity to thank Mr. Belton for his service. I wish I could have spoken with Mr. Goulet too, but he was busy.
And it was hard not to cry - not just at their stories - but at the fact I knew that these men were soon to be woven into the tapestry of history. Bright threads that is true, but soon all we would have is their stories.
For me the Christmas holidays have always been a time of contemplation, but in the recent two years this has become more so. I have come to truly understand why so many old holiday songs and stories recommend that we think back to times and friends long gone.
Yet, in many years, and during many events, I have never quite felt the sense that not only myself, but many others, were being woven into the vast weave of local history. And truly felt a kinship for so many others that have lived in Springfield - from the pioneers that remembered The Great Snow to the citizens who remembered the tornadoes of a few years back.
For any who live any length of time in a place you begin to accumulate a store of memories and stories about the people and events of that place. And in one's life you also accumulate a store of momentous national and international events.
The sad event that made me stop and feel that touch of weaving was the shocking death of Springfield's Mayor Timothy Davlin. The news of his death literally stopped a town in shock.
It's not that I ever knew the gentleman, but he seemed a fixture of Springfield. And he was a man of vision for the town - with a fine grasp of the importance of Springfield's history.
True his death, while shocking, is only one event out of many in Springfield's history, and is tiny in comparison to the events of the globe. Yet, it is all those tiny events that make up the tapestry we call "History."
And for me that news made me stop and catch a glimpse of the needle and thread.
Later this made me wonder why this news, more than so many more shattering events, gave me that sense. And for a while I thought back - realizing that my memories of the tornado and the blizzards, and so many other events, were clouded by the fact that my whole focus had been on care giving for my mother during those events. That this time I could be aware of the event clearly, with no distractions.
And maybe because the event again reminded me that while the holidays are meant to celebrate those things bright - love, family, togetherness, and renewal - that the cold and dark of winter reminds us that all things end. A friend once said that all the lights that decorate the homes and trees seemed to him to borne of a very primal desire to chase back the night and the spirits.
Which could well be true.
But I will not end this musing on a sad note, but with a story that seems to me to sum up the complex nature of Christmas.
This is a Wisconsin story I found in Mary Beth Crain's Haunted Christmas.
The tale takes place in the later days of the 19th century, with a middle-aged bachelor, named Aaron, returning home from a Christmas Eve service. On his way through the snow he thought he heard soft footsteps following him, but when he looked he saw no one. He was not troubled as he knew sound carried, and was oft distorted, on clear winter's nights.
When he reached home he was ready for another routine evening. Long since he had given up decorating for the holiday - not because he disliked Christmas - there just didn't seem to be a reason. And the idea depressed him a little - a dull, but well-known, ache he could ignore.
Though, on these nights, the house seemed too large and too quiet.
He took off his coat, and headed for his study, where he knew his housekeeper would have set out a cold meal for him before she left.
His eyes widened in surprise and delight upon entering his study, for there sat his chlldhood friend, Charles.
"Charles!" Aaron cried out, "When did you get back from Washington?! What brought you back?! Is your family all right?"
"Oh, yes," Charles answered, standing, and coming over to grasp his friend's hand. "Everyone's fine. I just got in a mind to come see my old home town, and more important, my old friend."
Aaron noted that the food that his housekeeper had left for him was untouched, and he said, "You should have helped yourself...but wait a minute and I'll get us set up." He hurried to the kitchen and fixed up another plate of food, plus stopped to get a bottle of his best brandy.
Now neither of these men were normally given to being talkative, but that night passed in good conversation - covering everything from memories of shared boyhood exploits to their work. At last, though, Aaron noted that the hearth had burnt down, and when he looked at the clock on the mantel it showed that dawn would be coming soon.
He laughed at how they had carried on, and led his friend up to his own bedroom, since it was already made up. Then, despite Charles's protests, he went to make up a room for himself.
It wasn't till he heard his housekeeper calling that breakfast was ready that he stirred, and after dressing, went to knock on Charles's door.
When he received no answer he figured that Charles was already in the kitchen.
As he made his way down he stopped and stared at his parlor - for there was a brightly decorated tree.
"Charles!" he called out laughing and went onto the kitchen, "Quite a sur...."
But it was Aaron that was surprised, because it was only his housekeeper who greeted him in the kitchen, and she was looking bemused.
"Did you help Mr. Drew with the tree?" he asked.
"Sir?" his housekeeper said, "No one has come down, and I've been cooking breakfast this morning."
Aaron didn't wait for further discussion, but ran upstairs to his bedroom. A room that had not been disturbed - the bed as nicely made as it usually was. He ran back to the parlor, and after closely studying the tree he found a note tied to it.
The note read, "Enjoy. Next year you will be sharing one with your wife."
"Sir," his housekeeper said, "A letter was delivered for you yesterday - after you left." She held out the sealed letter. He noted the return address, and took it to his study to read, and there he found that Charles's plate still contained food, and his glass was still full of brandy. Food and brandy he would have sworn his friend consumed.
And then Aaron learned from Charles' children that his childhood friend had died in Washington several weeks ago.
In the year that came and went Aaron was to remember that wonderous night - for the following Christmas he did indeed share the decorating of a tree with his beloved wife.
To all who read this - May all of you have good holidays. Holidays to be shared in light and love, with friends and kin near. And good memories of all who have passed before. May all of you have a bright New Year - filled with Health, Love, and Prosperity!
I am a Springfield, IL based storyteller with a fascination for how folklore travels, and for history.