I finished (perhaps) my part of our church history project today: editing all the chapters together. In the process, I got to follow the history of one place and group of people from 1830 to 2013.
So often our views of history are based on large swathes of history, like the movement of people along the Silk Road or the Golden Age of Piracy or the changes in the position of women which have left us doing nearly all the housework, raising children alone, and also working outside the home at 73% of men’s income. All these things, and all the other examples I thought of and decided not to list, and all the ones you thought of, too, are Big History.
But Small History, the little scandals and triumphs and differences of opinion of a bunch of people who moved into and out of, were born into and died in, loved and cared about one place — that’s nice stuff, too. You can think of the individual people, especially if you lived through some parts of it as I did, and know some of the people.
I hope the book gets completed. People have been working on it for a long time, and there are big plans.
At the top, that’s my great-grandmother Eugenie, an Alsatian woman who chose French citizenship when it was offered. The tiny picture below is also her, if the people who posted it at Ancestry.com are to be believed. I only have pictures of her in the prime of her life, a dedicated missionary and the mother of five. In these pictures and in her diaries from that time, she has a warmth and a passionate intelligence that make me wish I had met her. She was clearly a loving wife and mother, an intrepid traveler, and a thoughtful Christian.
Later, her husband drowned and left her with five children and no money. Eventually, she ended up living with one of those children, all of whom I think Made Good, in New Jersey of all places. Letters from her kids at the time hint delicately that she was not a happy woman at that point. The little photo above, which is as large as Google can make it, seems to confirm that.
Who knows why — or indeed if — that is so. As I read the recent parts of the history, I found myself sometimes thinking that the writer hadn’t known about this episode or that, or perhaps that I hadn’t known about some discussion that was going on. That may be why we usually write Big History. As with any large corpus of data, the very size allows you to see larger patterns with greater accuracy, without being swayed by any one event or conversation.
This may also be why we can look back on times in our own lives with 20-20 hindsight. It is perhaps not so much that we know the outcome as that we have more data to work with and can therefore see the whole thing with greater accuracy.