When I was young, I saw the 1979 movie “Being There” starring Peter Sellers in his most provocative role as Chance, a simple, uneducated man who grew up and tended the garden on a great estate, and had never been off its grounds. Since the film was shot at the gorgeous Biltmore House in North Carolina, I felt a special kinship to the movie since I had been there a few years before.
As the movie opens, Chance the gardener’s life has irrevokably changed with the death of the estate owner who was his guardian. Chance cannot continue his existence of simply tending the garden and must make his way in a world he does not understand. Curiously, however, everyone he meets “writes” onto Chance as if he is a blank slate seeing in him what they want to see. A misunderstanding of his name leads to him becoming known as Chauncey Gardner who inadvertently achieves fame by appearing on television as a man of simple wisdom who eventually becomes the chief adviser to the President of the United States.
Gardening is all he knows, and gardening is all he really talks about. Yet everyone he meets and the people who watch him on TV, see great imagery, depth, and import in his simple phrases about roots, growth, the seasons, and “liking to watch” TV.
I couldn’t help but muse about “Being There” and Chauncey Gardner after the night I woke up at 4:00 a.m., on November 9, 2016. The day before had been Election Day and I had followed the returns with mounting dread. At about 1:30, I went to sleep hoping against hope that my country would not elect a reality TV star as President. A scant few hours later I was awakened as blood poured down my throat from a burst blood vessel in my nose.
And it wouldn’t stop bleeding. As I held a wet Kleenex to my face, I texted my friend who (thank heaven!) is a wonderful ear, nose, and throat specialist here in Knoxville. I explained my situation and asked if she could work me into her morning schedule. Of course there was no immediate answer at 4:30 a.m., but finally the nose stopped bleeding. I checked my iPad and learned that, yes, our Electoral College system of counting votes by the population of each state–rather than by democratically counting each citizen’s vote–had given the election to our own 2016 version of Chauncey Gardener.
I tried to doze a little on that early morning of November 9. I was awakened by a text on my phone from my ear, nose, and throat doctor saying I could come to her office straight away. As I drove my nose started bleeding again. Between driving and bleeding, bleeding and driving, I was lucky to make it to her office where she did surgery to close the artery in my left sinus. She explained that when we get older, our sinus cavities are not so resilient and blowing our nose with too much force can cause a rupture and open an artery. Live and learn. But too often we do not learn–certainly we do not learn from history.
My maternal grandfather’s family, the Henderlights, came from Germany in the 1700s. During World War II, my grandfather’s brother Ed was captured by the Germans as a prisoner of war. Mama says that because Ed Henderlight’s ancestors came from Germany, they saw his German last name and let him go. My Irish grandmother’s brother, my Uncle Charlie Cunningham, also fought in World War II.
Through archival research, I have found that my paternal grandmother’s line of Montgomerys came originally from Normandy (what is now France), then to England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The ancestor who came to the U.S., was William Montgomery, a Quaker, who emigrated from either Ireland or Edinburgh, Scotland, to Philadelphia, then to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1772. He is buried in New Garden, which became a Quaker college, called Guilford College, a few years after his death.
During this country’s Civil War, my great, great-grandfather Lindsey Montgomery was a private in the Carroll County Militia Infantry, Company G of the 54th Virginia Regiment of the Confederate Army. The 1870 U.S. census states that Lindsey was a farmer, the value of his “personal estate” was $150, and that no one in the family could read or write except his son Thomas, age 8.
The 1880 census notes that Lindsey and his wife Mary lived in a household of nine family members including Lindsey’s mother and their youngest child, my great-grandfather John Montgomery who was 9 years old.
According to her widow’s pension application from the state of Virginia in 1902, Mary noted that her husband died of “fever” on November 19, 1895, near Baker Mines in Carroll County, Virginia. Since her husband died after the war, Mary only received $25 a year instead of the $40 received by Virginia widows whose husbands who had died during the war. At that time Union widows received three times the amount that Virginia was able to give its widows.
My husband Kurt and I watched the 2012 documentary film “Death and the Civil War” by Ric Burns (documentarian Ken Burns’s brother) about the sheer numbers of dead during the Civil War and the crisis it created for the living: locating the bodies, identifying the bodies, transporting the bodies, burying the bodies, and so on.
The documentary was based on historian [Catherine] Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Besides being a leading American historian, Drew Gilpin Faust is also President of Harvard University.
Faust and Ric Burns tell many stories about the sheer numbers of dead to be dealt with during the Civil War, a war that most people of the time felt would last only a few months. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, alone the numbers were unmanageable, unthinkable, and beyond all reason. As Mental Floss reported in their 2012 article on the documentary:
The battle of Gettysburg incurred death on a scale that we can hardly imagine. With an estimated 51,000 casualties and 7,786 dead, the scale of carnage overwhelmed the town of Gettysburg, which itself only had 24,000 residents. There was simply no way the people there could properly care for the wounded and dead. As the film’s narrator explains: ‘In three days, Union and Confederate forces had suffered almost as many casualties as in all previous American wars combined.’ Add to that, 3,000 dead horses lay dead on the battlefield. The task of burying the dead fell to Union soldiers and the townspeople, who faced the unimaginably grim work of burying these people in the summer heat.
Most Union soldiers died on Southern battlefields far from home. And, of course, Southern soldiers could die in Virginia, but if they were from West Tennessee or Mississippi or Louisiana, they were still very far from their loved ones back home.
Grand designs and machinations of powerful men fed the grievances and fear that led the two major parts of the U.S. to reach the cacophony level that led to civil war: South from North, North from South. Each side had lost the ability to hear or see each other. But most of the soldiers on both sides who lived and, sometimes died, through disease and cannon fire were hardly aware of the bigger consequences of the war or how historians would make sense of it.
Loved ones, who were told their sons, husbands, fathers, lovers, brothers, or friends were dead, had no body to prove it. No body to bury. No grave to visit. It is estimated that 40 percent of the dead were never identified, and 66 percent of African-Americans who fought for the Union were never identified. Two out of every three died from disease instead of in battle. Between 1865 and 1868, the Union received over 68,162 requests at its Missing Soldiers Office. And the United States government worked diligently and spent a great deal of money to locate and bring its Union dead home. However, the national government that fought a war to bring its erring brothers back into the Union fold had no interest in finding Confederate dead, recovering their bodies, or bringing them home to their loved ones.
Most Southern states were virtually bankrupt after the war–and the Union was in no mood to help them. The work-a-day people of the South suffered dearly for the decisions made by the powerful men who thought it was a good idea to secede from the Union. The women of the Confederate states worked together to raise money to find the bodies of their loved ones and bury them.
Curiously in May 1958–nearly 100 years after the Civil War–the United States enacted a law giving Confederate veterans and their widows the same pensions given veterans of other wars. My online research indicates that two Confederate veterans and a few thousand widows were still alive to receive the pension.
It took 100 years for the hatred between the warring states to diminish enough for Americans in the North to agree that Americans in the South, mostly widows, could have a tiny bit of money–$60 or $70 a year–to improve their lot. Does it really take a hundred years for such hatred to abate? Yes, and sometimes the hatred continues after thousands of years as we see with the tribal forces fighting each other in the Middle East and Africa.
In addition to watching the “lived” values of my parents, Daddy taught me that movies can provide a profound education about people who lived before me and the importance of searching the metaphorical seashore of their experiences for nuggets of hard-earned truth about how I should live my life.
Perhaps the movie that touched me the most in this regard is the 1996 masterpiece, The English Patient, adapted from a historical novel of the same name by the British author Michael Ondaatje. This Best Picture, Oscar-award-winning movie has everything going for it: a stellar cast, intelligent writing, luminous cinematography, and what a memorable story.
With a name so like my own and with a similarly sensitive termperament, Hana is the character that most captures my heart. In her Oscar-winning role, French actress Juliette Binoche plays Hana, a French-Canadian nurse who loses everything in World War II: her fiance, her best friend, and her willingness to live. Hana decides she will leave the medical caravan as they drive through Italy with their badly injured soldiers. Instead she will care for their most precarious patient, a hideously burned man with little memory, only a “bit of lung”, and bandages over a badly disfigured face. Because he speaks perfectly clipped British English, he is assumed to be British.
She cares for her patient (beautifully played by British actor Ralph Fiennes) in an abandoned monastery. As she eases his suffering, Hana finds comfort in the simple acts of everyday life: reading aloud, sharing a juicy plum, playing the piano in the bombed-out library, and listening to her patient’s hallucinatory memories triggered by the regular doses of morphine used to alleviate the pain of his burns. They both know he won’t live long, but he encourages her in the love she finds with Kip, a young Sikh British Army soldier, whose job is defusing unexploded mines left behind by the retreating enemy troops.
Kip takes Hana to an abandoned church at night and lifts her into the air with a rope and pulley so she can view–by lantern light–the marvelous frescoes left there by master painters long ago. Sharing the beauty of the natural world, as well as the creativity of art with Kip by the flickering lantern light, inspires Hana to risk living–and loving again–in the middle of chaos, destruction, hatred, and mindless death.
Hana and her patient discover his history as his memory slowly returns. He is not what his speech pattern implies–not British, but a Hungarian cartographer (schooled in England) named László de Almásy (an actual historical figure). When the war broke out, he and his expedition were mapping Egypt and its archaelogical treasures for the British Royal Geographical Society. He had fallen in love with an unhappily married woman, Katharine Clifton, whose husband Geoffrey tried to kill them all when he discovered their affair. His chosen method was suicide (and murder) by plane: deliberately crashing his plane into Almásy’s campsite in the middle of the desert–with Katharine in the second seat of his biplane. Geoffrey successfully kills himself, but misses Almásy and badly injures Katharine. Walking three days in the desert, Almásy tries desperately to find help to save Katharine who cannot walk.
As you can well imagine, Almásy’s quest to save Katharine’s life is not successful. Despite his English accent, when he reaches the nearest British outpost he is mistaken for a German spy. When he finally flies back in a borrowed plane to the desert cave where he left Katharine, she is dead.
In his grief he carries her dead body to the plane and is flying with her over the desert when he is shot down. His badly burned body is found by Bedouins, the nomadic people of Africa, who tend his wounds and bring him back to a military hospital. They do not care whether he is British or German or Hungarian or American; he is a man who needs help and they give it.
Although Almásy was not able to save the woman he loved, his friendship with Hana saves her. In deep emotional and physical pain, he asks Hana to end his suffering with an overdose of morphine. With tears flowing down her face, she gently complies. Sometimes a healer must put her patient’s needs above her own misgivings and end suffering in a different way.
A military truck passes near the monastery, and in the movie’s final scene Hana hops in the back. With her hair blowing, her face toward the wind, eyes open, she looks ahead and smiles. Hana has left the ghosts behind her, or perhaps she has found a way to take the ghosts along, and through her love for them, they, and she, live on.
The French word for “story” is historie. Curiously, the German word for “story” is also historie. In order to go forward in our own strange, chaotic, frightening time of the 21st Century, it would be comforting to imagine that we could learn from our ancestors’ stories and from the stories that inspire us in books and movies. That we could learn from our own history, our country’s history, and our world’s history.
If not, we can at least take up the charge as Hana did–face to the wind and to the sun–and find the courage to live passionately by learning from the simple acts of everyday life, sharing the beauty of the natural world and the creativity and wonder of art, drinking deeply of the lifeforce of friendship, and taking our ghosts along with us.
Anna ~~ 09/22/2017