Monday, September 01, 2014

Milton's Dress

Milton's dress

So here’s a brush with history and a reason to ponder the nature of the historic. In museum jargon, we call the story behind an artifact its provenance. On my desk at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Rosthern lies a small child’s dress, once white, now somewhat yellowed. The provenance card reads: “BABY DRESS – worn by Milton Siemens in 1916. He drowned on his 21st birthday. Accession #80-475.” (Small children wore dresses whether male or female in those days; it probably made diaper-care easier.)

       I guess I’ve always known the story of Milton Siemens; his brother and sister still attend my church. His tragic death was somewhat of a legend in my growing-up years and probably coloured my parents’ attitude toward youth excursions to water.

      The dress is very light—gauzy, almost. I held it in my hands for a while imagining Milton’s mother slipping it over his head on a Sunday morning in 1917 or so, preparing to go to church, possibly imagining the delighted chucks under the chin for her handsome little man. And I visualized the heartbreak 20 years later when she got the tragic news that her son had suddenly been torn from her.

     Provenance. I’m surrounded by stories.

      It’s possible that among the threads of this tiny garment, Milton Siemens’ DNA could still be found with modern technology—but I doubt it.

Also on my desk is a fine-china teacup. The manufacturer’s label is in Russian; the provenance note reads: “CUP from Russia – 1923. Helen Dyck family.” There are photographs on these premises of Mennonite migrants from Russia arriving in Rosthern in 1923. Somewhere in their luggage is this cup that was too delightful to be left behind. 
There’s a can of ground, roasted wheat on my desk as well; if I put a teaspoon of it in this cup and poured boiling water over it and drank it, how close could I come to the sensation of a mid morning pripz break in 1920 somewhere along the Dniepr River?

I’ve entered dozens of photographs into our new databases, faded black and whites of places in someone’s memory. This morning a friend showed me numerous photographs of his family history, especially of Osterwick, the village in Russian Ukraine through which his roots can be traced. Long overrun by progress, that place still must exist, some of the buildings erected by the Mennonites who once lived there must still be in use, I would guess. So is it still the same place?

For many people, places invoke both nostalgia and story like nothing else can. A year ago, my brother retired from the farm on which I grew up and the “Epp Place” finally went into the hands of strangers. A story ends—not without a few pangs of regret—and another begins. ‘Twas ever thus.

So, is it true as the philosophers say, “you can’t go home again?” Is there anything of us in the artifacts and places we leave behind? Is something lost if places and objects of the past are forgotten, their records abandoned?

Obviously, my view is that our lives are about more than just today or I wouldn’t be here in the Mennonite Heritage Museum on a stat holiday entering data for—and placing carefully into temporary storage—a small boy’s dress and a chipped Russian teacup.

Some would say there are landfills for that.

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