Remembering the past is critical to our survival and to our identity as persons and as a people.
This was brought home to me while reading the book, Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. He tells the story of the first Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth, the community they developed and the Indian wars that followed. Eight or nine months after their arrival on the rocky shores of New England, on July 2, 1621, Edwin Winslow and Stephen Hopkins left the settlement to visit Massasoit, the chief of the Pokanoket Indians, for the first time. They were guided by an English-speaking Indian named Squanto. Soon they were joined by a dozen Indians, men, women, and children who were returning after gathering lobsters in Plymouth Harbor.
Philbrick says, “As they conversed with their new companions, the Englishmen learned that to walk across the land in southern New England was to travel in time. All along this narrow, hard-packed trail were circular foot-deep holes in the ground that had been dug where any remarkable act had occurred. It was each person’s responsibility to maintain the holes and to inform fellow travelers of what had once happened at that particular place so that many things of great antiquity are fresh in memory. Winslow and Hopkins began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past.” You might compare those memory holes to the historic markers placed along our highways.
Philbrick continues: “They (Winslow and Hopkins) also began to appreciate why these memory holes were more important than ever before to the Native inhabitants of the region. Everywhere they went, they were stunned by the emptiness and desolation of the place. Thousands have lived there, Winslow wrote, which died in a great plague not long since . . . [As many as 3,000 Indians populated the area earlier when a plague wiped them out]. With so many dead, the Pokanokets’ connection to the past was hanging by a thread – a connection that the memory holes and the stories they inspired helped to maintain.
We don’t have a memory hole, but we have a table and a ritual that each of us is responsible to maintain. Our table may be in a church building or at home in front of a computer during these times of a pandemic. Wherever it is we tell the stories, we eat the bread, and we drink from the cup, and we remember that remarkable person and his sacrifice that changed our lives.