Friday, November 19, 2004

What I Learned @ the VHS

Last week I finally got a chance to spend a day at the Virginia Historical Society. My sister and I are doing research on our family and associated Virginia history for a project we have been working on for years. She joined me there. We looked through many books, documents and rolls of microfilm, uncovered some interesting stuff.

But that was not what made the day so memorable. By chance Rhys Isaac was speaking at the VHS at noon that day. I had read his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740 –1790, years ago. Although a native South African currently living in Australia, Professor Isaac is considered one of the most eminent historians of early Virginia. So I slipped downstairs to listen.

After I had taken a seat a woman walked by and asked if the seat next to me was taken. As it was not, I invited her to join me. We chatted a bit and then Prof. Isaac was introduced. His topic was “Colonial Dissenters and the Evolution of Freedom of Religion.” He also plugged his new Landon Carter book. He was very thoughtful, entertaining, and the subject matter most topical because of our recent election. The lady beside me and I traded whispered comments about what he was saying from time to time. After he retired to the museum shop to sign books the lady and I chatted further.

I commented that he managed not to mention any women in his entire talk. She thought a bit, agreed, but looked at me somewhat puzzled. I further stated that having grown up in small town Virginia I had learned early on that not much happened in our churches not approved in advance by the churchwomen. They were the power behind the pulpit. This would have been especially likely in early “dissenter” churches, I opined. I further expounded that this was just another example of the written record historians work from often under representing the role of women. I very self-consciously mentioned this because of the influence of Linda Sturtz, my friend and history professor at Beloit College, where my wife recently worked. Linda’s book, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia, actually takes Professor Isaac somewhat to task in this regard.

I thought it appropriate to mention my southern roots and go into some detail about southern churches because I noticed she had a British accent and probably did not have the good fortune to be born a Virginian. But she nonetheless did seem to have more than a passing knowledge of Virginia history. Since I had mentioned I was doing research upstairs and that Prof. Isaac speaking this day was a happy coincidence she asked about the nature of my research. I then told her a bit about Pamunkey Neck, what became King William County, and my family.

As we walked together toward the museum shop I gestured toward the shortening line of patrons getting their books signed and said that I probably should hurry to buy the Landon Carter book before Prof. Isaac left. She said that she was sure he would like that. Getting an odd feeling - about an hour too late - I asked if she had read the book. She said yes, and it was quite good. In closing I introduced myself and she did the same. Of course I had been talking with Mrs. Isaac.

Recovering a bit I told her that "Transformation" was one of the first books I had read when I started research of my family's history and that her husband was one of my heroes. I also mentioned that I had visited South Africa once and hoped to see Australia one day. We parted. I bought the book and joined the line. Prof. Isaac and I chatted pleasantly and very briefly as he signed my copy; I had no intention of getting in any further over my head.

So what I learned last Thursday had less to do with family or history than common sense. Introductions should be managed at the beginning of a conversation, not at the end.

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