I was in the presence of a master, looking at a painting by Vincent van Gogh – Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity). In the painting an elderly man appears to be weeping, holding his head in his hands. Dressed entirely in blue, he is seated in front of a fireplace with the flames on the verge of extinguishing the last of the wood.
It’s a powerful image, especially to someone in my age bracket. I’m approaching seven decades on this planet. I have known great loss and survived tragedy. If one lives long enough,
bad will happen, as well as good.
I comprehend the reality of the dying fire, the near onset of Eternity. This painting screams it. And my first impression was to walk away experiencing intense anxiety about the future.
But what if? What if the old man takes his face out of his hands and reaches for another log? What if he gets up out of that chair? Van Gogh leaves his story incomplete, his reader holding options…the workings of a master.
I remember those first days and weeks after my husband died. I could have worn the title “An Older Woman in Sorrow” on a nametag strung around my neck. I remember needing to talk to myself, goading myself to get up, just get up out of bed, out of the chair, and do something. Anything. Find something to live for. Some reason.
I found a reason through writing, creating stories about ordinary people thrust in to extraordinary circumstances. When I discovered the bones of such stories throughout genealogical research, (the ways in which our own ancestors lived, died, struggled, and persevered), I knew what I wanted to do. Share it.
So, I come to Henry and his climb. In September of 1862, Henry wasn’t much more than a teen-ager, a kid from New Jersey who had spent his time apprenticing to be a seaman. Yet here he was in the infantry, two days away from what would be the single bloodiest day of the Civil War at Antietam. Here he was with the rest of his regiment, the Jersey Third, asked to do the seemingly impossible – cross a field, scale a couple of walls, and climb almost vertically up South Mountain in Maryland – all the while under fire and firing upon ready units of the Confederate army. The Jersey Brigade’s mission was to dislodge the Confederates from the top of that hill and open the pass for the Union Sixth Corps.
I stood on the top of South Mountain, with my maps and battle description in hand. I studied the monument erected to the memory of the Jersey Brigade. I placed Henry’s picture against the granite and photographed it.
I was trying to determine where all those boys from 150 years ago would have appeared on that hilltop when I was joined by a young man. He was a Civil War re-enactor from Virginia, hiking the ridges of the Alleghenies. He helped me orient my map, interested in my quest despite the fact that he was there to honor the men from the South.
The monument inscription implied that the Jerseymen would have come scrambling out of the woods directly in front of us. We walked over and peered down the mountainside. It was wooded and dark and as close to vertical as a surmountable slope could be. It matched the historians’ descriptions exactly. The two of us stood in awe, until my young Southern friend broke the silence. “They came up that?” he marveled.
Yes, they came up that. And I could imagine them, the specter of them, emerging from the darkness of those trees, clad in their blue uniforms, dirty, perspiring, vocal, and proud.
We all have dark days – not as challenging, perhaps, as scaling a near-cliff, pulling ourselves upward by clinging to undergrowth and low-hanging branches while bullets rip through the trees – but challenging nonetheless. We all encounter obstacles of one kind or another: personal, work-related, artistic. It’s how one faces the obstacles that matters.
Do we sit with our face in our hands?
Do we throw another log on the fire?
Do we climb?