Great Grandfather’s Portrait

by Danielle Hanna

Living history

My friends and I have our portrait done

I’ve been doing living history for twelve years, starting out in braids and a blue prairie dress. Someone even called me Laura Ingalls once. Appropriate, because my interest in history started with Little House on the Prairie, the TV show. I used to watch Mary and Laura run around in their calico dresses and white petticoats, and I just knew one day I’d have calico dresses and white petticoats, too.

Didn’t know what the heck I’d do with such a get-up. I just wanted one.

Then came my banjo, then came Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which was looking for a musician, and the rest is … well, history.

When I became a re-enactor, history suddenly leapt off the pages of my textbooks. I could feel a hard wooden yoke dig into my shoulders. I could lather up a bar of lye soap–slippery and frothy like modern soap, but smelling for all the world like some concoction made of fat and ashes. When I took off my dress at the end of the day, it exuded the aroma of sweat and dust and horse smell and campfire smoke.

I’m pretty sure the history text books have a conspiracy going to convince kids that the past is as dry as a bleached bone. Living history shattered that lie. Long lists of names became real people. Dates became lifestyles. Historical events became life-altering circumstances. For a day, a weekend, a summer, I had gone back in time, and I realized that my own ancestors actually lived like this.

Fast forward to a day last summer. I was asked to play at a dance at the Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site — a classic Victorian residence trimmed in shades of green. I arrived dressed as a young lady from turn-of-the-century frontier Bismarck.

After the dance, there was a scavenger hunt for the kids. A group of little girls scattered all over the house in search of a dog-shaped coat hanger and a sketch of an Indian under a cupboard. They had so much fun, they started inventing their own games. Their favorite was counting the number of portraits in the house. They did it several times over to make sure they had the correct number. Then they took me on a round so I could verify it.

We searched the house from top to bottom and came up with twenty. One for each governor who had been in residence at the mansion. When we had tallied the last portrait, we proceeded downstairs to assure the adults that the count was indeed accurate. The little girls tumbled down the stairs, and I followed at a more lady-like pace, as suited my long dress and stiff corset.

North Dakota Governor L. B. Hanna

North Dakota Governor L. B. Hanna

At the landing half-way down, I stopped to look at one of the portraits, a stern-looking fellow in round glasses attempting a sort of smile, which was worn down after too many years spent as a politician. I had a connection to this portrait. Governor L. B. Hanna. My great-grandfather.

On a whim, I called the girls back. I remembered being their age and running around the house. All full of roped-off bedrooms and glass-cased pipes and top hats. At their age, I had never been able to wrap my mind around the fact that this house had ever been anything but a museum. That my own great-grandfather lived here, and it was his pipe and top hat in the glass case.

“Do you see that man?” I asked the girls. They obediently looked up at the portrait.

I also remembered being their age and staring at black-and-white photos of politicians in suits. The epitome of boring. Much more fun to look at the sketch of the Indian under the cupboard.

“He was my great-grandfather,” I told them, “and he lived here a hundred years ago.” Exactly a hundred years ago. He was in office from 1913 to 1917.

I didn’t expect my revelation to have any impact on the kids. When you’re that young, you understand what you can see and hear and explore with your hands. Not abstract concepts about people who died a million years ago. I don’t even know why I told them. I guess I hoped they’d make the connection. The gray-and-white guy in the suit was a real person.

The girls stared at the portrait. Then they stared at me. Then they thundered down the stairs.

“Mama! Mama! You know what? That lady — her great-grandfather lived here a hundred years ago!”

Well, that took me by surprise. Their enthusiasm. The fact that what I was saying clicked at all. I think I underestimated the fact that I was the thing they could see and hear and touch. It was as if I’d handed them a fossilized dinosaur egg and said, “See? They were real.”

That was a big moment for me as a re-enactor. My goal is to make history real to people. Kids especially. I want kids to fall in love with history, just like I did watching Little House on the Prairie. I want them to discover that history’s about more than memorizing dates and names.

When I showed those girls my great-grandfather’s portrait, I saw the light dawn in their eyes. Real people lived real lives a hundred years ago, in old houses with wood floors and stained glass windows. Real people slept in those beds and wore those top hats and smoked those pipes. A real child, much like them, drew the sketch of the Indian under the cupboard.

That was pretty much the culmination of twelve years re-enacting. Mission accomplished.

Pawnote from Juliean

Juliean on bookshelf

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Go on. Do it. You know better than to argue with a cat.


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