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Those Who Follow

Each day I work for her, I discover a new detail of her life.


The woman is Gertrude Howland, 92 years old, and a graduate of the University of Richmond (Westhampton College at the time of her graduation). Though her body reflects her age, it seems that her mind is as quick and intelligent as it ever was.

Inside her West End home, which has that instantly tangible yet somehow indescribable grandma smell, she has an entire set of shelves brimming with her old letters, memoirs and writings. Some have been published or were written in hopes of being published, but most of her writings are meant to be passed down for her children and grandchildren, or, as she says "any who follow."

My first day working for her, I'm to type up a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch … on a typewriter. I'm nearly 21 years old and have used such a machine only a few times before. Does my 11-year-old sister even know what a typewriter is? It's intimidating at first, but like riding a bicycle, one never forgets.

Her letter addresses the question of America's slavery past in relation to other places where slavery existed, such as South America and the Caribbean. She feels that living descendents of American slaves, particularly in Virginia, tend to be more histrionic and constantly memorialize their past, whereas, as she remembers from her travels, there aren't slave memorials in the Caribbean. Gertrude wonders what I, being of a younger generation, might think about this. I tell her that one's past shouldn't merely be forgotten over time, and that there are indeed slavery museums in the Caribbean. I'm glad to see that she's quite open to new ideas, and she seems to change her mind on the subject. I don't know if the letter was ever sent.

Then I turn on the computer I'm supposed to use to type up the rest of her writings. I'm reminded again of my young age and the ever-increasing speed of technological advances when I see that the computer has one of the earliest versions of Microsoft Windows.

At first her handwritten papers are difficult to read; it's almost as if I have committed myself to deciphering hieroglyphics. But after some study on my part, her handwriting soon becomes clear and she goes about her own business without having to translate for me. She leaves the room with a slightly shuffled walk and goes downstairs to have lunch in her sunny, glass-enclosed, plant-filled patio.

As she eats her lunch, I begin to discover memories of a past that I'll never be able to see, but which comes alive before my eyes through her writing. The letters I type for her jump around through several periods in her life: from her childhood to her college years to her adult years, then back to her childhood years. Much of her childhood was spent at 17 E. Grace St., a three-story home her grandfather bought. It eventually came to be home to her, her young brother and their parents, as well as her father's doctor's office.

After a few weeks of working for Gertrude, I drive downtown to see the house she so often refers to. Though it has been under new ownership for some time and its age is catching up with it, I can sense the grandeur and homelike feeling that Gertrude remembers.

Each day I work for her, I find out a new detail of her life, often in a nonchronological order. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. For instance, I'm particularly enthralled by her poignant, and often humorous, description of a winter spent in Jerusalem in 1978. I spent a few weeks there myself this past winter during an eight-month stay in Egypt. It's interesting to see that during the 24-year difference between our visits there, the place has remained unchanged in some ways, yet has drastically changed in many others. Only later do I find out what brought her there: She had moved from being a divorced housewife — taboo at the time — into a career participating in restorative efforts at excavation sites throughout Greece and Israel.

She recalls that during her childhood she sat still for her mother and her friends while they painted her and exchanged ideas on painting styles. During that time she unconsciously learned different art techniques that she would later put to use in the restoration of ancient pottery.

Through her writing she also paints a picture of Richmond during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time and place of which I have hardly any knowledge. Little did I know that on the current site of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts there used to be a home for homeless Civil War veterans. This was but a few years before the First World War, and it's easy to forget that many of the soldiers who fought during the War Between the States were mere boys at the time.

Gertrude also remembers listening in on conversations among those who had survived the Civil War, many of which were the officers that started the Officer's Club, later the Westmoreland Club. Her grandfather was a student at the Virginia Military Institute and was on guard during Gen. Robert E. Lee's funeral. She even has a relative who, many years before, was witness to Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech.

Another story: During her childhood in the summer of 1918, she watched as powerful industrialists Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone drove up to her hotel in the Blue Ridge Mountains on part of the trio's annual trek throughout eastern America, in a vehicle which was the inspiration for the sport utility vehicles of my day.

It's true that the historical information in her writings can be found in a history book. But it's insights like hers and those of her family that make the past more interesting and easier to relate to. Her story, though unique, isn't the only way to experience the past. History is all around us and I fear that it will be forgotten someday if not for people like Gertrude.

I can only hope that my life will continue to yield such excitement as she has experienced. I'm still in the process of typing up her journal of her early years as an archaeologist, and it's like an exciting book — I'm eager to find out what adventure Gertrude will embark upon next, who she'll meet and where she will go. S

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