Looking Back by Taylor Graham
Call me old-fashioned. I grew up in the Depression – not literally, but psychically. My father came from thrifty Pennsylvania farm-stock, my mother from Ohio journalist-middle class roots. They went through those terrible economic times; and even though I grew up in the comfortable 50s, my parents’ memories of the Depression cast a sense of doom on my childhood. The older I got, the more the past came to weigh on me. It’s as if, all these years, I’ve been expecting our current financial crisis.
But if one can look back to the past for warnings and bad examples, one can also find in the past glimmers of hope and good examples just waiting to be followed. From earliest childhood I was told I had a “famous relative,” Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith. A poor boy whose father died when he was in his mid-teens, he apprenticed himself to the local blacksmith and taught himself to read about fifty languages in spare moments while working full-time at the forge. He went on to devote himself to various humanitarian causes, especially peace.
As a writer, speaker, and organizer, he was tireless in promoting his dream, with no thought to his own prospects. He was always short of money. With the help of like-minded peace activists, especially Friends (Quakers) in England, he traveled to Europe and was instrumental in organizing a series of international peace congresses. President Lincoln appointed him consular agent at Birmingham, England. While there, Elihu made walking tours around the countryside, documenting industries, working conditions, and cultural and historical landmarks.
Elihu Burritt devoted incredible energy to his causes; an idle moment was one in which he might memorize another Greek verb, or solve a mathematical problem. If his study schedule gave him headaches, he labored that much harder at the forge; he believed man is a trinity of mind, body and spirit, to be kept in healthy, robust balance. Through so many discouragements in his life, he kept an optimism, hope, and faith that good would prevail if mankind just worked at it diligently enough.
I've been researching my very distant relative Elihu for over two years now. As I've gotten to know him, he’s become a great source of comfort – and yes, faith, hope and charity. I've come to believe that he’s been waiting for me, all these years, to “grow up,” experience enough of the world, and gain a little wisdom, so I can speak for him through my poetry. He was a prolific writer, and I know he has a lot more to tell me. I think he has much to say to our confused, often chaotic and apparently rudderless times.