When I was 11 years old, my parents and I took an eight-day trip to England. It was my first time outside the country and my first time becoming well-acquainted with any object or building that significantly predated 1620, the year of Plymouth Rock. In England, I loved to imagine myself as a person living in whatever time period a church was built, or whatever time period an object came from. Doing this allowed me to connect with a place and its people, through past and present.
I specifically remember being inside St. Paul’s Cathedral, when our tour guide pointed toward the place Queen Victoria sat, right at the front, toward the left, facing the altar. People in the tour group wowed audibly, but by the time the guide finished telling us about the place, the rest of the group had other things on their minds and dispersed elsewhere under the high arches. I rushed over to the guide and asked if I could sit in one of the chairs by Queen Victoria’s spot. With her affirmative answer, I walked to the front row, seated myself, took a deep inhale and tuned out the footsteps and murmurs echoing off the stone sanctuary walls. I fixed my eyes on the altar in front of me and imagined I was Victoria, a long time ago, watching Prince Charles in a traditional suit and Princess Diana in puffy white dress on the day of their marriage.
At the time, it did not occur to me that Victoria would have been 162 years old on the date of Charles and Diana’s wedding, but it also didn’t matter. As I imagined myself, Victoria, I had greased dark hair with a part directly through the center of my head, and layers of fabric from my ginormous skirt cushioned my seat. Sitting in St. Paul’s Cathedral, I saw at the gilded altar in front of me Charles gazing down at Diana. She was staring up at him with shining blue eyes, chin extended upward in a way that accentuated the dramatic jawline I’d seen in pictures. I sat upright and stern, as serious as Victoria looked in carbon prints. A chill ran through my blood and goosebumps raised on my forearms. I felt I communed with Victoria then. I lived some aspect of her experience by sitting where I knew she sat, watching something I believed she saw. I had never felt that before, not with someone who was alive so long before me.
This happened over and over on that trip. We visited the Tower of London, walked under the tall, gray arch that was the prisoners’ entrance and I imagined myself walking into the stone structure as if it was the last place I’d be before my final punishment. We saw the chopping block that was apparently used to decapitate Anne Boleyn and I imagined myself, chin resting in the part of the block carved out for the head. Each time the same cool sensation tore through me; each time the goosebumps came and I felt I understood something true of life that came before me.
I had already developed an interest in English culture generally before we went on that trip. Because I researched her for a school project, I had become fixated on Beatrix Potter, author of the “Peter Rabbit” books. But for years after our trip, I was fully obsessed with everything English — history, music, literature, you name it. I began reading the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, even though I could only understand about half the sentences my 12-year-old eyes traced over. Over the years I watched “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Atonement,” “The King’s Speech” and more. I followed religiously the British period dramas that aired on PBS: “Downton Abbey,” “Endeavour,” “Sherlock,” “Grantchester” and now, “Victoria.” My favorite band throughout high school were The Kooks, and “Harry Potter” was as much about the fantasy for me as it was about the country in which the fantasy occurred.
What unlocked all of this for me was that feeling I got from communing with individuals of a culture that ran so far into the past. These communions were accessible to me because of the buildings and objects I saw when I was 11, and all the visualizations of British history and culture in the media. Born and raised in Ohio, British architectural influences were everywhere around me in the colonial revival houses that populated my neighborhood. I saw England in the antique faucets and window locks in my house, even though they were probably made in a factory here in the Midwest.
But Ohio was no England to me then. Originally a backcountry colony with few buildings or visible structures that predate the early 19th century, Ohio has buildings that may look older, but like I said, many of them were designed in colonial revival styles — harkening back to the architecturally spectacular homes to the east and elsewhere.
Furthermore, it seemed that all of the major national and world events that happened after that time happened somewhere else. It’s not like I wanted World War I, the aftermath of which I saw in the novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, or the tenement wars I saw in “Gangs of New York” to have happened in Columbus, but events like that are what all the movies are about. I wasn’t aware of any big movies or TV series filmed here, except “A Christmas Story,” which was filmed in Cleveland, a city I didn’t visit until I was 18.
For lack of old buildings and lack of representation in the media, as far as I could see with my own eyes, the place I came from was without real history. I saw the entire United States as lesser than countries in Europe for this reason, and saw Ohio as inferior to the East Coast, where some of the first white settlers laid their cobblestone streets.
In high school when I was touring colleges, I was intoxicated by campuses that had gothic architecture from centuries before, with great halls that reeked of a long, storied past. I was completely enchanted by the University of Michigan’s Law Quadrangle, which has four little towers almost identical to the ones at the Tower of London.
Of course, the idea that a place only has a history if there are aged, European-style buildings to prove it is deeply flawed. There’s been a movement for years on the Ann Arbor campus to identify the land on which its halls rest as originally Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa) and Bodewadimi (Potawatomi) land. After seeing people doing this work, I began imagining, as I walked down State Street toward the Diag, what everything around me would have looked like as an open field or temperate forest. I pictured a clearing where indigenous people performed a dance I’d participated in at a #NoDAPL protest once, standing shoulder to shoulder, stepping side to side in a circle around a couple drummers and a singer.
But in that moment, these people existed only in my imagination, and they flitted away quickly as my thoughts drifted to what I’d be doing in class that morning. There were no old homes, churches or government buildings to scaffold my imaginings, and if there were artifacts, I didn’t know where to find them. The animations from “Pocahontas” and history book sketches of the French and Indian War were among the only visualizations of Native Americans I’d seen. It was not easy to commune with those whose presence has been rendered largely invisible.
And I know indigenous communities have a long history here in central Ohio, where I’ve returned home for the summer. Lately I’ve been learning about the Adena people, a semi-nomadic group that settled here and cultivated some of the first farms in the area over 2,000 years ago. But I’ve gathered what little information I have on these people only from scraps dispersed among books and websites on Ohio history and archaeology more generally.
We all lose when the history of a place is not marked or visualized. Though indigenous communities have worked for their rights and simple recognition, and though people have written books about the impacts colonialism has had and is still having on these communities, there’s still so much more to do, say and write. I lost the opportunity to have a sense of historical grounding in the place I came from. I will always love the arches of St. Paul’s Cathedral and I will always love shows like “Downton Abbey.” But I want to feel the reverberations of millennia here in the Midwest, the place where my history is.
Regan Detwiler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org