By Scott Longman
As old men sometimes do, my father’s father, late in life, made the enormous investment of his short remaining time to do the deep family research. I absorbed it all, which, decades later, led to a trip with his great-grandchildren—two sweet little girls—now in England and headed for a landmark.
There are a variety of superlatives that the Tewkesbury Abbey seems to rake in, but oldest Norman cathedral is among them. Even at a distance, it emanates history in a way that a picture won’t show. It was consecrated in the 12th century, and every surface says so. The walls themselves have seen a staggering 900 years of English weather, worn, abraded, pocked, but incredibly both standing and sound.
Of course, it was built to awe, and it still does even now.
To stand there is to have your time perspective snap outward three orders of magnitude. Some upstart with three boats and some good connections wouldn’t discover North America for four centuries after this place was up and running.
We walk in, before the Sunday service, being eyed by the locals with a mixture of restrained welcome and a little caution. One white-haired gentleman reads us the full text of The Riot Act, if doing so in an incredibly socially gracious sort of way is still The Riot Act. Bereft of niceties, it would sound something like “if you’re another underdressed, overfunded American tourist here to check this off your list, then sit your uncivilized bum in the back corner, be quiet, don’t let your children utter a syllable, leave us lots of money, and if you leave before the service is over— which you certainly will—just shut up and sneak out.”
With the warm welcome out of the way we moved to our pew. I’d known it before, but was mildly shocked to rediscover as we walked in that we were directly stepping on graves. The floor of the Abbey is graves.
A lot of graves.
The best obstacle course artist couldn’t have negotiated a route to any pew without treading on a dozen of them. Somehow it feels wrong, but immediate vindication is at hand from the centuries-in-the-making footpaths worn into the stones themselves. In many places, that foot-traffic has completely obliterated the stone markings. We have 15 minutes until the service starts, and I try reading some. Besides the illegible ones, there are inscriptions in Latin, and inscriptions in olyde aenglisch. While often unintelligible, two things aren’t: the dates, and the age at death. Both numbers are consistently too small to readily comprehend. I look for our family name, somehow glad not to see it. The stones go and go. I look at one: the last time it was moved was 700 years ago when a man and his infant child were placed beneath it, for reasons we can only hypothesize, and that they were still there this instant bends the mind to fathom.
We sit, feet on yet more markers, and the service starts. A legion of robed chorists sing. The sound rises, in a space created with no regard for acoustics science, but somehow better for it, the sonic ricochet reverberating off the far-away Norman ceiling, off the endless line of massive pillars, off the stones beneath our feet, meeting in harmonic resonance, soul-filling, tremendous.
As the sound suffuses us, I examine the faces. They are Britons. And by that, I suppose, Briton plus Anglo-Saxon plus Celt plus Norman plus an inescapable shot of Roman-far-from-home and probably some Danish warlord for good measure and Lord knows what else in trace elements, the sort of thing you get when you stab the “flash” button on the genetic blender after a few good high-latitude invasions. Looking in enfilade down the row, they stack up, and the epiphany hits me:
And it’s us.
What I am looking at is, if not literally then genetically, the people who built the place, the people who made the history between then and now, the people under my feet. And they are us.
Bloodlines stay here, but what the Britons mean by “stay” is not at all what we Americans do. It’s not two or three generations, but enough that you can’t read them anymore, with the realization that many more centuries of us lie beneath at deeper strata. In that irrational moment, I am somehow delighted to think that the rest of them are all still here, in our building, still at it 900 years later. It causes an instant surge in my chest, the hair goes up on my forearms. I want to meet every one of them. But of course, it’s a church service, and I don’t utter a word.
The architects put windows far, far above, and made their wide stone lintels slant downward at a precipitous angle, to allow the sunlight to shaft in, and it does, incorporating the wafting remnants of the incense procession to be palpable. It lights up the Western interior, goodness and light and hope.
I recover my composure. True to the local man’s prediction, the children start whispering “when can we go,” so we do quietly file out before the service is over. But against his other silent prediction, we place a respectful donation into the box on the way out.
Because I am profoundly glad that even if only for this short moment, we finally came back.