The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Essays

On Patrimony

Somewhere between ancient Rome and Ohio is my patrimony.

Brian Patrick Eha

View of Nürtingen, Germany; Sina Ettmer/Alamy Stock Photo.

A gendered word, I know. Sexist, some would say. We have other words that do the job, though not as well: Heritage puts me in mind of the dictionary, while inheritance conjures up a death in the family, bereavement, probate courts, solemn-faced executors, and the estate tax. The great Argentine write Jorge Luís Borges, who found English to be a richer tongue than Spanish, said that sometimes you want the Latin-derived regal, sometimes kingly, with its Anglo-Saxon brawn, and that really these synonyms are not at all the same. To eternity, which “is rather worn now,” he preferred everness, with the Saxon ending -ness that made him think of Keats: “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style, turned the Argentine’s insight that “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin” into one of their famous rules: “Avoid fancy words.” In fact, they were still more explicit: “Use Anglo-Saxon words.” They relented, however, so far as to say that in such matters of style “one’s ear must be one’s guide.”

Patrimony, of course, is derived from Latin. Leaving behind the Saxon word hoard in favor of an older empire brings me closer to my own birthright, not only the word but the thing itself, blood-bought and bred in the bone. Of mainly German stock on both sides of my family tree, I can’t help but recall that it was the Germanic tribes who sacked Rome, and it’s by Latin names that we know these barbarians today, Goth, Ostrogoth, the line between looter and inheritor here being of obsidian fineness—being, perhaps, no line at all. Thinking of this, I recall some lines by Delmore Schwartz. There is a fear of the past in them, of the generations that are dead, even of the poet’s own maleness:

I am overtaken by terror
Thinking of my father’s fathers,

And of my own will.11xDelmore Schwartz, “The Ballad of the Children of the Czar” (lines 80–82), Poetry Foundation, First published 1967.

At some point my immigrant ancestors went over the whale-road, as it was called in Old English, from long-suffering Europe to the United States. That family tree of mine, however, has been for many decades unimpeachably rooted in American soil. A distant relative died for the Union. Dominicus Eha, a private in the Twenty-Eighth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, was captured by the Confederates on May 14, 1864, and held as a prisoner of war at Andersonville until he expired. Edging into his late thirties, he was hardly older than I am now. After the war, no one troubled his bones in their unmarked grave. He left behind a widow, Sophia, who the month before his death would have marked, alone, their tenth wedding anniversary. Evidently, she saw to it that, in lieu of a proper resting place, a cenotaph in his memory was added to his family’s monument at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati is where my father grew up, rooting for the Reds and so oppressed by his own sire that he joined the air force at eighteen, crouching to shorten himself by an inch so that he would meet the minimum weight requirement. By air force standards he would have been, at his full height of five feet eight and one-half inches, unduly thin.

All this is legacy, memory, a mixture of hearsay and historical fact. Reporters tend to think of facts like pebbles—pile up enough of them and you’ve made a wall, some sturdy fabrication of self-evident purpose, fundamentally practical and made for use. (If your line is obituaries, perhaps you erect something nobler, a shrine.) I think facts are more like graves filled with moist and clinging earth, tombs that have to be dug out of the dark, like ancient Babylon sunk beneath the desert. In stories of excavation, each grain of sand plays as much an eternal part as each time-worn stone. Context is our word for the part of the story we are too blind to see is indispensable. Like the digressions in Beowulf.

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