Where we all end

WETHERSFIELD, CONN.–I recently visited Wethersfield, Conn., where the hero and heroine of my book lay together in a family plot.

It always moves to meet descendants, friends, or relatives of the people I’ve chronicled. I met a number of the Williams descendants, which was a great honor for me.  The town itself is gently charming, with a main street that is quintessential New England, with a fine tavern and inn, and federalist and Georgian houses dotting either side of the road. Further down the leafy street is an intersection with a highway that is lined with malls, parking lots, and bars and is as ugly as any other part of America. A few miles down, and you’re in Hartford, and decide you want to go back.

It was odd, to me at least, that a man who spent most of his life on the open ocean had grown up in a landlocked town. Perhaps that was what drew home to the whaling life. I saw the church Eliza Griswold became Eliza Williams; the swimming hole on the Connecticut River where I believe Thomas learned to swim, and other small landmarks. In any case, it was sobering to look at the grave of Thomas W. Williams. In his day an accomplished mariner, whaler, trader, father, and husband. His thousands of miles traveled ended in this one solitary place. It seemed odd for me–I had spent so much time studying his adventures, and then seeing his grave.  I had caught up with him after his travels have finished, and he is stationary forever, or close to forever.

Also, death has a conspiratorial quality to me–it’s as if those that have passed and left have someone betrayed life and us and we can no longer reach them. I wasn’t sure everything about this experience was adding up to me.  It was haunting: to see where someone has come from, in a sense, gives you an intimation of that person, of the surroundings that created him. It gives you a glimpse of destiny, that same series of seen and unseen causes and effects that is living through you, as well. But somewhere between the documents, the photos, and the landmarks, I was hoping to find a person, an essence. I’m not sure I did.

It was as if someone had laid out a suit that perfectly outlined the shape of the person who was to wear it, but lacked that person’s presence. It was very empty. In any case, for a moment, I knew I had at least become close to that ever-receding past that we all become part of, eventually.