norman-castleOne of the toughest things about living in America is the relative absence of the presence of the past.

In England one is immersed in the past to such a degree that it is all too easy to forget that it’s there or to take it for granted. I once lived in a tiny cottage half way between the ruins of a Norman castle and the ruins of a Cluniac priory, both dating from the eleventh century. The cottage itself was built in the fifteenth century from the stones from the now deserted castle. The priory was destroyed by Henry VIII a century or so after my home, or hobbit hole, was built.

After I came to the States, I was struck by the relative absence of the past. In Michigan, the state which I first called home, there were few buildings, if any, that were older than the early nineteenth century. When I moved to south west Florida a couple of years later even the nineteenth century was absent. I recall phoning my father back home in England from the Old Post Office Museum in “old” Naples, informing him that I was in the oldest place in the city in which I lived. “When was it built,” he enquired. “In 1930,” I replied, “the same year in which you were born.” It’s hard to sink roots in a place in which the human roots go no deeper than the length of one’s own father’s time on earth.

My father-in-law was a native of Missouri whose own family can trace its roots to the Mayflower (this is not merely anecdotal wishful thinking because I have seen the evidence). He was a geologist who loved the past. Knowing of my own love for the past, he recounted with delight a scene from the film, The LA Story, starring Steve Martin, which I’ve still not seen, in which Martin’s character exclaims excitedly to his unimpressed English friend that some of the buildings in Los Angeles are nearly thirty years old.

After we relocated to South Carolina, moving north from Florida in order to move south, a paradox that delights my Chestertonian sensibility, I became aware that the past was present in a manner that is not true of Florida or even Michigan. The past is real in the Old South, even if it’s sometimes the source or cause of bitterness. Within a few miles of our home, historic markers indicate battles or skirmishes during the Revolutionary War or the War Between the States. One of the reasons, I am sure, that I feel so at home in South Carolina and fly the state flag from our porch, is that there are real historical roots in which I can sink myself, finding the rootedness that I crave in the rootedness of the culture in which I live.

This same rootedness is found throughout the Old South, not least of which in middle Tennessee where I currently spend one week a month as Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville. Imagine my delight, therefore, when the construction of a new female dorm on campus uncovered a graveyard dating back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century which contained the gravesite of one of the early fathers of the city.

Charles Bosley, Sr., whose gravesite was uncovered during construction, was born in 1777, only a year after the birth of the nation, and died in 1870, only five years after a war that had ripped the nation apart. He had purchased the property on which Aquinas College now sits in 1818 and remained there until his death more than fifty years later. All in, it was about 2000 acres. His wife, Eliza, died in 1873.

Charles Bosley’s father, Captain James Bosley, arrived in Nashville in the late 1780s as a land grant recipient for his service in the Revolutionary War. He was, therefore, among the earliest settlers of the new town, which had been founded only a few years earlier by other veterans of the War, including heroic Overmountain Men, frontiersmen from west of the Appalachians who had won the famous victory over the British at King’s Mountain, not far from my home in South Carolina.

In 1913, a year before another war would rip the Old World apart, Joseph Warner built the White House on the foundations of the Bosley home, a Georgian mansion which is still the beautiful centerpiece of the campus of Aquinas College. The Nashville Dominican sisters bought the property and the home in 1923 and founded the College at which I now teach and work in 1961, the year of my own birth.

As I contemplate the discovery of Charles Bosley’s grave, I shiver with excitement at the thought that his roots, somewhere along the way, intertwine with my own. Like the Pearce family, the Bosleys arrived in England after the Norman Conquest. They were part of that Norman presence in England which is still present in the ruins of the castle and the priory in the village in which I once lived and in the very stones of the cottage which was once my home. It is, therefore, with the deepest gratitude that a chance discovery of old graves during the construction of a new dorm has brought to life, as in a resurrection, the ghostly presence of a living past.

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