I was momentarily distracted a while ago, by a comment on another blog that I follow, when one of the participants made mention of historian Jacques Barzun, who had just then entered into his second century on this mortal coil. The commenter noted that Mr. Barzun not only remembered Paris during World War I, when the German Army came perilously close to bombarding the place – but how he also remembers conversing with his own then-very-elderly grandmother, whose memories went back to the 1830s. Imagine, being just a step or two removed from such memories. It reminded me also of a conversation with another writer I know, who teaches languages and music, down in Beeville, Texas.
Imagine, he said – someone of our age (we are both in the fifty to sixty spectrum) talking to the oldest person we know – who would be in their nineties. So, their own childhood memories would go back to the early twentieth century – like Mr. Barzun’s. I did have this experience once, when I was just about 18, and because 18-year olds had just then been given the right to vote and it was an election year, I thought I ought to take some interest in politics. Which I did, but it proved to be very fleeting – the interest really didn’t kick in at full-strength until the last year or so. The mild interest of that year took the form of an afternoon at alocal political party headquarters in my home-town, doing what-I-can’t-quite-remember . . . but the other person minding the office that day was an elderly gentleman who said he was ninety-something, had grown up on a ranch in Montana and had been sent to school (a one-room schoolhouse, of course) every day on a horse; a very tall horse, so his father had to lift him up into the saddle, the horse took him to school, and the teacher lifted him down at the other end, and tied up the horse. In the afternoon, the teacher put him up into the saddle – and the operation proceeded in reverse. This would have put those schooldays of his in the late 1880s, at least – but he had some other fascinating yarns, of joining the Army and being a cavalryman in the days before World War I when the cavalry still meant horses. He had been on Black Jack Pershing’s expedition into Mexico, chasing after Pancho Villa, and had deployed to the Western Front as a very new 2nd Lieutenant. I so wish I had written much of this down at the time, or even remembered his name – it was much more fascinating than stuffing envelopes and answering the phone.
But, said my writer friend – now imagine that the oldest person you know, had talked as a child to the oldest person they knew. So, a child of ten or eleven in about 1920 had talked to a ninety-year old person . . . and that person’s memories – since they would have been born in the 1840s – might encompass the Gold Rush, and at the very least, the Civil War. A roll of typescript among some of my Granny Jessie’s papers paralleled that kind of memory-span. In about 1910, two of her aunts were learning to use that newfangled gadget, the typewriter, and as a typing exercise they had interviewed the oldest man in Lionville, Chester County PA. Alas, I do not recall his name either, and the roll of typescript is also long gone (a wildfire which burned my parents’ house pretty well cleaned out all the family memorabilia in 2003) but his first-hand recollections dated from the early 1800s. He told the great-aunts of long-horned wild cattle being brought in from the west, and of working as a carpenter. One of the curious notations was that coffins that were built then were constructed with a peaked lid, a puzzle which had just then been considerable of a mystery to the archeologist excavating Wolstonhome Town, near Jamestown. That design turned out to be the last of an archaic custom, which the archeologist went to a great deal of trouble to unravel – but there it was, testament for the use of an ancient and disused custom, preserved in an old typescript.
Now, let’s get really adventurous – and suppose that that oldest person who talked to the oldest person that you knew, who was born in the 1840s, had talked as a child to the oldest person they knew, who at eighty or ninety years of age in the 1850’s meant they had been born about 1760 – so that their memories would encompass the Revolution. Depending on where they lived, they might have seen George Washington, or his little army of Rebels on the march, heard Paul Revere or William Dawes riding by their house, shouting an alarm, or heard the church-bells ringing to celebrate their victory.
Yes, it is two hundred and change years ago – but to think of it in terms of memories, transmitted across the generations, we are only three steps removed. It isn’t really that long ago at all. History isn’t past – as another historical commentator remarked in another context, certain memories lie at the bottom of our minds, like lees at the bottom of a cup of wine, only waiting to be stirred up again.