My mother’s very first memory was of being frightened by booming noises—guns? cannon? fireworks?—while being held aloft above a crowd to view a New York harbor filled with ships. She wept and her parents comforted her. The year was 1918, and she was four years old, and they told her there was no reason to cry because it was a happy occasion: the end of the Great War.
They didn’t yet realize that someday it would be known as the First.
That was a long time ago. But it really wasn’t all that long ago, since my very own mother remembered it. She grew up in an extended family shaped like an inverted pyramid, the only child of an only child. Her father had become chronically ill around the time she was born, and so her parents had to move in with her mother’s parents. They never moved out again until both grandparents had died and the house was sold, around the time of my birth.
So that’s how it happened that my mother was raised by four people, two of whom had been born during the early 1850s. All four of them had held and reassured my mother when those booming noises had announced the end of the Great War in that scene that constituted her first memory. So, although my mother became a modern woman who smoked cigarettes, drove a car, went to college, and voted as soon as she turned twenty-one (in that order, I believe), two of the people closest to her in her youth remembered the Civil War vividly.
This story illustrates how easy it is to reach back in time, at least in a “six degrees of separation” sort of way. All it takes is a family with a series of long-lived people who have children relatively late in life.
For example, with the proper connections, my mother could easily have known someone who knew someone who lived in the 1700s—and in the early 1700s, at that. That’s how we get the phenomenon of those Civil War widows who died as late as the early years of the twenty-first century. The recipe for that requires a very elderly woman who had gotten married very young to a veteran husband who was very old.
I’ve already described my mother’s family. But my father’s family also had an exceptionally long reach back in time. My paternal grandfather was born around 1860 and died in the 1920s. But he was the youngest of twelve children, the eldest of whom was a sister of his born in the year 1838.
Please let that sink in for a moment: my own grandfather’s sister was born in 1838. Not only that, but she lived to be over 100 years old and dance at my parents’ wedding. She appears in photos of the occasion, a small figure wearing a black headscarf, almost impossibly old and wrinkled but smiling.
I never met her; she died some years before I was born. But what tales she might have told! One of the difficulties of reaching back in time by talking to the elderly is that the young rarely have the inclination to do it before it’s too late. Old people—who cares what they have to say?
The answer might be: people who collect oral histories, that’s who. And while it’s true that there’s a growing industry of recording the memories of the elderly while they are still around to tell them, I wonder how many people will be listening in the future. It’s in the nature of the young these days to dismiss what used to known as the wisdom of the ages, or the thought that the experience of the past has any relevance to the present or the future. It’s one of the reasons why we fail to learn all that much from history.