Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Past is Closer Than We Think

An elderly woman died in a small town just down the road last week.

Her obituary caused a lot of comments and smiles.

You see, she had arrived with her family in a covered wagon in that small town almost 100 years ago. All her life she lived in the home her family built there. And when she died, it was in her own bed in that same near-century-old home.

The past can be a lot closer than we think. And when we can reach out and touch a living person who was part of it--well, it becomes real.It makes me realize how young the United States really is.

It makes me want to gather more of these oral histories from our elders before they are lost. When the country celebrated the bicentennial Fourth of July, I found another old woman who was well over 100 years old. She had been five when the first centennial was celebrated. Now she was enjoying the second. I begged to interview her.

"Well, now, I'll have to think about that," she told me. "You know, that's a lot of years to cover. And I don't know that I have the time."

I never did get that interview. She wasn't kidding about being busy--she had a house and garden she tended, and a neighbor told me they had caught her on the roof patching tiles. She pulled a plain red wagon behind her when she walked the half-mile to the grocery store, and she picked up goods for a number of her much younger but more decrepit friends on the block. She recycled and scoured vacant lots for cans and bottles. I guess I've always thought of her as a sort of icon for that bicentennial.

When I was a child in New Mexico, the highway north of El Paso was no highway. It was a mostly two-way dirt road that wound among the sand dunes between the city and Alamogordo, established by the railroad in 1899. When that perfectly straight Highway 54 was built, those responsible were mighty proud. Sand dunes had to be moved for some distance in order to build. Spring winds would shove the sand back in the path of the builders. It was an onerous task.

Here in North Texas, we have homes that have been occupied, often by the same families, for well over a hundred years. I hope the woman who arrived here in a covered wagon has relatives who will continue to live there.

As the kids say, that would be way cool.

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