Many people think of one or both of their grandmothers as special, but what made my paternal grandmother special is she lived in three centuries. Born 1898, died 2001. In other words, she lived through the entire 20th century. That fact is mind-boggling just on the face of it, but the fact that she came out of the most-accelerated pace of change in human history as a gracious, caring person is almost beyond comprehension.
Two interactions I had with her underscore just how staggering the change she experienced in her life really was. In 1986, she 88 years old. I was sitting with her at my parents’ house where she lived at the time, and we were watching Halley’s comet on television. She said, “I remember that.” It took me a moment to realize what she was talking about. She remembered actually seeing Halley’s comet. It was 1910, when she was 12 years old. She said her father took all the children up on a hill in the middle of the night, and it being 1910 in Taunton, Mass., there was no light pollution. “It was like you could reach out and touch it,” she said. In fact, the Earth passed through the comet’s tail that year, and on a clear night with no light pollution it would in fact look like you could reach up and touch it. www.wired.com/2009/05/dayintech_0519/
The first amazing thing is she saw this comet twice in her life. But what is far more amazing is that she saw it the second time on television. You could go back to 1910 and write a powerful science fiction story about a 12-year-old girl who sees Halley’s comet bright in the night sky and way later in her life sees it again, but this time on a cathode-ray-tube device that decodes and rearranges in a series of pixels images that are sent out through the air by another device. But that’s exactly what happened.
Another thing I found amazing about this encounter was that she was so casual about the whole thing. The television miracle didn’t matter, or even occur, to her. What did matter was a chance to talk about 1910 and what the world was like then and who inhabited it and what was important to people 76 years prior.
What intervened in those 76 years besides television? Radio, telephones, airplanes, widespread use of automobiles and the interstate highway system, space travel and men on the moon (more 1910 science fiction come true), all the large dams on western American rivers, two world wars, numerous other wars full of pointless carnage, women’s suffrage (her mother couldn’t vote in 1910!), the civil rights movement, the election as President of the U.S. of an Irish Catholic man (who was from the same Irish Catholic tribe as the Lawlors/McHughs/Hanrahans/Galligans/Hogans who gave rise to my father after the English tried to starve them to death in the 1840s), the Great Depression, nuclear weapons and the threat of human extinction, AIDS, computers, the internet and smart phones, just to name a few. A comprehensive list would take up an entire book. Ballpoint pens didn’t exist in 1910, to cite one banal example.
One could make an equally long list of things that have disappeared or are disappearing in the U.S. over those 76 years, but two of the most important are the presence of wise elders and simple face-to-face discourse between human beings. My wise elder was given to me and to my children by virtue of a lineage. It was like my children had a living, breathing connection to the 19th century, and I know they deeply appreciate it. I spent hundreds of hours talking to my grandmother. Not on the phone. Not with a text (which isn’t talking at all). Talking to wise elders connects you to history, which leads to another encounter I had with Monica Lawlor Galligan.
It was a Memorial Day at the assisted living facility where she rapidly became the alpha female. She was talking about the Memorial Day parades when she was a small child. She had that amazing level of detail and recall that the very old bring to bear on long-ago events. At one point, she said, “And then would come the part of the parade where the veterans were marching.” Here I stopped to think. Veterans? This is before WWI. The Spanish-American War? Maybe, but there weren’t enough veterans of that war to march in a parade in a small Massachusetts town. Then I realized she was talking about Civil War veterans. Of course. If you were 20 in 1865, you were 60 in 1905. I felt like I was in some kind of time machine watching men who had survived one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. And it was fought over the idea some people had that it was OK for one human being to own another human being, and the ones who thought that it was OK were willing to die for their right to think that. And it wasn’t really all that long ago from that day, or from this day for that matter. That is what I learned from my grandmother that day.
Monica dressed up every day and always wore a lot of jewelry. She treated the staff at the assisted living facility as if they were her own employees for whom she had a great deal of personal concern. Her political consciousness seemed to have ended with JFK. Bill Clinton was “a nice boy.” She never comprehended how Ronald Reagan could become President. She watched the Chicago Cubs on WGN, and when Lee Smith, a ferocious relief pitcher with one of the meanest faces in the history of the game would come in to pitch, she’d say, “Strike him out, Lee dear!” She always wanted to know, “What’s new?” She broke her hip just ahead of a huge party held on the occasion of her 100th birthday. That is known in geriatric medicine as “the cascade of disaster.” But she was not going to miss that party, no matter what. She healed from the hip and hung on three more years because she was so interested in “what’s new?” Then it was as if she just didn’t care about what was new anymore, and she decided to die. So she did.
© 2017 Joseph Galligan