Several months ago Roger Pearse blogged about “living memory” and how far back it might extend. It is easy to think that an event that occurred long ago only now exists in historical documents, but frequently witnesses of an important event or person live for many decades afterwards. With Roger’s encouragement, I wanted to record two people I know who are great examples of “living memory”.
Auntie Chia and C. S. Lewis
This past October my wife and my 2-year-old daughter went to a family wedding. Extended family and friends were there. One woman, whom my wife’s family affectionately calls “Auntie Chia” was a friend of my father-in-law when he was a student at Oxford. In the evenings we would sit down at the table, with my daughter on my lap, and Auntie Chia would make small origami toys for her to play with, while I asked her about her life. She was born in China during World War II, to a young Chinese couple, but when Mao came to power her family was forced to flee to a refugee camp in Hong Kong when she was still a baby. Later her parents took her to England, where her father studied at Oxford. This is where she grew up. Later, she enrolled in Oxford herself, and told me how wonderful it was to go to lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien.
But most amazingly, she also met C.S. Lewis many times. Her father was a good friend of his. For her 16th birthday party, she told her parents that all she wanted was for C.S. Lewis to come as the guest of honor to a dinner party. By this time Mr. Lewis was already ill, so her father did not know if he could make it, but he did graciously attend and, according to Auntie Chia, they all had a wonderful time. She had asked her mother to recreate the first meal which Lucy shared with Mr. Tumnus in “The Lion and the Which and the Wardrobe”, but her mother couldn’t manage it. When Lewis heard what kind of party she had wanted, he replied, “I couldn’t eat all that much anyway.”
I was amazed to be speaking to somebody who still vividly recalled Lewis. But this is actually not that incredible, Lewis died 48 years ago so it would be expected that plenty of people would still be around, who had met him when they were teenagers or in their early 20s. No doubt these people would not forget that they had met such a distinguished man.
My Grandfather and the Civil War
My Grandfather, Edward M. Coffman, was born in 1929, a veteran of the Korean War and a professor of Military History at the University of Wisconsin for 30 or so years. He has written several books, his most famous is probably, “The War to End All Wars” which is a historical account of the American military experience in World War I. He published it on the 50th anniversary of the war, and it is still in print. Much of his writings are based on hundreds of interviews and no doubt thousands of letters he exchanged with various military men and their families. I believe he is one of the few people that ever interviewed General MacArthur. He has an astounding memory which has not faded in 83 years, a quick and hilarious wit and a gentle spirit. I dedicated my translation of Hippolytus of Rome’s “Commentary on Daniel” to him and his wife of 56 years, my Grandmother.
When I was a boy my Grandfather would tell me about two occasions in which he met (American) Civil War veterans. He even had pictures of himself as a young man standing next to a very aged veteran. A few months ago, I wrote my Grandfather and asked if he could write to me about these two men and if he could send along any pictures. He sent me two accounts with photographs. Here they are:
When my Grandfather was in 5th grade, in 1940,
he lived his school was across the street from a Civil War veteran, James W. Morris. Morris served in the Union Army from September 1861 to January 1865. He fought in these battles: Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, and the assorted battles during the siege of Atlanta.
My grandfather writes,
”In the spring of 1940, while I was in the 5th grade, I crossed W. 7th St. Twice, knocked on the door, and his daughter brought him outside to talk with me. During the 2nd visit, after I had seen, ‘Gone With The Wind’ I told him about the ammunition trains blowing up scene. He said that he saw and heard that event as he was some 2 or 3 miles away that night. The last time I saw him he was sitting in this chair in his front yard greeting visitors on his birthday. My father and I went to see him – shook hands and I gave him a bottle of grape juice and he answered: ‘Much Obliged.’”
Below is a scanned picture of Mr. Morris in that very chair and on that very day in which my Grandfather last saw him, on his 97th birthday, a month before he died.
The 2nd Civil War veteran my Grandfather met was Robert T. Barrett. He was born November 3, 1846 and was one of only around 10 surviving
Civil War Union veterans when he died on January 12, 1951 at the age of 104. He lied about his age when he enlisted on August 1, 1864 in company L, 17th Kentucky Cavalry. During his service he dealt with guerrillas in Western Kentucky. He was discharged September 20, 1865 and returned to the family farm in Caldwell County where he spent the rest of his life. In the presidential election in 1864, he voted for Abraham Lincoln.
My Grandfather writes:
“A good friend of my father’s, Cliff Wood, who owned the drugstore in Princeton, volunteered to take me out to see him. He took several photos of us talking. Our visit was on July 20, 1949. Mr. Barrett was 102 when we visited. He said he was lucky he didn’t get killed in one of the skirmishes with the guerrillas. He recalled hogs eating the bodies of a lieutenant and his detail whom the guerrillas had killed. He is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal. He was looking forward to attending a reunion of Union veterans in Indianapolis in a couple weeks. Only 6 veterans attended.”
Below is a picture of my Grandfather, when he was
19 20 years old, with Mr. Barrett.
One must pause and think, 150 years after the Civil War first began, there are still people, like my Grandfather, who met and spoke with participants. As historians we should all note that living memory may exist for longer than we would typically expect, especially when it concerns famous people and events.
* Update *
My Grandfather sent in some corrections, which I have duly made!