The Passage of Living Memory
"At most living memory endures for a hundred years or so. Thereafter, even the barest outline of the past is forgotten, unless it is recorded in writing..." So wrote John Morris in Londinium: London in the Roman Empire.
The passage of time diminishes many things. I know this from personal experience. It shows up as I look back over the roster of people I have come into contact with during my ancestral research.
Even though I began almost forty-three years ago, three of my grandparents and another three of my uncles and aunt were already deceased. With that background, I knew I was already starting out behind the eight ball. But, surely I thought, someone would be able to answer my questions and tell me about my ancestors.
I began my search for knowledgeable informants. Over the years I developed a network of distant and near relatives. I had a three-by-five card file that contained names, relationships, addresses and phone numbers.
Whenever I talked with one, I asked if they knew of someone else who might tell me more. Soon I began to see that some people came closer to answering my questions.
At the same time, there were many others who could not. There were no family secrets being hidden. It seemed that they simply did not grow up in an environment where family stories were told and retold.
I remember hearing about one man who might know something about my great-great-grandfather who died in the Civil War. He lived in the county just east of where I was attending college.
One Saturday in 1972, I made time to drive about thirty miles over to his rural home. When I arrived, I learned that he had left about an hour earlier and would not be back soon.
I was crest-fallen. After all, this gentleman was two generations older, being a second cousin to my grandfather.
His wife asked me what business I wanted with her husband. I told her that I had so hoped I might have at last found someone at last who could answer my questions. Then I recounted some of my questions I had prepared to ask her husband.
She then told me that he would not be able to answer my questions. It seems that he was not inclined to tell stories.
You see, the wife's mother-in-law lived with them for twenty-five years before passing away. And the wife said that her mother-in-law did nothing but talk about growing up in Madison County, Arkansas. The husband and son simply tuned his mother out. This wife, on the other hand, told me of hearing the following account.
"My mother-in-law was a little girl during the Civil War. She recalled hearing her tell about the time she saw her 'Aunt Sary' crying over her man," said the wife.
"Aunt Sary" was my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Hankins Waits. "Her man" was William S. Waits. They were outspoken Southern sympathizers during the war. Their oldest son had been captured and died in a Yankee prison in Missouri.
But William was too old to fight. And his large family required that he remain nearby to help with the farming.
Unfortunately for him, Union sympathizers caught him at home one day. He was shot down when he ran out of his cabin in an effort to find concealment in the surrounding forest.
This story, and two variations on the same account, was the best I could learn in over four decades of asking questions.
As I review my notes of these conversations, I see that one hundred to 110 years is about the longest memories last. The 1972 interview occurred about 109 years after the death of my great-great-grandfather.
John Morris was right when he said "At most living memory endures for a hundred years or so."