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Henry County, Kentucky. Last week here we buried our 97-year-old neighbor, a woman named Thelma Chilton Moody Clark.  Until this spring she had never been sick, “and I don’t know how to do it now,” she said a few months ago.  As it happened she did not have to practice long, and she died having kept her intelligence till the end, and her posture till very nearly the end, for no one sat straighter in the pew than Thelma.  She had been a schoolteacher, and the old habits stuck.

At her funeral I learned what I wish I’d known before—that as a young child she had listened to stories of the Civil War told by her uncle, who had been a Confederate soldier.  As we sat in the parlor at Prewitt’s both grieving her and celebrating her, I was glad to think that my family and I have this hand-to-hand link through Thelma to that terrible and defining event in our national past.

It is a reminder that we are not all that far from our history, even our “distant” history.  Perhaps the War Between the States is less distant than many parts of our past; reading the paper I see how we continue to fight the political and rhetorical battles of that war, over and over, with little progress in charity or honesty.  Perhaps it makes more sense that we would grapple and spit in this way when when really that war is as close to me as those two long Chilton lives, that touched first Appomattox and then us.

We are, all of us, immersed in our history, both history as remembered by living people and history as retold by the latest in a line of living people, who are tied to it by blood and memory.  There are some World War II veterans left—our neighbor Mr. Taylor is one–and some fewer who can recall a bit of World War I.  There are also plenty of us younger people who have heard family stories from those years, which we now retell and relive.  My friend Paula still preserves food like her mother did, keeping a two years’ supply in the basement, because of her mother’s memory of those summers in the thirties when there was no rain.

We can go further, too, with a little effort.  I think if we asked around and counted generations we’d be surprised to find how few people stand between us and the early and mid-19th century—two degrees of separation with Thelma, three or four with another.  Someone you or I know remembers someone whose grandmother or great-grandfather watched Lincoln’s cortege pass by, or fought with Winfield Scott in Mexico, or fled as the city of Washington burned.  And then there is all the information we’ve saved.  In the boxes our Aunt Dorothys carefully gathered and kept lie copies of records that name the cousin who journeyed to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark, or was shipped from the west coast of Africa a slave, and bought his freedom in North Carolina forty years before Emancipation.

Despite our best efforts to deracinate ourselves, our history is ringing out in living and recorded memory so clearly that we can’t possibly miss hearing it–if we will just take the stoppers out of our ears.  If we would turn off our ipods and the radio, we could hear America singing:  her lullabies, high ballads, parlor duets, barn dance fiddle songs, marches, drum rolls, shapenote hymns, dirges, and Taps.  But we must ask our Thelmas for the tune while we can.

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Jason Peters' volume Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Morris Grubbs' collection of interviews Conversations with Wendell Berry.  She lives in her native Kentucky.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “But we must ask our Thelmas for the tune while we can.”
    As a kid, I didn’t do badly. I was always prying the old ones for stories from their youth. My preacher grandfather was notorious for “creating” wonderful stories of ancestors that, I learned later, weren’t true. Don’t ask me why.
    On my own, and working through state, federal, and family records I dug up the sundry histories of families related to me: the Cheeks’s, Dickerson’s, Connelly’s. What I found was men and women who sacrificed, laughed, danced, and died.
    Some ended up old, mean, and bitter, others died with a smile on their face and the love of God in their heart. Two died charging the enemy, cut down in their prime, one was a hero of Saratoga and Valley Forge, several served in the Civil War, some Yankees, some Rebels, one fell at the Marne, my father fought every battle of Patton’s Third Army and never bragged about it, I had to pry every memory out of him.
    Much of what I’ve accumulated has been published and other materials have been gathered so I have a record for my grandchildren. The interesting thing is that when I started this I was “one of the
    kids,Bob’s oldest boy,” now I’m the grandfather.
    (As I write this in the early morning hours, news has reached this place that Mary Travers(?) of Peter, Paul, and Mary has passed away. Regardless of my political positions I have always enjoyed that group and in particular her magical voice…life’s short kids, do your best!)
    I am grateful for this Ms. Dalton, and should like to read more.

  2. i only 46, and i remember my maternal grandfather commenting how his relatives often talked about the Civil War. It was one of the few things he remembered of his childhood in southern Mo. and Ark. When i grew up in Cochise county, Arizona, there were still old men, whose parents had lived thru the Apache wars. And had known Wyatt Earp at Tombstone. History isn’t as far back as people often think it is. And how about the news stories of the african american woman in Texas, who was something like a 106 or so, during the election, who family stories said her father had been a Shepherd on a plantation, as a very young boy, right before the Civil War. she voted for Barack Obama. With a history like that, who’d want to deny her that?

  3. Western Man and it’s current standard bearer the U.S., possesses a strongly linear view of history….. like train tracks, chugging ever forward and rarely looking back. When we do look back, it is not generally to individual lives but to mass events with “heros” and these events are frequently edited and tinkered with to fit the image the contemporary mind wishes to present. This is why it is so important to engage actively with our elders, and they with us….to outfit our collective memory with both individual life and the vital tincture of authenticity. My parents and grandparents passed early and I sure wish they were around to tell my kids the direct memory of the Depression years and WWII, and how they so defined their lives…..putting an indelible stamp of economy, fairness and sacrifice on everything they did. With our youth obsessed culture, we tend to either try to ignore the aged or worse yet, juvenilize them as burdens to be borne rather than treasures to be celebrated.

    The Native Americans, by way of contrast , possess an entirely different perception of time that is non-linear, described as being like a “pond”, where future, past and current lives swim about and sometimes touch. Their narrative history is some of the most beautiful poetry known to man and they are, as a result, never alone.

    The Japanese elevate some of their aged craftspeople and their work to the status of a “National Monument”, venerating both the elderly and the craft heritage of the nation.

    Here, in this time, we are terrified of getting old, spending vast sums on plastic surgery that tends to make the patient not quite young, but encased in a carapace of tightened skin that is more mask than face, a kind of theatrical tragic mask, obliterating the wrinkles that adorn us like battle medals. Youth obsessed, even wisdom is deemed of minor interest. I remember as a kid in the 60’s watching a neighbors great-grandparents, the oldest surviving married couple in the State of Utah as they walked around the neighborhood. He was quite tall and she very delicate and when they would stop at the rose bushes by the street, he would bend down and smell one and both would hold tight together over the roses. As I watched them, I would think about what they had seen in their life together, from a frontier Territory reached after an epic migration to the space age. For a moment, time….. like love, was released from the bonds of linearity and the feeling was indelibly etched on my memory to an extent that I cannot see a rose now without recalling both these two beautiful people and the love that is possible in a life well lived.

    Condolences to the neighborhood, it will miss a great gift. You now inherit and shall convey the memory between the future and our past.

    Thanks Ms. Dalton, as usual, a moment of simple beauty here on the porch

  4. Belloc wrote about his experience as a young boy, sitting at the feet of an old man who had as a young boy himself sat at the feet of a man who had fought with Napoleon. His lesson was how stories and traditions are transmitted, but I think of this from time to time.

  5. Try this one: My grandfather was Woodrow Wilson!

    . . . of course, not the President, but that’s just a detail and it didn’t come up with a cop let him off for a speeding ticket on the assumption that he had no power to ticket the chief executive.

  6. I’m a small town preacher, 59 years old.
    While sitting with a lady one time, waiting for her husband in surgery, the conversation unfolded the fact that her dad had fought in the Civil war. He was one of the youngsters who joined the Confederate Army at the end of the conflict–came home had a family, wife died, remarried a much younger woman, had a “second” family. My friend was the baby in family #2.
    I put my left arm around the shoulder of a woman whose father fought for the Confederacy.
    Some years later, When (now Senator) Mark Warner was kicking off his campaign for Governor of Virginia, I was asked to do an invocation at the event here in our town. Of course he politely shook my hand. Like President Obama, Senator Warner enjoys recreatonal basketball. I figure if they haven’t already they are sure to meet on the court.
    So with my right hand I shook hands with someone who plays ball with the first black president.
    I figure, one way or another, all of us are in the middle of something.

  7. Two Degrees of Separation! The photo of the fall woods reminds me of the Celtic thin time in which heaven and earth, separated, meet, not mystically, but in mystery. It is a pagan foreshadowing, given I believe by Providence, of that ultimate meeting of heaven and earth in the Incarnation as God in the Second Person of the Trinity writes Himself into history as the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and in and through Him becomes for us through His passion, His death, His resurrection and His ascension our Kinsman Redeemer. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation, the bride and hence the body, of the Christ. All worthy stories of man are foreshadowings or echoes of this great story which is working itself out as history. Hence, time does not separate me though I live further down the stream of it from King David, from Elijah, from St. Paul, from Augustine, from Boethius, from Arthur, from King Alfred, from Roland, or from Robert E. Lee. We know that we are a part of these stories within the Great Story, when we, as I did as a little boy, sit under the dining table after I had eaten and listen to the old stories that the adults, some whose ages reached back to those who were antebellum, told. Or, as I got to do, sit in the hunting camps before the fire and listen to the old men talk of times before airplanes, phones, industrialization, and modernity. It is precisely this intimate communion which we have lost. Communion has been replaced by its counterfeit, communication. In the Christian tradition there are four sacred places of communion, all of which are on the verge of extinction: the marriage bed in which a man and woman are one flesh, one mind, one spirit and one body, the fruit of which are children; the supper table, that intimate place of the family to which we invite the Living God to sup with us and at which we nourish our bodies and souls with communion in conversation; the communion table of the Church in which every Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the body and the bride of the Christ come together meet her Lord; and in the garden in which for beauty we plant and nourish flowers for beauty, in which we grow vegetables and fruit for nourishment and in which, in the form of a cemetery we place the saints in a last act of baptism where when the will of the Father is finally done on earth as it is in heaven, the fall of Eden will be undone, death will give way to life. This is the Great Story and these are the great communions of that story, and I am sticking to it!

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