Two generations removed from an Eyewitness to Lincoln
He said, “I asked her if she’d seen anybody famous, anything I might have read about.” It bought a startling response. “She told she’d seen Lincoln debating Douglas when she was a girl.” That memory came back to him from freshly-baked bread.
It all began at dinner last Monday. The three of us sat down. Before long, the waiter brought us bread. He took a slice, buttered it, took a bite, and chewed it. Then a story came out, about a woman whose house he went to when he was a boy—about, oh, eight years old or so. He liked to be there on the day she baked bread.
He is my boyfriend’s father, Doc M Sr. He was in town for a visit.
He was born in 1926, the year that Winnie The Pooh was published, and Henry Ford established the 40-hour work week. In the year he was born, Moussolini came into power, and Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne in Japan. World War 1, the war to end all wars, had been over a scant 8 years. He grew up during the Depression in California’s inland empire. His family had to move around a lot because his dad did manual labor, and jobs were, well, scarce.
Between ordering dinner and choosing the wine, this story came out. He did some work for her, chores, maybe mowed her lawn. He loved to show up on the day of the week that she baked bread. She offered him a cookie, but he said no, he was waiting for the bread. That smell of freshly-baked bread—mmmmmmmm! To him, she was old. Ancient. When he visited, they’d talk. He asked her questions about her life.
“Did you know anyone famous or important, anyone I might know about or have read about?”
She told him of the Lincoln Douglas debate. He knew of Lincoln. He was impressed. What was it like? What did Lincoln say?
“‘Oh, I was a young girl, I don’t remember anything that Mr. Lincoln said.’”
Her dad had some political involvement where she grew up—serving on city council or the county government. Her dad had some involvement with putting on this event, which took place on a platform out in a big, open field. She went to the debate with her father. They sat close—either on the edge of the platform, or close enough to have a good view.
In those days if you wanted to know what someone had to say, you went there to witness the event, to hear the person’s words. You didn’t watch it on TV afterwards. You could read about it in the paper, but if you wanted to hear and see it for yourself, you had to go there. (In fact, one thing Doc M Sr mentioned during his visit was liking to go to the movies to see the newsreels—it was the first time he got a picture of the people he’d heard about or had read about.)
There it was. A cool story. Very unexpected. An eyewitness to history. Though Doc M Sr thought she was ancient, we calculated. Let’s say she was around 8 years old when the debates took place, that’d mean she was born around 1850. So in 1934 or so when Doc M Sr was 8, that’s make her roughly 84 years old. Doc M Sr. is himself 84 years old. I am two people removed from an eyewitness to Lincoln. Two 84-year old people.
What’s there to learn from it? It is enough to marvel at the connection, to trace back to Lincoln through two people. There’s more to it than that:
- The news is full of 150 years since start of Civil War stories. With all the news commemorating the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, 150 years ago is not that long ago—it’s two long lifespans, back to back, with a little overlap.
- Add another item to your interview tips and tricks: Who told you stories about things they had seen? What did they tell you? What stories did you hear about from your elders? This goes further back beyond the things you did or the things you witnessed.
- You never know what will elicit a story. This story did not come in response to a question. It came from freshly baked bread. Doc M Sr. remembered when this memory was triggered by another occasion where he had freshly-baked bread.
Nice story, especially mentioning how memories are triggered by the stimulation of senses. Luck and serendipity are two characteristics that made the story come to light