Have you noticed that among the obituaries that newspapers publish of famous or influential people, ordinary folk also get mentioned if they were the last of their kind? So, we were informed when the last Civil War soldier’s widow passed away a few years ago as we will hear when the last survivor of the Titanic dies. Note is taken of regular people who through a quirk of fate become our last link with an extraordinary time or event.
Now the above mentioned widow, Maudie Celia Hopkins, had no recollections of the Civil War; she was the nineteen year old bride of an eighty-six year old veteran. The sole survivor of the Titanic doesn’t have any first hand remembrances to share; she was nine weeks old when the ship went down. Yet, for some reason, their physical presence in the world matters.
I am surely not the only parent shocked when something that I have vivid recollections about, such as the Kennedy assassination, lives in my children’s mind only as history. While the day that President Reagan was shot is etched in my memory since it coincided with going into labor with my eldest child, I can’t reasonably expect her, let alone her younger siblings, to recall that day.
Our educational system has a tendency to suck the oxygen out of vibrant, multi-faceted events that impacted millions of lives, instead, presenting them in history books as dull, insipid lists of names and dates. In a relatively recent attempt to liven the subject up, textbooks sometimes highlight one individual or group, but the bottom line is that human history is so complex and intertwined that the simple fact of putting it down on a finite amount of paper automatically limits and distorts it.
Could our fascination with those who were even somewhat tied to a historical event be an acknowledgment that history is not an academic subject but the building block of our lives today? Do we clutch at those connected to the past in a vain attempt to realize that the impact of the past flows unceasingly into the future? Does knowledge of the Civil War veteran’s widow’s death make us realize that we are not as distant or as immune as we would like to believe from the type of cataclysmic upheaval that overturned the lives of Americans in the 19th century? If our absorption with otherwise obscure individuals serves these purposes, that indeed makes it worthwhile.