She sat at the end of the hall on an upholstered chair, looking like a nineteenth century china doll. Although she was a living human being, she didn’t blink. Small and wrinkled, she wore a lace cap over her thin white hair, a fancy shawl around her shoulders, and her small, gnarled hands clasped a closed fan. Her dress was a dark shiny silk that fell to the floor in folds. At 106, she was the oldest living person I had ever seen. I said hello, hoping she would speak to me, but she said nothing. She did not look at me or my Yankee father, the strangers who had entered her house that cold day. She had seen more than one Yankee tramp though her home.
When we left Louisiana, Dad drove along the Mississippi north to Natchez. His goal was to visit the Vicksburg battle field and follow the highway that parallels the Natchez Trace, an old Indian trail, from Natchez to Nashville, from where we would cross Tennessee and drive home to North Carolina.
My Dad was what is known as a Civil War buff. On one trip after another, he had taken me all over the South to visit the various sites associated with the War. This time, we were making various stops on our way back from visiting Mr E, Dad’s client in Opelousas LA. Dad had worked in several business stops on this tour through some of the states where I had lived before I was eight, when we settled in High Point NC.
Today we were in Natchez visiting some of the antebellum houses that form a museum of the Old South. The old lady whose name I do not remember was 106. She had been 11 at the start of the Civil War, and remembered the event according to the lady who hovered over her. She had been born and lived in the house where Dad and I now walked on scarlet carpet. The house was modeled on the Greek revival architectural lines so popular in the South in the mid-nineteenth century. It had a large central hallway and many rooms filled with fine furnishings on either side and upstairs. The girl now turned old woman was a major exhibit. In my child’s heart, she was the most curious exhibit of all.
After WWII, perhaps because the nation had the wherewithal for the first time since before WWI, a frenzy of preservation took place which continued until recently. The celebration of the bicentennial probably had something to do with this interest in the past. Civil War battlefields that had returned to pastureland, termite ridden structures, many covered with Wisteria, Honeysuckle and Kudzu vines were recovered and restored. Even whole towns were recovered and preserved during the frenzy of reconstitution.
Because I became enamoured with history when I was younger, I always aware that someday, I would be older, although the realization I would be OLDER never really occurred until recently. Even now when I encounter people in their 80s and 90s I know that I don’t really know what it is like to be OLD. I look back and think about the older people I encountered over the years and I realize they knew a world I never knew. The same is true for me, I lived in a world that is gone, and no one under 30 can remember it. As I read my history books, I know the past is truly a different country, and one that is impossible to reach.