I was ruminating on the passage of time, the way the years seem to slip by faster and faster the older one gets. For some reason I thought of something that happened the summer I turned eight years old.
It was 1961. As was not uncommon, I was spending the summer on my grandparents’ farm two-and-one-half miles north of Brazil, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta.
One day in late summer, August, I think , Pop – the same name my grandchildren who have heard and read countless stories about my Pop, call me – informed me that we were going to visit Mrs. Ferguson for her birthday.
Pop and Mr. Ferguson had been great friends. In fact, at one point Pop was purchasing a place out at Friendship (where my father was born) from Mr. Ferguson and his sisters in the late 1920’s when the Great Depression struck. Unable to make his annual payment, Pop asked for additional time. That was fine with Mr. Ferguson, but his sisters disagreed and outvoted him. Pop lost the farm and every dollar he had put into it.
It is hard to imagine how crushing that must have been, but it did nothing to diminish Pop’s and Mr. Ferguson’s friendship which lasted until Mr. Ferguson passed away. Pop took over management of the King place shortly thereafter.
I was not enthusiastic about putting on church clothes on any day other than Sunday. Actually I was not very enthusiastic on Sunday either, but Cat – that is what I called my grandmother – insisted, and off we went.
What do I remember about that summer day in 1961? I remember that Mrs. Ferguson’s garden was close to her house and that she had rows of tall sunflowers down one side of the garden with blossoms the size of saucers tracking the sun’s progress. Sparrows and finches flitted among the stalks, chattering incessantly. The house was wood-framed and painted white. Despite the usual humidity it felt and smelled dry and slightly musty inside. The rooms were filled with curtain-filtered sunlight cascading through tall, open windows.
I approached Mrs. Ferguson cautiously. She was very old, thin but not frail, lively actually, and seated in a rocking chair where she was receiving her guests and well-wishers. I shook her dry hand and mumbled ‘Happy Birthday, Miz Ferguson,’ then got a cup of punch and settled into an unobtrusive seat in the corner.
Soon Mrs. Ferguson’s parlor was filled with people, mostly very old people to my thinking, and the stories started flowing with the gentle give and take of people with long and intertwined histories, but the parts that stuck out with me were the old, old stories. You see, it was not just any birthday. It was Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday.
I may only have been eight years old, but I could do arithmetic and had some idea of the history of the South, so I quickly put together that Mrs. Ferguson had been born in 1861, the year before the Civil War began. She did not remember much about the War, but the hard times after the War were vivid. The stories eddied and flowed about the room, hard times and flush, good crops and bad, loved ones gone, nods of agreement and gentle corrections of imperfect memories.
So how distant is the past? Most people consider the Civil War ancient history, but it resounds in many families. Cat never knew her mother who passed away two months after Cat was born, and ironically Cat’s mother never knew her father who died of pneumonia in North Carolina on his way back to Mississippi from the surrender in Virginia. In fact, he is buried less that ten miles from where I in live in Charlotte.
And I am a white man. How much more must that war, that truly watershed moment, resound in the lives of the descendants of freed slaves?
Viewed in that light, the past does not seem quite so distant. A few years ago, I told the story of Mrs. Ferguson’s 100th birthday party to a black co-worker. He stared at me in disbelief, trying to process the concept that he was talking to someone who had heard stories of the Civil War from a survivor of that conflict.
How distant is the past? Both near and far. The span of long lives allows for the transfer of a sort of institutionalized knowledge, which only has value when shared and internalized and used to inform our lives and actions.