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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Living vessels of history

Once our parents and and oldest relatives are gone, so are their stories. Don’t wait . . .

Elsie Hunter, last year, on her 102nd birthday.

Elsie Hunter, last year, on her 102nd birthday. Photo Credit: Jill Davis

Elsie was 103.

I didn’t realize until the other day that she was the oldest person I have ever known. I just didn’t make that connection, until she passed away last week.

Elsie Hunter was the last of a generation in her family — she and her younger sister Uldine, my wife’s mother, who died a year ago at 92. With Elsie’s passing went the history and memories of a time none of the rest of us ever knew. She was born during World War I, after all, in rural Canada, and never left. There’s no textbook for what that life was like.

Aunt Elsie’s passing got me thinking about my own family, my parents and my aunt, all born in the 1930s, children of the Depression now charging up through their 80s. They’ve always been here, of course, and that breeds complacency. But now I realize that at some point, there won’t be any more witnesses to my own family’s history. What was the day-to-day experience of living life back then? How did they emerge from the wreckage of the Depression? What did they think, how did they feel, what was it like when my brothers and sisters and I entered the world?

I know now I didn’t ask enough questions of those no longer here. Like my grandfather, born around the turn of the last century, whose own parents came over from Germany. I should have asked him about his decision to shorten my family’s name, Dobazynski, in 1931. I’ve heard accounts from others, but how I wish I had asked for his explanation.

I also haven’t asked enough questions of those still here.

I didn’t discover until a couple months ago the story of how my father met my mother, and it was a doozy. A friend of his actually was dating my mother, but he was going into the service and asked my father to keep an eye on her while he was gone. Well, you can guess how that went.

What else don’t I know? How many fragments of stories lack context or connection? What were the thoughts and feelings that would put meat on the bones of facts?

Elsie Hunter was nearly 80 when I first met her, as spirited as I imagine she was as a young girl. She had one of those wise smiles, with eyes that had seen a lot. She was still washing and waxing her own car at 90.

She reminded me of another Elsie in my life, my maternal grandmother. Both were classy, both independent.

Elsie Callahan was born in 1909, to a family that was part of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. That’s when some overeager settlers, known as Sooners, crossed into the unoccupied public land before the official opening time to position themselves to claim the best parcels — before law-abiding settlers had a chance to get there to make their claims. It’s a family origin story I’ve always found devilishly attractive.

I remember some of my grandmother’s other stories, like the one about my great-grandmother sitting on the front porch of that Oklahoma homestead one night, a shotgun cradled in her lap, waiting for the Ku Klux Klan members who had no tolerance for Catholics, either, and were rumored to be coming that night. And I know that in the year my mother turned 3, my grandmother packed up and moved with her across the country to New Haven, Connecticut. That was an interesting choice in 1938. But why did she make it?

There are only so many documents you can find, and only so much they can tell you. They can chart the broad outlines of a life. But there’s nothing like the richness of an eyewitness account to fill in the contours.

It’s something none of us can escape. New generations rise, others disappear. Our time with each other is precious.

Time to start asking questions.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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