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In search of lost time | Chuck's World


Last updated 5/17/2017 at Noon

As of last month, there were nine people documented to be at least 114 years old, born in the first few months of 1903 or earlier. This is not as trivial as it sounds, although someone should probably check my math.

Not that any of these supercentenarians could enlighten us about that period. The oldest documented person on the planet, Violet Brown of Jamaica, would have been 3 years old at the time.

But in the spring of 1903, as noted in a recent Atlantic article by Adrienne Lafrance, Margaret Ann Neve reached the end of her own very long life. Ms. Neve carried quite a bit of history with her, remembering the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and having been friends with Queen Victoria. She was only a few weeks shy of her 111th birthday when she passed away, having been born in 1792.

This is why it's not trivia. There are nine people here in 2017 who briefly shared the same time and walked the same earth as a woman born during George Washington's first term as president. I think that calls for some head shaking.

As Lafrance points out, Margaret Neve wasn't necessarily the last person alive who was born in the 1700s, or at least we can speculate about others. Human longevity is a statistical subject, demonstrated by observation and documentation, and no one enters this world with a guaranteed lifespan.

As far as we know, the limit of life is around 122 years, the age reached by Jeanne Calment in 1997. Someone born in 1799 would have been 104 in 1903, though, and even given the lower average lifespan in earlier centuries, we can safely assume that there were more than a few centenarians around.

Margaret Ann Neve was just one of them.

I can speculate about my own family. My maternal great-grandmother, born in 1885, could have conceivably met someone who was alive at the time of the Revolutionary War, and I remember her pretty well.

This is what intrigues me about those who breathe the rarified air of attenuated lives; it's not how they managed to live so long, but what that can tell us about our history.

Geological time can make humanity look like an afterthought. We’re new arrivals on this planet, with less than 300 generations separating us from the beginnings of human civilization, but given our limited lifespans and the rapid changes we've experienced in the past 200 years or so, the Bronze Age might as well be the Paleolithic.

It’s easy to forget how close we are to the past.

These stories of long lives fascinate us, I suspect, for this reason. We are all eyewitnesses to history, but some of us see a little more of it. And when we hear what they heard, and imagine what they've seen, it can sometimes be staggering in scope.

A 5-year-old attending a production of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, eventually ended up on a 1950s television quiz show. Two grandsons of John Tyler, our 10th president (1841-1845), who himself was born in 1790, are alive and in their 90s today. We are surrounded by time travelers, and they're sometimes closer than we think.

I spent time with one last week, as a matter of fact. My mom was 21 when I was born, an age gap that has seemed both huge and nearly insignificant at different times of my life. She’s always had a sharp sense of history, though, and she would patiently explain what life was like when she was young, what the world felt like and how it was different from ours.

She also shared with us as much family history as she knew, and in recent years she’s learned a whole lot more. I’ve never been all that interested in genealogy, never cared who my great-great-great-grandfather was, but thanks to Mom, I know anyway.

His name was Lewis, and he was born in 1806, probably in Missouri. The same year Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis, having invented the cross-country road trip. Thomas Jefferson was president, having invented quite a few things of his own. It was the last year of the Roman Empire, believe it or not.

And it gives me a toehold in history, this distant ancestor from the early days of my country who shared my odd surname. Just as I’m connected to the former bobbysoxer whose memories of growing up in the era just before mine are my memories, once removed.

My mother’s relentless preservation of who she was and where she came from has always been a gift, a window into a world that doesn’t exist anymore but still affects and informs my life. I hope you have someone like this, a parent or grandparent, or just anyone whose life stretches back beyond our own.

I’ll warn you, though: If you engage with these stories, if you listen carefully and learn through someone else’s journey through time, or at least if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to pass it on.

And you might find yourself drawn to supercentenarians, those among us whose three score and 10 have been extended a few decades. They are time travelers, but then we all are.

Some of us have just been doing it a bit longer, and we could do worse things than sit at their feet, and listen.


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