history is not as long ago as you think

I just noticed this article: “Ethel Lang, the last Victorian, has died but Victorianism lives on

Queen Victoria — sounds like a long time ago, right? But one of her subjects was still alive until last Friday.

When I was young, Albert Einstein seemed like somebody out of the 19th century, but he died after I was born.

The shootout at the OK Corral happened in 1881. John Ford made a movie about it in 1946: My Darling Clementine. When people complained (and not without reason) that the movie was not historically accurate, Ford snapped that the movie showed the story the way Wyatt Earp had told it to him. Personally.

And, yes, Earp did live until 1929, and he was in Hollywood in the early days, as Ford was. Did they ever meet? No way to tell about that.

I used to work with a guy whose great-grandmother was alive, and she remembered Reconstruction, the period right after the Civil War. She told him stories about it.

I think about this in relation to my mother. Not only did she remember a world without television and the internet, she remembered a world where movies were rare, especially if you didn’t live in a city.

We used to have dinner together in her apartment every couple of weeks (we ordered out — she didn’t want to waste any of her remaining time cooking), and after we ate we’d watch a DVD while we drank our coffee. We enjoyed most of them (well, I enjoyed all of them, because I always made the selection), but it was a particular kick to watch Hugo with her, because she still remembered when movies were so amazing that an audience would panic if they saw a film clip of a railroad train heading toward them. Pretty much the entire history of “Hollywood movies” was within her lifetime.

And, yes, she was old, but not notably so. Some people live to be ten or even twenty years older than she was when she died.

A “generation” is thought of as twenty or twenty five years, but many generations are alive at the same time. I forget the details, but Orson Welles used to tell a story about when he was a boy, shaking hands with an old man (someone famous, but I forget who), and maybe that old man, when he’d been a boy, had met another old man and shaken his hand, and so on.

Thinking of it that way, rather than in “generations,” it wouldn’t be that many handshakes before you were back in Shakespeare’s time.

Not that long ago, really.

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