Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Oldest Person I Ever Knew

In 1939, my family took a trip to Arkansas to visit my grandfather, James William Holliday. J.W. was married to a lady, Theodosis Cross Sunderman. She is the person I remember as Grandma. Her mother, Sarah Jane Cross also lived with the family. Aunt Jane, as we called her, was my great grandmother by marriage. Aunt Jane was born in Alabama in 1855. This would have made her approximately 84 years old when I met her. She was in a wheelchair and totally blind from corneal opacity. Upon arrival in the house each of us would stand in front of Aunt Jane who would run her sensitive fingertips over the contours of our faces — it was her way of ‘seeing’ what we look like.

Aunt Jane was a spritely person with a gift of storytelling. Often times, in the evening we would sit around in the dim light of a kerosene lamp while Aunt Jane told stories about her childhood travels, in a covered wagon from Alabama to Arkansas after the Civil War.

She would describe how at night you could see the reflection of the campfire in the eyes of the wolves and other varmints gathered around watching them.

She spoke of the times, after they were settled, when they had to defend their hogs against bears and other predators and also how they would have to doctor the animals with primitive dressings of lard.

As a young woman her husband was a circuit riding minister. One night when he was riding home after dark, a cougar attacked him by jumping from an overhead tree. He missed the man but landed partially on the horse's rump. When he got home he noticed the horse had deep, bloody claw marks running down both sides of the horse's rump.

The most chilling tale of all was the night she and her baby were alone in their unfinished log cabin with only a blanket for a door. As she prepared for the night, she heard the growls and calls of a cougar prowling around her cabin. With no weapons of defense available, she wrapped her baby in blankets and pushed her against the wall behind the bunk. She huddled in front of the baby hoping if the puma found them it would take her first and leave the baby alone. Luckily the cat passed by without entering the cabin.

This was heady stuff for a six-year-old. I don’t know if all of her tales were absolutely true and unvarnished, and I admit my recollections may be a little clouded after eighty years.

Nevertheless, I will never forget the image of that fine old blind lady in a wheelchair as she relived incidents from her life story. What a blessing it was to know her. She passed away at 102 years of age. She was the oldest person I ever knew.

I guess the point of all these ramblings is the interesting comparison of Sarah Jane’s times with our own. Sarah’s sojourn here on earth began before the Civil War and ended just as the space age was beginning.

Perhaps giving up wolves, cougars, bears, and wagon travel in return for social distancing isn’t such a bad trade after all.

Finally, I firmly believe that, had they been available at that time, Sarah Jane would have fed her animals cafeteria-style minerals from Advanced Biological Concepts.

What say ye?

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