My 24-hour visit to way back when

On a recent afternoon, I had the privilege and opportunity via a magazine assignment to sit down for an hour and engage in conversation in his Belmont home with a man who was 10 years old when Johnny came marching home from World War I. He will be 105 years old next month, and he remembers his Civil War-veteran grandfather bathing him and he will readily tell you what he thinks of the recent election, and how he doesn’t “buy the Republican plan to cut back on Social Security and Medicare.”

He will also give you chapter and verse about how he ran his history and social studies classes at Watertown High School over a 42-year span that ended 40 years ago: “The main thing I tried to do was graduate respectful citizens, and that is the key word – citizens.”

It was awesome while sitting with him to consider that a mere handful of the seven billion people alive in the world today have walked this man’s walk and been able to talk about it in details, and with a witty relish.

That evening, I had dinner with a man who three years ago, at age 90, and after a lifetime in journalism, much of it spent in the higher editing echelons at the New York Times and the Boston Globe, published a lengthy memoir wherein he conceded that while newspapering was his religion during all those years, his deep and abiding faith in the value of facts and figures didn’t help him reconcile himself to life’s ups and downs the way his late wife’s dearly held Catholicism had guided her through a long, full life and her dying time.

Still, at 93 now, he continues to genuflect to daily journalism, print division, and is ready by mid-morning to debate, with no less acuity than he brought to his job 40 years ago, the content and display of that day’s Globe and Times reports.

The next day, I stopped by a nursing home in Braintree to see my Aunt Mary, who was born in 1920, the year that the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. When I got to her floor, she was leading, with considerable exuberance, her mostly reluctant fellow residents in the singing of a 45-minute medley of songs that echoed the Tin Pan Alley days of Victor Herbert. The words from 90 years and more ago slipped out of her mouth with nary a mumble.

Time has worn down this mother of six whose pepperiness and keen sense of fun animated so many family gatherings over so many years; she isn’t sure what happened to her six siblings, three of whom reached 90 years and more, and all of whom are dead; and she repeats a lot of questions. But stay with her an hour, and talk about our extended family and the memories come back with a sureness of recollection, and
a poignant, understated touch of regret that they happened so long ago.

This is the time of year when we give thanks for what we have, whatever it adds up to; for some, it’s a time to take cheery note once again of an epochal event that happened far away some 2,000 years ago; for still others, it’s a time to once again make an accounting of what came to pass over the past 12 months and of their roles in the process, and to consider the hopes for the next 12 months.

As I consider that accounting and those hopes in this, my 70th year, I take comfort in the 24 hours that I spent talking with three individuals who, so far as living and moving on are concerned, have been there and done that.

Why them and not others? A creator’s will? Unknowing fate? A remarkably positive conflation of genetic markers? There are billions of people on this earth who will say they know the answer, and more power to them as my sturdy trio and the rest of us make our way to our common destiny.