Probably like everyone else, the older I get the more conscious I become that I am part of a generation whose time came – and is going. My parents died some years ago as did my uncles and aunts. The “greatest generation” is rapidly dying off. The tears and memories of parents whose children died in World War II have now been erased. I realize as well that by the time my 16-year-old granddaughter is my age, some 67 years from now, I will be long gone and her parents as well.
What are we to make of this recognition, of the mortality of our different generations and their constant coming and going over the years? I suppose some find it a gloomy and sobering biological fact, but I have come to think of it as at least interesting and maybe even reassuring. What’s interesting about it?
On an island in Maine where my family and I have been going on vacation for years there is an old cemetery with a new section. In the old part there are tombstones for people born during the Revolutionary War era. Adjacent to them in the new section are the graves of generations of their descendants, right up to the present – Gilley, Fernalds, Hadlocks. No one places flowers on the graves of those long dead, or even those who died 40-to-50 years ago, but they do so on those of the recently dead. I find it a curious pleasure to think about how those families have lived from one generation to the next. The death of their ancestors beginning over 200 years ago was not the end of them.
Growing up in Washington, D.C, in 1948 I had an enthralling conversation with an 85-year-old neighbor. He described to me his grandfather’s story of watching, as a child, the British burning the capitol in 1814. The kids, he said, found it all exciting. No one has ever topped me on that vignette of oral history (and the child was 10 when he heard the story from the 85-year old man; do the math, it works out).
In 1971 I had, as a dinner partner in Washington, D.C., the famous, often acerbic and witty, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt. “Do your children have ponies?” she asked me. “No,” I said, “no ponies.” “That’s a shame,” she said, “we had such fun riding our ponies at the White House.”
Sometime in the early mid-1930s I rolled Easter eggs down a small hill at the White House, watched over our by hostess, Eleanor Roosevelt. Then in the 1950s, working at a ticket counter in the Washington National Airport, I had a long phone conversation with the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy about his lost luggage. He was polite and soft-spoken. Years later, working as an army sergeant in the Pentagon, I was in a unit investigating the Senator’s charge that the army had a communist dentist. That was the beginning of the end for him. He made a fatal political mistake in taking on the army.
Recently my brother, visiting the grave of our grandmother in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., glanced over at the next grave. It is that of Mary Surratt, buried there after being hung for her part in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln, and at just about the time my grandmother had been born. The closeness of the graves is not exactly a family connection for me, but it does make Surratt a kind of acquaintance of my grandmother, doesn’t it?
The pleasure of such memories, of continuity in change, well exceeds the pain or bad memories some of them could engender. It is fun passing those stories along to my children and grandchildren, urging them not to forget them and being sure to pass them along to theirs.
But they have also helped me to understand my own life, as someone whose generation is now moving to death along with all those that went before us. There is plenty of misery in getting old, and even more in watching family and friends die. I find it hard, though, to think of it all as some kind of human tragedy. I have long accepted the evolutionary perspective that the coming and going of the generations is a source of enduring human vitality. What will too often hurt us as individuals may be good for us as a species. It is for me a source of endless delight to be around young children, more than counterbalancing the deterioration of myself and my elderly friends.
I trust I will be mourned and missed when I die. Yet a century from now no one will be putting flowers on my grave. Can I hope, however, that some of my stories will still have a life, particularly the one about the British burning the Capitol. And I commend walking around in very old cemeteries. It helps to focus the mind, not on death particularly, but what it is to part of the long, ongoing human story. I go back to the old cemetery every summer, not exactly inspired but curiously comforted: the dead did it and so can I.
Daniel Callahan, 82, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and the author of two new books, a memoir, In Search of the Good: A Life in Bioethics (MIT Press), and a collection of essays and papers, The Roots of Bioethics (Oxford University Press).