I remember the old black Underwood typewriter sitting on a rickety metal table in my grandparents’ den. I would roll a piece of paper onto the carriage, poke random keys with their inlaid letters, slam the carriage back at the sound of the bell and play “secretary” until one of the type hammers got stuck. I can still see my grandfather seated at that table, pecking out the occasional letter or medical report.
The papers I hold in my hand today were typed on that machine by my grandfather as a young man in 1912, shortly before his own grandmother passed away. They are yellowed and fragile, and I need my reading glasses to see the slightly fuzzy words, especially those on the carbon copies. They are first-person accounts of the history witnessed by a woman who lived in a small south-central Pennsylvania town from the mid-1800’s until her death in 1913.
My great-great-grandmother, Rachel Denney, saw William Henry Harrison’s body being borne back to Ohio on a canal boat passing through Columbia in April 1841, when he died after barely a month in office. Several years later, she described seeing, “a very red faced, gray haired man, who in the full military regalia of a general mounted on a white horse gave a stirring address on the dangers confronting the country in the event of his rival’s election.” That man was Zachary Taylor, campaigning for President in 1848. There is also an incomplete description of a regional cholera epidemic in 1854 which began when an infected patient was removed from a train stopped at the local station.
Perhaps the story that has received the most publicity, especially at this time of year, is her recounting of fleeing from the confederate army in June 1863. Rachel and her children were smuggled out of town in the back of a furnace cart, while her husband, John, remained at home, and together with other citizens, burned the bridge across the Susquehanna to prevent the confederates from advancing toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia. This action, perpetrated by ordinary citizens, not the military, was a turning point in the Civil War.
These first-hand accounts are incredible to read, and I love picturing my grandfather as a young man listening to and then transcribing his grandmother’s words. One version he wrote appears to have edits from one of his instructors at Cornell where he was a pre-med student at the time. There is also an outline of the story, complete with an estimated word count, (known in the writing world as a “pitch”) which I suspect was submitted to the same professor.
We can now preserve our stories in multiple ways, but we must tell them, and we must take time to listen to the storytellers. No amount of scholarly research can replace the words of someone who experienced the event, especially if they come from a family member or close friend. First person accounts breathe life into history and put us smack-dab into the realm of a world far removed from the one we live in today.
Last year, for a class, I wrote a piece called “Flight” about Rachel’s Civil War story braided with my own experience fleeing from the TMI meltdown over a hundred years later. It still needs a lot of work, and I hope to revise it with a new writing coach/editor this summer. I like the feeling of family connection that writing gives me, of sitting down at my own version of the Underwood and continuing the story.