“When I went to high school, that old car wouldn’t start [in the winter].  And every day I was late to high school… I hated driving up to the front of the high school, ’cause all the kids could look out and see you coming in late.”

Sitting in front of a woman who is over 100 years old brings an amazing feeling.  Virginia has seen so much, and has amassed so much wisdom, one can’t help but be in awe.  It’s hard to imagine meeting anyone who was born before World War One, but there she was in front of me.

Virginia Dare Sears was born January 27, 1915 in a farmhouse in LaGrange, Indiana.  The doctor came to the house to bring her into the world.  She smiled as she recalled what her mother told her about her older sister, who was two at the time of her birth.  Her sister was so nervous about Virginia’s being born, her mother instructed that until she heard the baby cry, Virginia wasn’t born yet.

Having been born before the Great War, Virginia has lived through many events we’ve only heard about in history books, so I wanted to know what she remembered.  She didn’t have much to say about the War since she was still very young, but she did remember the Great Depression.  I found it interesting as she described her family’s start as tenant farmers, which reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath.  They were lucky enough to have a good crop one year, and bought their own farm before the crash, though they almost lost it.  Here is what it was like:

I was struck by Virginia’s description of what it was like to live with an early car.  I knew they were difficult to start at times, but it was interesting to hear the differences between winter and summer, and how its stubborn starter would regularly make her late for school.

Virginia told me her father was Japanese.  He came to America when he was 15 — his parents had died, and his older brother didn’t want to take care of him, anymore.  He met his wife after a time in Colorado, whose mother asked them to farm their land in Indiana.  Because they’re last name was Nishimura, Virginia had a hard time finding a job in the early 40’s as the second War was starting.  The family eventually changed their name to Westdale, but this story takes place before that change.  Here she describes the discrimination, but also a beautiful gesture her university advisors made for her career.  It made me well up to hear.

The last thing we discussed are the gays.  She told me of a little girl that she came up with whom they called ‘odd’.  I supposed that the little girl was gay, but Virginia wasn’t explicit in her description.  She simply said that the kids avoided the girl.  She followed up by talking about today’s society, that gays can marry and adopt, and how different that is.  I really appreciated a perspective that has 100 years behind it.  I don’t know if age alone gives a person the best understanding, but I think it makes a difference.  In her words:

“My daddy was a racist of the worst kind…  I did not understand that kind of thinking.”

How can I convey what it was like to listen to a hundred years of family secrets?  Floored is the word, I believe.  When I was referred to Charlotte, I was told she grew up in the country of Louisiana.  To me, that means people who live with the land.  What I did not expect, was someone who had seen such an evolution, not just in society, but within her own family.

Charlotte Ann Robinson Lawson was born January 8, 1946 in Lizard Creek, Louisiana.  She was delivered by her uncle at home – “whoever happened to be home did the job”.  Lizard Creek wasn’t an incorporated town, but a community of farms and families that lived near and supported each other.

Charlotte spoke very candidly with me.  She said that when she heard I was coming, she began to consider the past and things that had been forgotten.

When she was a girl, people didn’t eat with “colored people”.  In fact, there was a moment of confusion when she tried to remember just how it was that the “colored people” sat in the balcony of the movie theater – she never saw them enter, nor saw a separate stair.  Segregation didn’t happen in her town until she was out of school.

Charlotte didn’t fully understand why the people were separated.  She admitted that her dad was positively racist, and mean about it.  In her own words:

It was custom in those days to witness things that one might have known were wrong.  They were brought up to not question things that they were told, and to never ask again once an explanation was given.  Charlotte learned the truth of things in their adult life – some I won’t disclose in keeping hers and her family’s confidence.

What she disclosed that I do feel can be mentioned was instances of adultery, rape, bribery, domestic abuse, and the family ‘black sheep’, Charlotte’s Aunt.  She was regularly in prison, to which point her sister illegally adopted her daughter, and kept her the next time she was out.  This Aunt once made herself a nurse, and waltzed right into the hospital to get information about their cousin when he was ill and information wouldn’t be released.  This Aunt also had two marriages, but they’re sure she had many more illicit relationships outside of those.

With respects to technology, Charlotte is rather pessimistic.  In spite of the advances in knowledge and personal reach, she truly feels today’s tech is separating families from the care they used to provide each other.  In her words:

Charlotte highlighted that their family was greatly intermarried with another family – to which point many cousins were two-time first cousins.  The family was enormous, and took care of each other.  They shared food, responsibility, and care-taking.  This became a recurring theme in the interview, as Charlotte had thought hard over the previous days about the way the family used to band together and support each other.  It was this topic that ended the interview in tears.