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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Out of the cloud and into the past
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Mea culpa. I broke a basic rule of grammar, twice using the objective case "me" instead of the nominative case "I" in my column on the cyber-world cloud. I could claim that everybody does it (true) or that it was written in a whimsical mood (also true). However, I keep looking over my shoulder for Georgia Wilkes Hilliard (Mrs. T.H.), my high school English teacher who taught me grammar and, because she cared, much more. Although that tiny lady is long dead, she still patrols parts of my head and heart. I wish I had an opportunity to tell her how grateful I am and have been.

Some younger people say that we seniors waste too much time living in the past, talking about how things were "back then" or remembering personal histories. Such things are out of touch with the real world. Frankly, that is a strange criticism coming from people who spend hours fighting the imaginary monsters of electronic games or watching any of a dozen "reality" television programs that are not real life at all.

Some elders do not "live in the past" because for them it was painful, full of bad experiences, or because they are fully involved in present activities or relationships. Those who are healthy, financially secure and surrounded by opportunities might enjoy the present as much as any other period of their lives. You see them everywhere.

Most of those who look to the past are not evil, worthless or feeble-minded. We all are social beings, shaped by those who touched our lives most - parents, spouses, children, other kin, friends, teachers and so forth. When, by reason of death, we are bereft of these centers of our beings, parts of us also die. So we reach back in memory to hold on to them and ourselves.

Some visit memories because they contain fascinating slices of a much broader history, links to the story of a nation, eventually humanity. Growing up, I spent time with my paternal grandmother, Sally Wilkes Branch. She did not talk a lot but once told me of an ancestress who was struck, scalped and left for dead in an American Indian ambush that left her father, a young aunt and a neighbor youth dead. Her mother barely escaped on horseback with a brother. Regaining consciousness, she wrapped her head in a towel, soaked it with rum and walked six miles to a fort. Although this sounds like fiction, I eventually found Mary "Mollie" Sikes in historical records. She survived, married Joseph Collins, raised a large family and was my great-great-great-grandmother.

This is precious family history, but it also links to a Creek uprising in 1787-88 along Georgia's border (Williamson Swamp in the Oueensborough Grant, now Jefferson County) spurred by land machinations by the governor and venal Creek chiefs.

There are fascinating stories in the minds of seniors all around us, but they are being destroyed daily by the mortality of their depositories. To paraphrase an African proverb, "Every time an old man dies, a library burns." For years, I taught a course on "The Rural South," usually teamed with Dr. Richard Persico. Historical sociology and anthropology, it was designed for the Georgia Southern nursing program with its early rural emphasis, but it drew students from many majors. Students were required to write a paper on some aspect of everyday life of rural people before World War II based on interviews with older people. They hated the assignment at first, then fell in love with the elders and came to respect them for their knowledge and wisdom. I got some fine oral history papers.

Recently, my friend Randall Davis, photographer and author, brought me a copy of "Georgia Backroads," a quarterly historical magazine. It has a distinctly north Georgia slant, reflecting the interests of its editor and publisher, but the autumn 2016 issue has a long section by Randall on "Historic Rural Churches: Crawfordite Primitive Baptists." The research is good and includes interview material, and the photography, his forte, is art. The work as a whole is both revelation and preservation of a people and culture fading away in southeast Georgia.

Some say, "Well, so what? What good is this stuff, anyway?" I am accustomed to the question. Many students and some professors at Georgia Southern, believing that education meant job training, objected to required courses in history, literature, the social sciences, art or music. My stance then and now is that humanity is more than the work humans do, and education is more than and different from training.

We need to ask the elders about everything they know and remember now. Corporately, we could come to the point where I am. A question comes to me, a need to know, and I say, "I'll ask Daddy." Instantly, I recall that he is gone, like my mother and his and every other source to which I used to turn. Without what they remember, it is harder to understand them, what made them the people that they were, and harder to know myself.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and a retired pastor.

 

 

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