I recently had the pleasure of reading The Last Leaf by Stuart Lutz. Perhaps it was the passing of my father late last year, but it had an impact on me that I would not have predicted.
The complete title is The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors. Over a ten-year period, Lutz tracked down and personally interviewed individuals who, as Bernard Edelman states in the Foreword, are "footnotes to history." These are the men and women "who witnessed or experienced events of historical, technological or social significance in the turbulent and tempestuous twentieth century." They are the last leaves clinging to historical branches on America's collective family tree.
There are almost forty interviews including Dr. Albert Wattenberg, the last surviving physicist to witness the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago under the direction of Dr. Enrico Fermi and Thomas Brewer, the little boy who drew the names of the jurors for the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The Dayton, Ohio science teacher, John Scopes, was defended by Chicago's own Clarence Darrow. You will also read how clever Rose Freedman was able to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and three-year old Barbara Anderson McDermott survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.
Each is a wonderful, powerful story, and I heartily recommend the book. But, while the stories are impressive, what really started me thinking about the impact of the book was Lutz's short "Afterward." With a bit of urgency, I have personally taken his recommendation to heart and recently presented my mother with a stack of blank notebooks. "Here you go, Mom. Tell me about my family." Sure, I have heard a few stories of how my steel-town grandparents lived through the Great Depression and how my Mom used to pick up warm tar from the street to clean her teeth. (She saw a dentist for the first time after she and Dad were married.)Unfortunately, with Dad's death, a last leaf fell and now there are stories that will never be told. So, to all of you who have yet to record the history of your family, I encourage you to take Mr. Lutz's suggestion to heart ...before your own last leaf falls and the library is closed...
There is an old African proverb that says “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”[i] At the time of this book’s publication, about three-quarters of the Last Leaves have died. Every time one passes, our national memory dims slightly.
As an historian, I have long thought that an individual’s stories - tales filled with bravery, innovation, tragedy, luck, exploration, risk, loss and humor - are as important as an event’s larger significance. While many of us will not actively change the great river of history, few are unaffected by its strong currents. Many of us create our own tributaries, whether by chance or by intention.
Yet today, future Last Leaves walk among us. There are people who have witnessed great occurrences, or participated in important technical, military, cultural and social events. Some of these have already happened, a number of them are occurring now, and many more are destined to take place. And those future Last Leaves will live decades after their events and will recount their personal histories for many years to come.
If you are a young reader of this book, ask your grandparents what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression, in a segregated country, or through the turbulent Vietnam era. If you have children or grandchildren, please tell them your memories and about our country’s history, the beautiful, the heroic and the heartbreaking. All these stories are part of their own future narrative. We all build libraries of our own lives.
From Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010); www.prometheusbooks.com. Copyright (c) 2010 Stuart Lutz. Reproduced by permission of the author and publisher.
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