In Mongolia once I met a woman who was a hundred years old. This was fifteen years ago, so doing some simple math has her born in 1902, give or take.
The story of the twentieth century has been told many times by sources more eloquent than I, so I won’t bother to even try, but I ask you to keep any of those narratives in mind as you consider this woman, born somewhere on the Mongolian steppe at the dawn of the American century.
She was born in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, and was nine years old when her country broke away from China. The ensuing battles lasted until she was about twenty. Mongolians had originally rallied behind a Buddhist theocracy, but when the dust settled they were a Socialist state about to launch a massive nationwide purge against religion.
Not far from where she lived stood Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s most important monastery, which was destroyed when she was in her thirties. (It has since been rebuilt.)
What did World War II mean in this corner of the world? The Chinese and Russian fronts were all far from her province. The battle of Khalkhyn Gol was fought in Mongolia, but a thousand miles from where she lived.
She was a mother, probably a grandmother, when the Space Age began. And still had a half century to go at least. The Communist state she lived in collapsed when she was already elderly, and there was still more to come.
When I met her she lived with younger relatives: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. She was a hundred years old, and shared her house with a three-year-old.
She had a satellite TV and a pickup truck, and her granddaughter drove up to her house in Land Cruiser with an American passenger. She also lived in the same spot where she’d lived since at least the 1960s, when she was already old. To my eyes the land and town were, if not exactly ancient, then at least very old, a different era preserved in amber, and the modern intrusions were charming anachronisms. But how it looked to her, I can only imagine. Even in this remote corner of the world, 2002 was not 1902.
I wonder if over the course of a hundred years she she learned to adopt a long view, to see each successive new “world changing” event as just another blip on her radar, another distant storm that would manifest itself in her world as a short afternoon shower. I wonder if she heard all the proclamations of eternal power by shorter-sighted governments, and then looked around at the hills surrounding her house and waved it away.
I hope to adopt that long view, too. I just hope I don’t have to wait a hundred years to get there.