A Visit With Barbara McDermott 9 October 2006


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Today was one of those stereotypically beautiful New England autumn days, with a crisp blue sky and a minimal amount of haze that allowed for endless vistas of brilliant fall foliage and distant blue mountains, interrupted only by the occasional white church steeple, court house tower or elevated Arby's sign, and so it was with high spirits that my friend Tim Yoder and I set out to visit Mrs. McDermott, the final Lusitania survivor who can still recall the disaster.

Barbara, who is the personification of resilience and good-old-fashioned "take what life gives you and make the best of it" optimism, lives in a midsize college town in Central Connecticut, in a contemporary style home surrounded by well maintained gardens that do NOT have the 'it's fall, we've given up' look of deferred maintainance common in this season. The grass is green and clipped, the beds all carefully edged and the plants within all tended to- and not a fallen autumn leaf be seen on the lawn. It is a suitably tranquil spot for someone who witnessed something unfathomably horrible as a three year old to pass her retirement years. Inside, the house is as pleasant as the outside would suggest, with framed family photos spanning over 100 years mingling liberally with antiques, and gifts and postcards sent by her many friends in the research world.

Barbara now walks with a cane, but 'though her steps are a little slower than they once were, her wit and memory are as fast as ever. Tim had not been to her house before, and she gladly showed him the photographs of her hauntingly beautiful mother who survived the disaster only to sicken and die, and of herself as a child in the arms of Purser Harkness~ who saved her~ on the morning after the disaster. There is something indescribable about being in the presence of living history, and of being able to look from a photo nearly 92 years old to its subject standing beside one, and saying "it is a privilege" does not begin to capture it.

Mrs. McDermott has "hosted" me several times, and today was my turn to reciprocate. She chose a favorite restaurant close by her house, and to insure that she was comfortable on the drive we pushed the front passenger seat of my sports coupe back as far as it could go and hoped than entrance and exit would not prove too difficult for our friend. Tim is about 4 inches taller than I am, and so was elected to drive since he simply would not have fit into the optimistically named 'rear passenger seating area'~ a moving hell hole in which my dog refuses to sit due to space limitations. As it turned out, after 5 minutes I was on the brink of cramping up, and knew I had made a serious 'miscalc.' Although Barbara entered and exited just fine, it was I who needed to be pried out of the car upon our arrival. I've not sat in the back seat before and can say without fear of contradiction that I never will again....but, I digress.

The hostess allowed us to sit in comfortable wing back armchairs, rather than in the standard restaurant seats that make long-term chat visits uncomfortable. Barbara ordered a turkey and cheese sandwich that, upon its arrival, struck us as improbably and impractically large, but over the two hours that we sat and spoke of the Lusitania, religion, life in Connecticut in the 1920s, and the state of society today, she managed to finish it. The mood ranged from proud, as she spoke of her great-grandchildren, to wistful as she descibed being brough to visit her dying mother for a final time in 1917 and it was VERY easy to forget that Mrs. McDermott is "living history" since she is so optimistic and forward looking. Although she speaks of the past, she does not live there~ only visits~ and if one did not know of her Lusitania connection it would be difficult to guess her age when speaking with her. Barbara is also a very good listener, and so the across the table conversation was always a dialogue and not a monologue. It seemed too soon that we climbed (and in my case, wedged) ourselves into the car to return her home.

Mrs. McDermott sends her best to all of those who by phone and letter have sent their well wishes to her this past year. She is indeed grateful for the many kindnesses shown to her by friends, researchers and the Almighty, and concluded our visit by saying "I thank Him every day. After all, He spared my life when I was three." a gracious quote that, more than any other I can think of, captures the essence of what makes mrs. McDermott so special.
 
Hi Jim-
So glad you and Tim had a great time with Barbara and that she was well enough to go out to a restaurant and enjoy the fall weather. Can't wait to see the pictures.
Mike
 
Hi Jim,

Sounds like a great day was had by all. I wish I was there. Next time you want to buy someone lunch, give me a call!!!

Regards,

Peter
 
>Sounds like a great day was had by all. I wish I was there. Next time you want to buy someone lunch, give me a call!!!

We used your credit card! Seriously, 'though, the three of us would have enjoyed having you there.

>Looking forward to the photos.

None were taken. We wanted this to be a relaxed visit among friends and, to be honest, on occasions such as this the nicest pictures are the ones you carry with you in your head....so I kept my digital under wraps.
 
Jim,

In your past visits with Mrs. McDermott have you done an audio tape of her recollections of Lusitania? Have you video taped her? Everything I've heard about her indicates she is full of energy and has a real love for life.

I hope someday to meet this remarkable woman. I almost did a couple years ago when she was scheduled to attend the TIS convention in Washington, but she had to cancel due to some medical issues. It was completely understandable, but very disappointing to me! Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity--I hope so.

BTW, Tim is a friend of mine--say "hi" to him for me!

Denise
 
Hello, Denise:

>In your past visits with Mrs. McDermott have you done an audio tape of her recollections of Lusitania? Have you video taped her?

No, I've not. Here's why~ even the best interview subject 'loses something' when the tape starts rolling. Some become inhibited, while others go to the other extreme and become more emotional, not to mention verbose (aka "Giving a Performance") and I find that the best thing to do is just sit with an interview subject, talk with them for as long as they wish, and accurately jot down the best quotes for posterity. When people are being taped they tend to stick to a linear narrative, which more often than not gets a bit stilted~ one gets the best quotes, and the best information, when the subject is allowed to speak from the top of the head and let the conversation go where it will. So, the three of us were 'all over the map' while we talked, but in the end I heard several new details of Barbara's story that came to her spontaneously, and got one classic witty quote to use in a future article, that came as an off the cuff thought as Barbara worked her way through the 7 pound sandwich placed before her.

>Everything I've heard about her indicates she is full of energy and has a real love for life.

Barbara really loves people, in particular 'her guys' and Shelley, and is not shy about letting them know it. That is perhaps her most endearing trait~ if you are kind to her, you have a friend for life. Last year she presented 'the guys' and Shelley with afghans she painstakingly knitted, on another occasion she made everyone shirts, and when you visit her house she makes sure that you are well fed~ it is very much like having a cool third grandmother who happened to survive a shipwreck. She has often said "it is wonderful to be surrounded by so many nice people at this age," but she is the sort of person who makes it easy to be nice!

>Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity--I hope so.

I hope that you do as well! In the car going back to her house, she laughed and told Tim "now you're one of the guys, too" and invited us back, with the suggestion that we do it in the spring because the roads in her part of Connecticut can be difficult during the snow months, and she does not want anyone to risk getting hurt while attempting to visit her. It is an offer we, of course, will take up, but hopefully before the spring thaw.

>Tim is a friend of mine--say "hi" to him for me!

Done!
 
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