A Season For All Things
A year or so before the passing of my grandmother the two of us spent a whole day together, enjoying each others company.
We went to lunch after taking in a movie (she scolded me for taking her to a place that was "too nice" and wanted to know "How they could get away charging such prices!") and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. After I insisted that she must absolutely have any dessert she wanted ("Goodness! The price for such a small piece of cake is so dear!"), she selected a piece of chocolate cheesecake. Her eyes literally danced, in anticipation of that delight. It was as if she were a small girl, waiting for the birthday cake to arrive, baked especially for her. I like to say I didn't know if that were the case because she really wanted that special treat (a treat she would never indulge in by herself), or if she was delighted that her first grandchild treated her so generously. Of course, I knew better. For my grandmother that small piece of cake was equivalent to a crown jewel given to her by me, another one of her crown jewels.
My maternal grandparents were very poor. They were both very educated people, but they were never people of means. My grandfather was a teacher- and in fact, never aspired to more. The guaranteed weekly paycheck was a security blanket. My grandmother stayed home and raised three daughters and a son. When her children were in school and the never ending housework and cleaning and laundry were at a lull, my grandmother would read. She read for 50 plus years, every day. More about that, later.
My paternal grandparents were far more established. Indeed, my father's father was a very well to do man. He started life in Whitechapel, in the east end of London. He shoveled coal before dawn every morning and after dusk in the evening, so as to help feed his family.
He was eight years old at the time he was first sent to work. My grandfather never went back to school.
His family needed the money he brought into the household. Soon, that coal shoveling money was augmented by 2 paper routes, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. My grandfather was proud of that- he used to say that he was one of the first newspaper delivery boys in all of London. At the time, most papers were sold by young boys, standing at a street corner.
My grandfather fought in the 'war to end all wars.' He saw battle at Passchendaele and elsewhere and he saw friends succumb to mustard gas. Many died and some ended up in veterans hospitals, at 18 years of age. They would live out their lives hidden away, their grotesque figures forgotten and never to be seen. He visited some of those friends for over 60 years, till they were gone.
My grandfather never set foot in a German car or owned anything made in Germany, his whole life. It was the mustard gas, he said. The devil's breath, he called it. He said the same thing about the Nazis and their use of gas. As refugees spilled all over Europe like a dropped glass of milk after the war, my grandparents took in some of those wretched survivors into their home. My father shared his room with a young boy his own age until 1949.
My grandfather had started his own business and after a few years of the back breaking work a one man show requires, he was to find much success. His family never went without again. My father's family were to distinguish themselves by giving charity and helping all who asked. My grandfather used to whisper to us all that 'you never forget going to bed without dinner and knowing there would be no breakfast.'
When my parents first met, both sets of grandparents were against the marriage (there was a time when parents had a say, hard as that is to believe).
My mother's parents were upset because my father's family was well to do, and of another, more respected class. My mother's were poor, simple people. They scolded my mother for 'aiming to high.'
My father's family were against the marriage because my mother's family was so educated. Her family was comprised of teachers and professors, and there was even a lower court judge and a few other distant relative notables. They had a house full of books, all read, or about to be read. My father's father said that he was outclassed. My mother's parents were 'educated and well read. Not like us.'
Even though my fathers parents made sure all their children were university educated, my grandfather remained ashamed of his own perceived inadequacies. To be clear, he too, spent 50 plus years, reading, ever so slowly. In fact, he was to become an extraordinary man.
As our dessert appeared, my grandmother and I were engrossed in conversation. So much had changed in her lifetime, she said. She recalled growing up in a world of horse drawn wagons with wooden wheels. Now, jets crossed oceans in hours and a space shuttle circled the earth with the regularity of a clock. Miracles, she said.
She grew up with paraffin lamps, later to see nuclear energy provide electricity. Computers, fax machines, refrigerators and men walking on the moon were to be a reality for the little girl that had a goat for a pet and for whom a simple ribbon and a few buttons was a cherished birthday treat. She recalled, how she, as young girl, was more impressed with the running water that went directly into a wringer washing machine without have to pump the water, than the washing machine itself. The changing world was full of much wonder for that girl in the little village, so far from the city.
There were a thousand and one other differences that she noted. She was of the generation for whom God revealed himself, she said, because she was to see antibiotics as common place. She said she recalled the never ending sadness of her mother, who witnessed the death of three of her children to diseases now easily cured. There was a time when burying children was a part of life.
Then she said that life was about change- and that whether we wanted life to change or not, it always did. She went on to say that those who fought change were never happy. She said that change was like moving. There are those that take their valuables and cherished possessions and pick up where they left off and there are those whose who leave it all, to start all over again, as if the past didn't matter. Those were the saddest people, she said.
My grandmother, and her generation, were well qualified to talk about change.
This nation, like her inhabitants, has seen much change. Our domestic policy and our foreign policy have changed and will change again. We will see more technology and become even further removed from the days our grandparents and great grandparents knew.
We are no longer the America we were before September 11, 2001. We, and our children, face horrors that were unimaginable just a few years ago. We cannot pretend who we are as a nation has not changed. Nevertheless, we are a nation that has an important history and an even more important legacy. Lots may have changed but there is lots we must preserve.
We are the nation that eschews tyranny in all it's forms for freedom. That cannot change. We cannot turn a blind eye to those that would hurt us, as if pretending they weren't there would make them go away. We cannot pretend that there is no difference between us and those for whom bigotry, hate and are a part of life and violence threats of violence are an acceptable form of expression. Those people are not our equals in any way, shape or form.
We cannot pretend that this nation was not founded on the principles of religious tolerance. The freedom of religious tolerance is meant to be celebrated and not simply endured.
We cannot forget who we are. We cannot forget that it was the plurality of ideals that made this nation great- a plurality that included all kinds of divergent ideas and patriots. We cannot forget that there are times we must fight for the principles of freedom. We cannot be self congratulatory as others are kept in the cold and dark. Freedom is not ours to keep for ourselves only, any more than life saving antibiotics are meant to be hoarded and kept from those who are ill.
Mostly, we cannot forget who we are, a nation of diversity. E pluribus unum- out of many, one.
If we forget that, we are exactly who our enemies say we are.
The state of the nation is how we define our nation as a whole. We are measured not by those we agree with, but rather with how we get along with those we disagree.
A couple of years ago, on an outing with my daughter, she remarked that the new computer cam she wanted was much too expensive. I smiled and thought of my grandmother. Much has changed (my daughter once asked if I knew how to use an 'antique' rotary phone)- and much of who we are, thankfully, has not. There really is a season for all things.