My mother died when I was 29. She was 70 years old. It was cancer. I thought she’d lived a pretty long and rich life. But what does a 29 year old really know about longevity? My father died when I was 30. He was 76 years old. He died in his sleep 15 months after my mother died. Maybe it was a cardiac arrest, his heart was broken after my mother died.
I was well launched by the time my parents died. I was squarely into adulthood, facing adult problems and challenges. I owned a house, was married, and travelling the world as an educator. But, I could have used some parental wisdom in my 30s. It would have been helpful to have them around a bit longer in my life. Perhaps their shared wisdom might have helped navigate some personal wobbles during those years. It took me a while to get it but they were wise people.
Today’s darkness in America is worrisome. Between covid controversies, the Big Lie of election fraud, attacks on voting rights, perils of climate change and the growing threat of domestic terrorists and white supremacy it is difficult to feel optimistic. I’m in need of some optimism, or wisdom, or perspective, or all three. I wonder what my parent’s wisdom would make of today’s politics, stark divisions as democracy wobbles?
I came across a letter from my mother written in 1976. I was taking a break from university, establishing my independence, and indulging in existential angst (a common affliction for youngest baby boomer family members such as myself). My mother wrote “It must be incredibly hard to be growing up in an era of so much self-doubt and indecision and cynicism – when so many of the old values we grew up with have been discarded. It was much easier for us (my parents generation) because we really didn’t question assumptions of society – we went to school, found a job, got married, raised a family, maintained a home, simple as that…the pendulum may swing away from the total quest for individual fulfillment and back towards the sharing of lives and love and a need for one another based not on dependency but simply the reaching out one human to another.” Given the choices I was facing at the time, her letter was a significant letter, at a significant moment in time. Her words calmed me at the time and helped me gain focus. In fact, I still find resonance with her words of 45 years ago.
I am grateful I have preserved her words and kept her letter in my plastic bag, in my closet, top shelf, left side, resting.
I remember a distinct conversation with my mother in the late 70’s. All did not seem positive in the world at the time – post Vietnam, post Nixon, the malaise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the rise of conservatism and Reagan, concerns about Supreme Court appointees, refugees arriving from Vietnam and Cuba, tension between Russia and the US over Afghanistan. It all seems familiar relative to current political crisis levels. Over the course of the conversation I recall my mother describing her profound fear that the world order would disintegrate in the late 30’s and early 40’s with Hitler and Germany’s rise to power. She talked of the dark days of WW 2. She feared the worst. Issues in the late 70s were nothing to worry about relative to her experiences in the late 30’s. I’ve often reminded myself of my mother’s attitude during those days as a way to maintain perspective – especially lately.
What would my mother say about the state of the world today? I can only imagine.
What would my mother’s mother (my Grandmother) say? She was in her 30s during WW I and the Spanish Flu, and her 50s during the depression and the rise of Nazis. She lived through both world wars and had two sons enlisted during WW 2. She witnessed at least 4 major lifetime events. Even without cable news 24/7 endlessly circulating, the experiences for my Grandparents must have felt dire. What would she say about the state of the world today? Again, I can only imagine.
Decades earlier, in 1865, my Great Great Grandmother, Cornelia Elizabeth Johnson, died just months before the end of the Civil War. The horrors of that war were inescapable. America was torn asunder. It is difficult for me to understand the peril she must have felt. One of her sons fought for the Union Army and she must have been well aware of the hundreds of thousands of young men dying at places like Gettysburg, Antietam, or Bull Run. What would she say of today’s divisive politics in America? As an 1850s abolitionist, what would she think of race relations in America 160 years later. I am certain she would plead with us to come to our senses as a nation.
My Great Great Grandmother was a devoted citizen of the United States. She knew of the struggle to shed British colonial rule. She knew of her grandfather’s enthusiastic participation in the revolutionary war, fighting in the battle of Bunker Hill. She captured the spirit of the Revolutionary War in a high school essay composed in 1833 at the age of 15.
It was a time of anxious suspense. ___ The balance trembled which was to decide the fate of our country forever…..if they succeeded they would be the instruments of giving freedom and happiness of unborn millions; if not disgrace slavery or death would be their lot for all who signed the Declaration (of Independence) would be beheaded as rebels.
Is it possible that America might find itself so divided once again? Could the divisions within America lead to conditions that mirror the divisions of the past? Our divisions are deep, visceral, and stretch across America. There are current leaders and politicians only interested in preserving power. Her essay continued:
But Heaven was propitious, a gracious Providence protected us watched over the rising interest of our country, and we are now a free and happy people. Who has not read that tale of our country’s woes and sufferings, but to a patriotic heart its recitation will not be uninteresting, and the memory of those who fought and bled in freedoms cause will be treasured up in memory’s choicest chambers.
Fifty years earlier, America evolved from a revolution into the free democratic republic we have lived since. As a young woman, she knew enough to acknowledge the sacrifice of a generation before her, during the Revolutionary War days and that memories from that generation would be held in the memories of future citizens.
What would she say of today’s politics? She might offer a similar warning as Benjamin Franklin was reported to have offered.
As the story has been told, Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when someone shouted out, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
To which Franklin supposedly responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s words issue an ominous warning. Are we about to lose our Republic? Many believe democracy is under an existential threat.
If only generations could speak and share contents of their “choicest chambers”. Generational wisdom could provide perspective. But an explanation for the state of American society and culture is elusive. Where is the sense of duty to this country? Many fly flags and carry guns claiming to be patriots, and many of those same people spew white supremacist and anti-semitic hatred. My Great Great Grandmother was a patriot, and an abolitionist. She believed in liberty and selflessness. In America today, liberty and freedom are wrapped in a blanket of individual selfishness. I am free to do whatever is good for myself, the larger population be damned. We are a selfish and divided population. To use my mother’s words, are we on a “quest for individual fulfillment” meaning selfish freedom and liberty. Might the “pendulum swing…..back towards the sharing of lives and love and a need for one another”?
What will be the legacy of these years? While it’s hard to be optimistic today, I take some strength in knowing that generations before struggled with events that felt hopeless, dangerous, and frightening. That is not to deny the seriousness of today’s divisions but simply a reminder that American democracy has been messy, violent, shaky, and strong for 230 years.
I do wonder what those who came before me would think of the direction in which our world is headed. I’m certain my parents, and likely my grandparents, would be consumers of liberal leaning media. My mother would undoubtedly talk of her teenage years during the depression and the build up to WW 2. She would urge alertness, and to watch for troubling parallels in those enthralled with autocracy. I believe her mother, my grandmother, would have shared similar progressive perspectives and, given her life experiences, her message of concern for democracy would carry even greater weight. My Great Great Grandmother, Cornelia Mussey Johnson, the abolitionist with deep religious convictions and a thoughtful mindset, would likely scream warning sounds at the top of her lungs given the similarities between current political divisions in America and those of the late 1850s, prior to the Civil War.
Speculating upon previous generations leads me to wonder about my millennial sons and how I can support them with my words, as my mother supported me. The truth is, however, as much as I’ve worried about the direction of the world at various moments in my past, current trends in America have me more worried then ever. I cannot tell them stories of earlier experiences of impending doom on the scale experienced by my parents, or earlier generations. This is new territory for me. But, I can urge them to be active participants in helping improve the world. My oldest son must continue to fight, as he does through his job, for equity in health care. My youngest son shapes minds as a Science teacher. My children have found their ways to be impactful and that’s all I can ask of them.
I believe times are tenuous and American democracy is under threat. While I believe generations before me would urge a healthy historical perspective if they were witness to today’s American politics, they would undoubtedly tell us that complacency provides dangerous fertile ground for actions with far reaching, and potentially dire, consequences. I’m certain my ancestors would be firing proverbial warning shots to ensure our actions and attentions are focused upon, and committed to, choosing the right path.