Turn, Turn, Turn, Updated
August 28, 2006
A year or so before the passing of my grandmother, we spent a whole day together, enjoying each others company.
We went to lunch (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 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- to her it was as if that small piece of cake was equivalent to a crown jewel.
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. More about that, later. 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.
My paternal grandparents were more established. Indeed, my father’s father was a very well to do man. He started life in the east end of London, shoveling coal every morning and evening, so as to help feed his family. He was eight years old at the time.
He 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. 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 those friends for 60 years, till he passed away.
He 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.
After the war, my grandfather 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 was to distinguish itself by giving charity and helping all who asked. My grandfather said ‘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, she said, had changed in her lifetime. She recalled growing up in a world of horse drawn wagons with wooden wheels. Now, she noted, there were jets that crossed oceans in hours and s space shuttle. Miracles, she said.
She grew up with paraffin lamps, only 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, was a 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. That reality was years away 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. We wrote about the 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 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.
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.
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 this nation was not founded on the principles of religious tolerance.
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 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 Union is how we define our union- not by those we agree with, but rather, 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 too expensive. I smiled and thought of my grandmother. Much has changed (my daughter, at a very tender age, once asked if it were true there was a time that TV’s didn’t come with remotes)- and much of who we are, thankfully, has not. There really is a season for all things.
This post was inspired by this piece by Neo-neocon.
Most of this post was originally posted February 1, 2006. We republished this today because it happens to be relevant and because yesterday, we were down at the shore. The water, waves and Jimmy Buffet mindset are hard enough to overcome, even if we wanted to.