Growing Away

There is a significant thing which is gradually fading away, and not very many people seem to be noticing it. It is dissipating like the morning mist over the lake. I think that of the few people who are even aware that it is going, very few of those realize what it really is that is disappearing before their eyes. It was such a commonplace thing 100 years ago that no one hardly gave it a thought. It just WAS, like the air or the sunlight.

Forty years ago or so, when I first began to be aware of this as being not-everyone's-experience, I grew to understand the implications of this thing on the rest of the country. Yet for all of that, it is a difficult thing to fully describe. I saw it secondhand, but still up close and quite clearly. I don't know if there is even a name for this thing.

What is it? Well, you tell me. It is born of hardship, of the devotion of family, of having a shared history. For the children of immigrants, like me, it is visible in the mix of profound love of America and old world customs. It causes people to long for the good old days even while talking about how they nearly starved. It is seen in a life of backbreaking struggle but still singing the praises of this land of opportunity.

It can be seen when the people of my mother's generation touch on some painful piece of (what was supposed to be) a funny story, and the iron will with which they turn away from the painful part and focus on the humor. It can be seen in the knowing glances that pass between these ones who have loved each other and stood with each other through experiences they no longer wish to remember.

You can also see it when Grandma reuses things that were designed to be thrown away. You can hear it when Grandpa tells tall tales about walking to school for 10 miles. (In the snow. Uphill both ways.) It peeks out in old saws about being thrifty or industrious.

The old ranching family with umpteen kids and each one worked to keep the family fed and sheltered, the immigrant families scratching out a living in some area that others nicknamed "Little Italy" or something like that, they saw this as a land of dreams and a life of work. They leaned on each other. They showed compassion for the tragedies that befell their neighbors, helped when they could, prayed when they couldn't and worked on.

We are losing something, in losing the generations that had those specific struggles. There is something rich and rewarding about being the child of parents who pioneered their own life. Something is lost when children grow up without knowing their grandparents or at least people of that generation. The lessons to be learned from people who survived the Depression, World Wars, immigration or life in a wild place are precious and irreplaceable. But it is more than just the lessons: it is knowing the people who braved those things. We can read the histories, and I can tell my children the stories of their ancestors. That can never be the same thing as hearing the story from the person who lived it. It could never replace the thing that happens to you when you listen to a sweet, smiling, gracious and cheerful old woman as she blesses her life and all that it afforded her, all the while knowing that she lived through hardships no one should have to face.

The history will live on, of course. The stories, and the gift of getting to know the people who made the history happen? We don't have many more opportunities for that. You won't be able to see the look in a man's eyes as he talks about the smell of smoke at Pearl Harbor, or about having met Pretty Boy Floyd. You won't get to have that conversation with a woman who was a war bride and what that really meant for her. You won't see the wistful expression on their faces when they talk about the old neighborhood, or Bubbi's cooking, or growing up by kisses and cuffs.

We will lose the way they used their words, and the look of their work weary hands on the arms of their chairs. We'll lose that gritty laugh (usually at themselves) and the joyful memory of a life well-lived, during a time like no other on our planet.