She’s my last remaining connection to the “Greatest Generation” and she lays dying in a hospital bed. She can barely hear me and doesn’t really respond when I talk to her. So, whatever conversations I was ever going to have with her …have been had.
My grandmother won’t survive the month. She’s 92. And once she’s gone, I won’t know anyone left who lived through the depression or World War II. People who lived through WWII never called it that. When you’re in the middle of something you don’t call it what pointy-headed history buffs label it in books, years later. My grandparents always just called it, “the war.” My son will never hear someone talk about it like that. He’ll never have a meaningful conversation with anyone who remembers it first hand. They’re all about gone.
As I watch my grandmother slip away, I think a lot about her generation. I’ve been binge watching every made-for-TV-mini-series and documentary I can find, lately. I’m missing something about the stability of having those folks around. I’m craving something about them I can’t quite put my finger on.
My mother and father’s generation went to the moon and invented rock and roll. And I love their generation for a lot of things, too. They soared higher, raced faster and reached farther than any generation before them. But let’s be honest …they can be a little unstable at times. And they are prone to wild swings in belief. They developed plastic – wrapped everything in it – then told us to stop using it or we’d kill the planet. They got free love …we got AIDS. They invented the credit card …and left us a pile of debt.
I suppose with great accomplishment comes a downside.
Our generation didn’t win a great war OR go to the moon. No, we took the most advanced technological achievements mankind has ever seen and used them to argue about politics, post cat videos, and send pictures of our penises to people. I’ve been wondering where it all went wrong. When did the adults leave the room?
Don’t get me wrong. I have some mixed feelings about the Greatest Generation. If you think about it globally, only about half of them were really great. The other half actually STARTED World War II. You wouldn’t really put old Japanese or German people in the same group as the American, British and French people we call “the greatest.” And that drags our politically correct, “safe-space” notions to the edge of our comfort zone. We don’t like the idea of “enemies” any more. But guess what? That was reality in the 1940s.
I’ve been examining what made that generation “great.” Was it it their toughness? Their ability to endure hardship? Their absolute refusal to give up? Their unmatched bravery? Honestly, I don’t believe it was any of those things. I know Iraq war vets who are as brave as anyone this country has ever produced. I sang at a soldier’s homecoming once, who had volunteered for NINE (that’s 9) tours in Iraq. On his ninth tour, both his legs got blown off by an IED. And when they found him he was still dragging himself toward his men to help them …without legs. That’s as brave and as tough as anything I’ve ever heard about, in any war, anywhere.
Lots of people have endured horrible things. But generationally, what was it that made these people special?
I was watching a documentary on WWII and something jumped out at me. In one of the South Pacific sea battles, there were over two hundred (200) American war ships engaged …in one single battle. I sat up in my chair and realized THAT was the answer. It was right there.
These days you wouldn’t be able to get two hundred PEOPLE to agree on anything, much less two hundred WAR SHIPS full of people. And yet there they were, in ONE battle, in ONE theater of war, among thousands of other battles, being fought in concert and striving toward the same goal. ONE voice. ONE purpose. ONE focus. That’s spectacular.
When my grandmother was born, women had only been allowed to vote for 5 years. We were 40 years away from the civil rights movement. Homosexuality was still considered (by the medical profession) to be a mental disorder. Slavery had only been abolished for 62 years. No one had yet flown from New York to Paris. And the possession of wine was illegal.
Yet the people of that time rose up in unison to defend an unfulfilled idea and a flawed republic. Why? Why would a Tuskegee airman go wheels up at sun up for a country that wouldn’t allow him to eat at the same lunch counter as his white counterpart? Why would a Navaho wind talker share his ancient secret with a nation that had defaulted on every treaty it had ever signed with his ancestors? How could a Japanese American solider become “gung ho” for a president who was imprisoning his relatives in an interment camp? How did these disparate, victimized groups get beyond their own grievances long enough to fight alongside their oppressors? Somehow, these people knew something about the promise of America that we seem to have forgotten.
Maybe they didn’t see America as an injustice that was DONE to them. Maybe they saw it, rather, as an idea they could affect by participation. Somehow, they ALL knew they were on the side of the good guys …even if the good guys were still pretty messed up.
To me, THAT’S the greatness of the greatest generation. Their ability to see the greater good and their willingness to fight for it.
There are a lot of things I love about now. I love that individuals are more free to be themselves than ever before. I love that everyone has a voice and a way to express it. But I do miss the idea of common experience and shared belief. Today, we can’t even agree that our president is duly elected. We can’t agree on common facts. We don’t even know if the news being read to us is true or made up. In that kind of environment, could we defeat a modern-day Hitler? We would first have to agree that WE aren’t him. Then we’d have to agree that he must actually be defeated. Then, we’d ALL have to take some part – some responsibility – in destroying him. I fear public sentiment would turn against the struggle and moral equivalence would crowd out reason before the job could get done. Maybe even before it could get underway.
When my grandmother dies, a lot of memories and ideas and beliefs and ways of doing things will die with her. And maybe some of them should. But I’m gonna miss people who got dressed up for church. I’m gonna miss people who didn’t feel the need to constantly tell and show the world every single thing they were thinking or feeling …or eating. I miss the idea of lifetime commitment. I miss dignity. I miss grace. I miss humility. I miss understatement. I even (in a weird way) miss consequences. I love undo buttons. But life sure got taken a lot more seriously before they were there.
My grandmother has travelled a long, wonderful journey. And while I will grieve her passing, I know it’s time. She has lived well and she will die well, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, probably in her sleep …peacefully.
I will miss her. But I think I will miss her generation, and the example they set, just as much.