They’re all gone now – my mom and my aunts. Here they are at the wedding of Barbara, the youngest, who died this week. My mom, Jeanne, the oldest, gone since 1998, is the one on the right – that’s my dad next to her. On the left side of the photo is Bettie, and my Uncle Jim.
Growing up in the Depression, they were wartime girls – my mom worked for the Office of Price Administration — the agency that controlled prices and tried to prevent gouging and war profiteering. She met my dad there – his hearing loss prevented him from active military duty so he fought unscrupulous businessmen instead. Bettie was in the WAVES. Barb, the youngest, came of age closer to the war’s end; her husband Bob was a Ranger, decorated several times.
The Depression had been hard on them. My grandfather was unable to bring in much. It was so traumatic that once, when Bettie started to talk about putting cardboard in their shoes to cover the holes, my mother cut her off. We were in a car, the three of us, and Bettie was just kind of spinning yarns. But to my mother she was raising things better left alone. I have always understood that these three sisters – so lovely and happy here — went through plenty. I also understood that they were not alone; no one their age was untouched by the Depression and the war.
I’ve come to realize over the years that my parents’ Depression experiences had a profound effect on me. Not only did I read menus from the price to the item – and check dangling price tags before examining clothing on a rack. That was the obvious stuff I inherited. Beyond it though was a sense of sadness for them all. My mother, who was an artist, got a scholarship in education, so she because a teacher. My father, who wanted to be an architect, got a scholarship to law school so he became a lawyer. My Uncle Bob was to be a veterinarian but his wartime injuries impaired his movement too much for him to be able to lift the animals so his dream died too. That was just how it was.
In some ways, they were the lucky ones; all three sisters and my father and uncles — were able, on scholarships, to go to college. All three marriages, despite tensions and tough times, survived with a real friendship between spouses for most of their lives. Each had three children who were smart, interesting, and self-sufficient. Even so, the bounty of choices they gave to us was so much more than they had had themselves. The young women in this photograph, and their husbands, never had the luxury of dropping out of school to campaign for Eugene McCarthy or majoring in music or theater or spending years doing trauma medicine a couple of months a year to pay for a life of mountain climbing and exploration. There was no give, no leeway, in the lives of those whom the Depression and the war that ended it – had stamped forever.
None of that shows here, of course. It’s a wedding. There’s no hint of all the scars the Depression had left on them, no hint of the loved ones and friends lost to World War II, no indication of the profound pain of watching a father who couldn’t support them and a mother who was permanently enraged. Nope. This was a wedding day and a lovely one at that. Tonight – well tonight I’m thinking of what it must have been like as the third sister, the baby sister, married. Who, I wonder, was missing – lost to the war. Who, I wonder, were the absent friends lost to the jolt of economic inequality when their parents retained a steady income and my grandparents could not. What are the stories my sisters and cousins and I will never know?
When we cleaned out my mom’s apartment I found the strangest thing: the Phi Beta Kappa key of the husband of one of my mother’s best childhood friends — a woman whose first husband had died early in the war. Why did my mother have it instead of her? What, if anything, had been between them when they were young? To me, the key is a symbol of all that was never said – the reserve of this brave and noble generation who didn’t want us to know how tough it really was. One picture and so many random thoughts — probably self-indulgently cobbled together here.
I’m writing this at the beach — the ocean slamming against the shore just steps away. This little barrier island on the Jersey shore has been a family destination since I was little –well more than 50 years — so I’m probably more available for all this nostalgia as memories rise up unfiltered on the sidewalks and sand dunes and ice cream parlors. But that’s not all it is; these thoughts are never very far away and when my sister sent this photo tonight many rose to the surface. I so wish I had asked more questions and said more often “You guys were great, so brave, so remarkable.”At my mothe’s funeral I said something to an old friend of hers about their role as “the Greatest Generation.” He laughed. “We weren’t great Cindy. We just did what we had to do. If you have to, so will you.”
Look at this photo and think of all that touched these young women and their families. If, as they did, we faced more than a decade of economic and political upheaval, wiould we be as strong, as determined?
So long girls. I know we always loved you, but appreciate all you were and all you never got to be? No we didn’t do that. At least not enough.