My generation is slipping away like mad lemmings carried off by various bugs, buggers, buggerers. Things I once did and people I had once known of are slipping off the landscape. It’s a (newish) century and I’ve been foundering in it for the past 20 years.
Things I remember that probably will not be recognizable to younger people: Collecting for the March of Dimes; Trick-or-Treat for Unicef; memorizing all state and international capitals. Pearl Bailey. Tony Dow. Anthony Hecht. The Duchess of Windsor. Duke Ellington. Sacco and Vanzetti. Lou Hoover. Samuel Gompers. Harry Hopkins. Aimee Semple McPherson. Harold Ickes. Father Coughlin. W.C. Fields. Paul Robeson. When I was young, I could count on people knowing these names. The New Deal. Daily train trips to NYC for psychoanalysis. The CCC. Dodger Stadium. Eleanor Roosevelt standing back and insisting that JFK walk before her. The crazy love for Grandma Moses and Swedish trolls. Steiff animals.
My frame of reference is all covfefe when I watch Jeopardy! (College Edition). Do I really know nothing of popular music? Yes, I do. Do I still think of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower as youngsters? Yes, I do. I remember Luci Baines Johnson (or was it Lynda Bird Johnson) dating George Hamilton.
When we are young, we can sop up information and we don’t have the skills (or not yet) to evaluate the relative importance of Princess Margaret and Bess Truman. “The Kid” is Jackie Coogan. There’s Billy Bitzer, Busby Berkeley, and Benjamin Britten. Our shared cultural knowledge streams off into different tributaries.
Also, of course, I stopped learning new things when I had a sharp focus on my career. Some things I stopped learning: I don’t know about any “boy bands” after 1970 or so. I don’t know the television landscape very well. I don’t know who’s who in _Gray’s Anatomy_ although I think everyone else might. The youngest member of the cast on “The Today Show” will remain Barbara Walters in my head. For me, Jacques Brel is alive and well. For me, there’s no Harry Potter and no concept of a “YA” book. I used to know the name of every cabinet member but refused to drag interest into the 21st century. For me it remains recent news that Al Gore’s campaign was sabotaged. Hans Blix still looms large in my imagination. Things that were impressed there once, remain and new things get impressed only very faintly or not at all.
It’s no wonder at all that the world of the elderly seems so archaic to younger people. While WWII was still throbbing on my pulse, I lived to hear students complain that teachers ruin potentially superior learning opportunities by “not getting over” the War. It seems as alive to them as the Punic Wars did to me when I was young. I’m not particularly patriotic, but I remember going to a couple of parades a year when I was young. The soldiers were the best part and they did not complete with frothy floats. First, there were a couple limping who had served in the Civil War. Then there were precisely nobody who had been in the white power grabs of the Native Americans. After the Civil War veterans, were quite a few veterans of the Spanish American War. Then there were masses and masses of WWI vets, along with nurses and other women who served. WWII boasted hundreds and hundreds of marchers. Many fewer had been to Korea.
And now the people–almost all of them younger than I am—are in a baffling and deadly war where the enemy knows no boundaries or borders. It’s the war of the medical workers, the cashiers, the food delivery people, the post office, the “essential workers” who are putting their lives on the line for a stipend that the Walton, Bezos, and Gates family cannot comprehend.
I don’t plan to get sympathy here. I do reflect on how something that happened almost 50 years ago made me check my own self-opinion. I always thought that I was “good” at parties insofar as I always would bring wine or beer and drink only water. I liked to be on the periphery and typically would start talking to the people who looked lonely/isolated/as wallflowery as me.
My husband was a graduate student at the time and I was a very young recent graduate. He was invited to a party and took me. They decided to make the party a permanent weekend feature and the next week I went with him. There was a large sign affixed to the front door that read
NO SPICE ALLOWED!
The sign was meant for me; I had been the solitary “spouse/spice” at the previous party. The party was simply a beer/wine/cheese/schmooze affair. Nobody was speaking about great thoughts or theories. That’s when I learned that all of the liberal left-wing professoriate professing to treat everyone equally have the potential for casual cruelty and crassness.
While I can say that my contempt for them (having seen the sign) was at least as strong as their contempt for me, I would never knowingly exclude anyone in such a way. I’ve never posted signs against any class of people.
I carry NO SPICE ALLOWED with me almost 5 decades later. It’s not because I feel unwanted and superfluous. It’s because I never want to be that person who thinks it’s a great pun and great fun to post signs excluding people. For me it was a misogynistic classist signal that was in the direct line from “No Irish need apply.” It privileged people who were mostly male and white graduate students. It privileged female graduate students by implicitly contrasting them with the “spice”.
I saw people laughingly read the sign and enter the party and my husband drove me home.
“The truth is, the case of poor servants was very dismal, as I shall have occasion to mention again by-and-by, for it was apparent a prodigious number of them would be turned away, and it was so. And of them abundance perished, and particularly of those that these false prophets had flattered with hopes that they should be continued in their services, and carried with their masters and mistresses into the country; and had not public charity provided for these poor creatures, whose number was exceeding great and in all cases of this nature must be so, they would have been in the worst condition of any people in the city.”
Almost 350 years ago, Defoe went through a “plague year” and I am not surprised, nor shocked, to see that he was concerned about the people who had little or no money and those who had been “flattered with hope” by the likes of “priests” and “astrologers”.
You can dip into this volume at Gutenberg.org and reflect upon how little human nature ever changes. We are always repeating and reenacting the woes of the past; the popular delusions and denials; the magical thinking. My son is scornful of those who retreat to their Martha Vineyard’s spreads. So little news, however, concerns the homeless and the deeply financially insecure. I am almost paranoid enough to believe that our republican leaders knew a lot about this in December or January, but refused to entertain the notion that they could not shape the world as they wanted.
“I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the melted ego world. But I find I have trouble coming back to the differentiated world, the one you were just talking about where you have to wash the dishes and take out the garbage.”
She was very pregnant, six-months, maybe. Oh, don’t worry, I thought, the differentiated world is coming for your ass.”
She loved ballet and she loved to play ballet music and dance in the living room. I remember her putting on an LP of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and slowly, as the early notes played, she would enter the living room. She wore a black leotard and a pink tutu. She was 9 years old. She would practice the various positions and act like a tired little dancer for the first few minutes of the ballet. Around the room she went, improvising barres. Then when the orchestra really revved up–about 5 minutes in—she would go leaping across the room. In flight, her tutu waving about, her arms carefully positioned, she would dance dance dance.
Sometimes feverishly and febrile; other times joyously leaping. Concentrating on the nuances of the music; concentrating on the story. Determined to play all three parts because there was but one dancer in the house.
I loved Andrea’s dancing. It could be flamboyant and one second later segue into a rather stiff diffidence to match the music. Outbursts of speedy music followed by pensive moments animated her.
She loved the ballet. When she was a couple of years older, she started babysitting to help pay for her lessons. Her long blonde hair was tied up in a very professional topknot. Margot Fonteyn! Patricia McBride! Suzanne Farrell! Allegra Kent! We would take the train into the city and see the New York City Ballet perform. She took the lead, because my physical talents were wooden and clumpy and her head was filled with ballet—the music, the dancers, the variety. She may have been only 10, but she knew that one did not stop to stare at Edward Gorey, but only appreciate his presence.
Then she was raped by a man for whom she was babysitting. She was just about to turn 14–that October. He turned her into a private sex slave. When he discarded her, on her 18th birthday claiming she was “too old” for his tastes, she was entirely fragile. She had not kept up with her ballet. She was jaded and terminally depressed. She killed herself at age 20. A casualty of the phallus. I grieve each and every day. I know I am dying and it does not help to know that I am the last person who remembers her well; who remembers her dancing in the living room; who remembers her wishes and hopes. All derailed by a pedophile.
“If you think you are enlightened; go home for Thanksgiving.”
Yes, indeed. Thanksgiving was always a time for tyranny in my household. My father insisted on cooking a turkey which he would lovingly baste and gaze at with admiration. When the turkey was all skin and bones he would delicately, using tools, tweezers, pliers, etc. separate every edible ort from the bone and then make his patented Turkey Soup. My mother thought that turkey was vulgar and that Thanksgiving was a plot to keep the children home from school. It was not easy to be a child when a holiday beloved by so many became a battle of the wills.
This is marriage. Two people come from two backgrounds and for my father it’s a time of family and food and decency. For my mother, it’s a reminder of the poverty and deprivations of her childhood (her missing father had divorced her mother a few years before she was born and she was the product of a sentimental, soppy, single-malt scotch visit).
The result was a stubborn refusal to back down. My father’s argument, that my mother could ignore the turkey, was refuted by her insistence that the reek of turkey permeated the house. He made all the “fixings”–dressing, mashed potatoes, some form of something green–about one serving of that for the 8 of us–and tinned cranberry sauce. My brother and one sister claimed the drumsticks. The little ones got themselves into a mashed potato carbohydrate stupour. And I was besotted with cranberry sauce. I privately believed that Thanksgiving was justly a celebration of the cranberry.
Those gloomy Thanksgivings were vitiated by the Cranberry.
I always tried to be bright and cheerful on Thanksgiving and cooked for days. No soup—never any turkey soup–but lots of variations on the cranberry and its presentation.
I can go home for Thanksgiving via the auspices of memory, but I prefer the Thanksgivings of today–minimalist; no trauma; and I still always have at least 3 or 4 cranberry options.
I am grateful that the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas will be briefer than usual this year.
I wish you an abundance of what you love and an ability to avoid those tension-filled items.