A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Whenever it was a "damp, drizzly November in his soul", Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick, found himself taking to whaling ships, and to the sea. Lacking such options, I listen to Pearl Jam. And in so doing, the burr-edged voice of Eddie Vedder wanders down the corridors of my soul; the lyrics of his song, Just Breathe linger in my thoughts, and give name to this column.
And as the smoke of his voice clears, I think of my mother. We lost her in February - a mother, grandmother, and great grandmother; an erudite, well read, highly educated woman. Mom was a strong voice in the fight for equal opportunities for women, at a time when that was far more difficult than it is today. And as I reflected upon our personal loss, Vedder's fabulous song raised my thoughts the higher plane of our country's collective loss, for Mom's passing marked the departure of yet another member of its Greatest Generation.
When it comes to great music, I have long maintained that less is more. Just Breathe demonstrates this maxim; a minimalist recording employing only an accoustic guitar, understated percussion and bass, and some gentle harmonies. Vedder's achingly introspective lyrics stand as the anchor of the song, at once both lovely and evocative, and serve as a metaphor of The Greatest Generation. Both of my parents were members, Dad born in 1919 and Mom in 1924. I arrived later in their life and marriage - the proverbial "surprise" baby. They were ten and five years old respectively when the Great Depression began; twenty two and seventeen when America declared war on the Empire of Japan, and Hitler's Panzers were overunning the Steppes of Russia. Raised in the crucible of that time, these experiences were seared like a brand upon their consciousness. They were raised at a time when America's economy was primarily agrarian, and its geo-politics staunchly isolationist; Washington D.C. was a small city, not the pulsing metropolis now home to the Federal monolith. They were married and became parents in post-War America, where our industrial might and global dominance was exceeded only by our collectively unbounded confidence. Yet despite the tidal wave of unprecedented prosperity that washed over America in those post-War years, they would forever carry that brand.
While it may be true to say this generation lived in "simpler times", I think that sells them more than a little short. They lived through the Great Depression, the most horrific conflict in human history, the advent of rock 'n roll, space travel and television. And they observed and lived through the shift in the tectonic plates of our social and cultural fabric wrought by the trifecta that was the '60's: the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam war. In their youth, an entire generation of young men marched unflinchingly into the armed services, my Dad and two of his brothers enlisting on the same day. My uncle John was too young, and years later would say with the bitterness of fresh recollection, that the day he watched them do so was the worst day of his life. Many would face an avalanche of steel and fire on the beaches of Normandy, or islands of the South Pacific, atolls previously unknown to them. And a generation of women went to war with them as WACS, nurses and aides, or worked in the mills and factories; fueling America's prodigious output, and becoming the sinew and tendons of our flexing industrial might.
The times were not simpler, rather; I believe they saw those times through a simpler, clarifying lens - the lens of things they knew to be true. It was not the times they lived in that were simpler, it was the code they lived by that made them so. It was always through this lens that they viewed the viscitudes and vagaries of life. They oriented themselves upon the rock of such beliefs, and while winds might rage and waves foam and crash; the rock never moved.
This generation just KNEW things. They didn't rage against those winds, bemoaning, "why me"? They simply observed the wind, and adjusted course accordingly. Perhaps the greatest quality of that generation was a humility born of the fundamental understanding that "things are not all about me". Whether they ever read it or not, they seminally understaood what Kipling wrote of in his 19th Century poem, Recessional. They knew that tumult and shouting were transient; while the things of value, the things that MATTERED, were permanent:
"The tumult and the shouting dies,
the Captains and the Kings depart.
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice;
a humble and a contrite heart".
Prior to being transferred into a hospice facility, Mom spent two days in the hospital, where she began a low level dosage of morphine, the powerful narcotic causing her to sleep a lot. One of her friends, a fellow member of "The Greatest" and also in frail health, ventured out into the horrific weather to visit Mom, only to find her asleep. Not wishing to disturb, Dorothy would just leave a note promising to return again. Return she did - multiple times despite the weather. And on the day we transferred Mom to hospice, I was given a great gift; I was there when my Mom's friend Dorothy came for the last time. I was able to meet her and speak with her. I was given a chance to briefly peer into her life, and to absorb her wisdom, strength, and boundless compassion. I was there when she took Mom's skeletal hand in her own and prayed over her; reflecting on the things they had done, the times they had shared, and what my Mother had meant to her. She spoke with the burning purity of the North Star, and indeed, as I silently retreated into the darker corner of the room, her words became a beacon by which, as did the ancient mariners, I will set my course.
One other memory that is seared upon me is the discussion held at Mom's bedside regarding options for her last days. She had indicated her desire to stay at Angels Grace Hospice in Oconomowoc, and a representative of the facility was there. When the cost was identified, Mom objected. When I assured her that this was not a concern and that she should not be troubled, she lay back, exhausted, and murmured, "I feel so selfish".
And there it was - in one of those moments when the veil is lifted from our eyes, and we are given a pure line of sight into the verities of life with a pristinely savage clarity, there stood the primary reality of her generation. Despite the pancreatic cancer coursing and metastasizing through her body, she was reproaching herself for being selfish. She wasn't being heroic, and she was not exhibiting false altruism. She was merely expressing the honest sentiment of her character, a character that had lived its life by such a compass. And she was not about to change the set of her sails, just because that compass was now turning 'round upon her.
Later in the song Vedder's lyrics proclaim:
"Oh I'm a lucky man, to count on both hands,
the ones I love.
Some folks they got one,
others they got none, uh-huh".
Like this brilliant musician, I too am a lucky man; for the same reason he claims. And I am also lucky to have been born to and raised by two of the Greatest Generation.
The Greatest - indeed.