I grew up in a beautiful America. Dad was Dad, and Mom was Mom and every home had those two individuals. Kids were either boys or girls, and very generic after that. When our mom and dad made friends with other moms and dads, we always demanded to know about their children, eager for playmates of our own age and gender. When two families got together, it was an instant party, a house full of laughing people, with food the mother of the house had grown in her garden, baked in her oven, or “fixed for us” in her brand new kitchen.
It was an era when each American felt freshly vindicated by having conquered the Nazis who tried to murder millions of innocent civilians simply for being Jewish, or having Jewish “sympathies.” We were born several years after the end of World War II, and knew no suffering, no lack, no fear. Our parents were children of the Depression who had known hunger, lack, and bone-chilling cold in winters that seemed endless. By contrast, our homes were heated in winter, and Union Gas showed up monthly to refill the fuel supply in our basement. As a child I would watch out the window and call out to my mom, “The Onion Man is here!” When she asked why I called him the onion man, I said, “That’s what it says on the truck.” (I was a Phonics kid. For me, the word “Union” did not start with a “Y” but with a “U” so UNION man it was.
Our parents would never discuss the war, but the Depression was frequently mentioned. The tone was unanimously informative and cautionary from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. It was as if they had barely survived total immolation, but for God’s hand, and if we were not careful, we would suffer the same. This awareness of God’s grace, and their relief at His providential solutions to poverty, genocide, and starvation was real, and no small thing, nothing to take for granted. We were occasionally warned that our days of careless play and full bellies could well be numbered. We laughed behind their backs, certain the stories were only fables meant to teach us manners and godly behavior.
Freshly laundered clothing flapped in the sunshine outside, and long white diapers and sheets caught breezes as my grandmother bent to the heavy basket and pinned up even more. She would raise a cranky voice and tell us something in Norwegian as we chased each other through the wet billows in an effort to run without being caught in them. We knew what she was saying, even though we spoke nothing but English. In those days, children listened for tone, more than the words themselves. Adults spoke “grown up” and we spoke “child” and it seemed two separate things. We listened for “angry” or “inviting” or “pay attention” or “stop it.” Other than these simple tones, we ran freely past them, paying no attention.
We were so confident of their love and provision we took them completely for granted, and when they told us of their impoverished childhoods, they spoke in hushed and embarrassed tones. They spoke of their memories in shame, and it humiliated us that our own parents had known that kind of lack. We would edge away from their sad narrative, scared and suspicious it might be congenital in nature. It was not in keeping with the sunshine of our own experience, and we knew they were speaking truth, but we had no place in our hearts and minds to file these stories. It was important to them. It marked them. It was our heritage and they wanted us to have it, but we were not willing to receive it.
to be continued…