Now Playing: As Long as I live
My mother, a teetotaler who smoked and drank coffee in moderation, took no interest in modern art, wore sensible shoes and lived by rules such as not running while holding scissors, kept a sharp lookout every single day of her life for the sudden and dramatic fall of Western Civilization in general and the collapse and ruin of the United States in particular.
“One day,” she warned anyone who would listen. “We’ll be fighting in the streets for a crust of bread!”
I was, like most kids my age, literal minded and so tried to imagine actually fighting with fists and clubs over a single dirty piece of bread birds hadn’t picked off the pavement. What would happen if you won? I wondered. You could eat a crust of bread and still be hungry.
My father, a teetotaler who smoked and drank coffee excessively, took an interest in modern art and lived by rules such as always eating hamburger steak no matter what restaurant you’re in, had a more subdued sense of the apocalyptic and would only say, while watching gladiator movies on a Saturday morning in the living room, that one day Americans will wake up and see that they’ve been taken over by Commies.
Not thinking for a moment that my parents were crazy, I took it for granted that, for whatever reason, one day we would beat each other’s brains out for a crust of bread while being simultaneously struck with the appalling realization that were now living under Communism.
But I also had a hard time understanding their ever present sense of impending doom. Life was good. We lived in a single family house that had no previous occupant, rode around in big cars, had plenty of food and lived in a quiet, safe neighborhood. There was always money for fabulous Christmas presents like toy robots, air guns and talking dolls; and the nation was still flush with its sense of triumph after World War Two. We hadn’t been corrupted yet by diet sodas, phony cigarettes, internet porn, identity theft, malls, cable TV, torture movies, a million new self-help books every month and pharmaceutical drugs for every ailment from “low T” to erectile dysfunction.
Life was good but my parents had come to maturity in a big Eastern city infamous for its political corruption during The Great Depression; and felt deep down that life in sunny Southern California was simply too good to be true. We were living in a fool’s paradise. The working class was meant to struggle and live in bleak circumstances because life is war, a constant contest for survival.
In a sense they were right to think that we were sleep walking in a fool’s paradise, for the 50s was the calm before the storm. Smoldering outrage over racism, poverty, political and economic inequalities and war would soon ignite fiery outbursts of protest that would forever alter the American landscape.
The 60s was a time of trial for my parents. For them the Civil Rights Movement was a threat to the natural order of things. As long as everyone knew their place the sun would keep rising in the east and setting in the west. They had been born in the South and had migrated as teenagers to Chicago, a city racially segregated by a system of unrelenting brutality.
“You can’t legislate morality,” my mother once told me. Actually, I think she told me that almost every day for years.
She was right. Morality cannot be imposed by new rules and regulations; and yet her criticism missed a bigger and more important point. We don’t make rules and regulations to become better; we make rules and regulations because we are better-because we came to understand that it’s better for children to be in school instead of in factories or mines; because we came to understand that we should all be treated fairly regardless of our skin color, ethnicity, income or sex. I think that this way of thinking about our moral progress has given me a bit more optimism about the human race than my parents had. Depression is as much a problem for me as it was for them but I remind myself that what I feel at any particular moment is not necessarily a reflection of what the world is.
For all their faults and moral blind spots, though, they were good parents. They taught me and my sister to be polite, considerate and to have a sense of humor about ourselves. They taught us the value of hard work and responsibility.
But they instilled in us more than that. My father taught me how to listen to classical music, play games with nothing but a pen and piece of paper, tell a joke and to appreciate the value of books. My mother taught me how to type by touch; and she encouraged me to write.
However prejudiced my father was, he often told us that he could never stand to see anyone, no matter who they were, treated unfairly. He also told me that everyone in a time of war believes that God is on their side. That left a deep and lasting impression on me.
Some years after my father passed away I was in my mother’s car as she drove into town. On a residential street she saw an elderly Latino man limping along the side of the road. She slowed to a stop, got out of the car, opened the door for him and then drove the old man to where he was going.
They were far better than I often realized; but isn’t that true of many parents? Born into a rough world of us against them, they nevertheless possessed a huge capacity for empathy and love.
They won’t die as long as I live.