Madeline Albright wrote recently, “It is in the abnormal times that we learn the most about ourselves and others.” I can indeed relate.
Over a decade ago, my mother passed away after a brief intense illness. Following, I frequently described myself as the middle child in the family grief equation: vigilant and accommodating to both my father’s bereft confusion and my child’s intense clarity of loss. Each suffered greatly – both required me to be both a steady anchor and soft-landing place.
Now, in this pandemic year of 2020 “perfect vision,” when our collective path forward is myopic and blurred, it is again in this generational “middle child” dynamic where I am learning most, finding both solid mooring and gentle hope.
Encouragement and insights from both my parents drift into my mind and linger as lessons for today. As children, they had little: my mother’s family of four lived in one room of a boarding house; my father ate mayonnaise sandwiches; families moved incessantly, one step ahead of the landlord. In the shadow of WWII terror, car headlights were blackened; shades were drawn. Everyone lived under the radar.
Anyone raised by parents who lived through the Great Depression heard the prescription for survival: be frugal and faithful, and remember those with less than you. When one was fortunate enough to have a job, you “showed up” and worked to hang onto it, rather than use it as a passing step for advancement. You minimized the need for loans; paid off debts and stayed within your means. Through education, you learned to think, worked hard, and acquired the tools to get ahead.
Today, as my daughter and I hunker down as a family unit, and my father too has since passed away, his guiding principle of gratitude for the basics (food, roof, job, school) resonates through our day. We are not living on the edge as my parents did during the Depression, but family hope earned through their childhoods of uncertainty now bolsters our confidence.
My daughter Claire’s quiet fortitude to fulfill her distance learning responsibilities as a Columbia University freshman, select courses for next semester and interview for internships (without a definite start date), colors my own optimistic vision for the future. Each caring college advisor counsels her to, “learn to live with uncertainty.” She is no doubt building life skills and character traits which will become central to her generation’s story. Flexibility paired with resolve will create unwavering resilience.
I imagine that my great grandchildren will learn about Claire’s college days, when she was hastened out of her Washington Heights dorm to make room for courageous Columbia Presbyterian medical staff; when she learned that not every step in life follows a prescribed path, even for the most conscientious student; and when, hopefully, she tells them about how their great grandmother organized family Zoom calls to keep everyone connected, and sustained a home for her of purpose and hope.
That will be my own generation’s story.