One thing that I appreciate about certain traditions, like those of the Native American Indians, is how they look to the ancestors for strength and guidance during life’s difficult circumstances. As they say, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I’ve been drawn to this idea as we face the historic Covid-19 pandemic.
I was raised by my elderly maternal grandmother who assumed the parenting role for my sister and me when our own mother became incapacitated with Multiple Sclerosis. (Our biological father was long gone, at that point.) Mee-Maw was almost 70 when she adopted me as a toddler; my sister was about 11. Mee-Maw was a stoic woman, of German ancestry, who didn’t speak a lot about her past. In fact, one reason I became a celebrant was to try to be a positive catalyst for conversations about family history, celebrations, losses, and the like.
Even though Mee-Maw didn’t talk about the specifics of her personal loss, a review of her life and how it intersected with world events over the three-quarters of a century boosts my confidence that I can manage the health and economic dislocation we are facing. Born in 1901 in Kansas, she was the oldest of six children. Her beloved father had Type I diabetes died when she was about 14. Her mother was left with all the kids and raised them on their family farm. Despite the fact that she lived through the Spanish influenza epidemic, that we are talking about so much these days, I heard her mention it—not even once.
Mee-Maw graduated high school during the period of WWI. Although she was very bright, she didn’t go to college. She received an “emergency teaching certificate,” so that she could teach primary school students.
Eventually, at the “old-age” of 29, she married a local fellow. Within days of the Great Stock Market crash in October 1929, she delivered her only child, my mother.
Around the time of WWII, her husband, in classic form, left their family for his secretary at AT&T, where he worked. Ultimately, she needed to generate a living wage, and so she returned to school. At a time when the notion of “non-traditional” students didn’t exist, she took her education degree at the age of 49. She started the next chapter of her life as an educator.
Ultimately, in a time of life when most folks retire and take it easy, she not only took on the responsibility of raising my sister and me, she cared for my profoundly ill mother during her decade-long battle with MS. She watched my mother slip away, falling into a vegetative state that lasted for years. When my mother died, a large part of Mee-Maw died, too.
Ultimately, Mee-Maw’s mission, as she would say, was to get me through high school. That she did and then died during my second week at college.
As I think about the tragedies I’ve lived through as a young person and adult—family disintegration, the anxiety of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks in my adopted home of New York, the financial meltdown of the Great Recession, and now this pandemic, I want to remember that, as my sister says, “We are from hearty stock.”
So, as I ponder what the world may look like in the short/mid-range/long-term, I must keep remembering that this, too, shall pass. Smart, decent people like me have coped with fiscal calamity and made it through–I’m even the product of some of them.