My mother was a lifelong Democrat.
For her and millions like her who had lived through the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt ranked just slightly below Jesus as the savior of mankind. He had led Americans through the darkest hours of the twentieth century much as Lincoln had done seventy years before him. From the poverty and deprivation of the early 1930s through the savagery and carnage of World War II, FDR had remained a steadying force—the president who extricated the country from difficulties beyond imagining.
For that he earned my mother’s allegiance—became her benchmark. I grew up subscribing to, maybe parroting those beliefs. And though an accurate study of history would no doubt portray the world in terms not nearly so black and white—and paint FDR himself as less than the paragon he had been in my family—I still view the thirties and forties through that same, possibly distorted prism. (I should mention also that my father, for whom the financial woes of the thirties had been even more dire, was less effusive about the magnificence of FDR, but probably voted the same way as a method of promoting his own domestic tranquility.)
They’re both gone now, my parents—my mother for eighteen years; my father thirty-one. They left an America for whom 9/11 carried no significance whatsoever and where people who trafficked in alternative facts were called, simply, liars. My mother would have vocalized her disgust at the current state of American culture; my father, quietly observed that we had sent a fool to the White House and perhaps the new swamp stunk worse than the old one. Both of them, having lived through worse, wouldn’t do as much breast-beating as we do—as I do; after all, they had endured the twenties and thirties by trying to make things better—in my mother’s case, believing that the country to which she had immigrated as a child still held the promise that had drawn her forebears here. My father worked for the CCC and served in the navy. “Woe is me” wasn’t part of their vernacular.
Now, seventy-six years after our entry into WWII, Americans who lived through the Great Depression, who witnessed the deprivation and suffering firsthand, are leaving us. Those still around are in their nineties. In another decade the Great Depression will be an item in history books or, more likely, in Wikipedia. It will be for us what World War II was for me—yeah, heard about it. They say it was bad.
Look, I would never discount the thoughtfulness of cards and flowers and candy and taking Mom out to dinner every second Sunday in May, but this also might be an appropriate time to pay some attention, while we still can, to those firsthand—even secondhand—accounts of how a great country could have fallen into disarray and how it managed to recover. Decline need not be an endless spiral if we’re determined to stop it. Our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers—they knew that. They lived it.
It’s a good day to listen.