War, loss and memories

Old section of West Point's Cemetery
Old section of West Point’s Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After Memorial Day, how is it for those whose losses are real? How must it feel to go through another — or maybe your first — weekend when the whole country mourns with you,  then watch things return to normal for everyone else while they’ll never be normal again for you. Watch everyone else making new memories when you’re just trying to hang onto the old.

I was thinking this morning about my friend Dave. I can’t even bring his face into focus any more.

Dave was in the West Point graduating class of 1951, which was pretty much decimated by “the forgotten war” — Korea. We were pinned — do people still “get pinned” I wonder? — before he left that last time.

The “forgotten war” took place throughout most of the years when I was in college. It was soon enough after World War II that wars were perceived as between good guys and bad guys; we were the good guys. The draft was in place, Vietnam was years away, military service was a given for most young men. On New Year’s Eve at the Army/Navy Club in Washington recent West Point graduates tended to talk about who wasn’t there.

When the armistice was signed in July, 1953, a collective sigh of relief could be heard across the U.S. But two days after the armistice, Dave was killed by someone on the other side who hadn’t gotten the word. I never went to another New Year’s Eve party at the Army/Navy Club. After a couple of notes back and forth with Dave’s family, we lost touch.

Sometimes around Memorial Day, though, I wonder how they survived. Dave was smart, funny, gregarious, and loved the Army. He wanted eventually to become a military doctor.  He would have been 23 in another few months.

Gordon Parks photos, through new eyes

Farm Security Administration photo by Gordon P...
Farm Security Administration photo by Gordon Parks of Mrs. Ella Watson with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter. Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I went to the Gordon Parks Centennial Exhibition at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery with my indomitable treasure of a friend, Liz. If you can’t go with Parks – who died at 93 in 2006 so we’re out of luck there – Liz is a close second best. The show itself is a treasure trove, with groups of black-&-white photographs offering glimpses into the incredible breadth of his work, from overlooked victims of poverty and racism in mid-20th century U.S or in the favelas of Brazil (taken during his time first with the Farm Security Administration, then for many years with Life magazine) to stunning fashion photos for Vogue to portraits of celebrities, athletes, World War II Tuskegee Airmen and ordinary people you wish you could have known. When you meet them in Parks’ photos, you do know them.

Liz married Parks when she was 23 and he was roughly twice that age, a marriage that lasted for nearly a decade. It was at a time when he was already well known for his work for Life and Vogue, and just beginning to branch out into writing. He would also gain renown for films – documentary and commercial, best known of the latter being “Shaft” – and music – a piano concerto, a symphony and a ballet which he also choreographed – and romantic involvements – most notably with Gloria Vanderbilt. My guess is he just loved gorgeous women who had more than a little pizzazz, and who can blame him; he was ruggedly good-looking himself on top of that bewildering assortment of gifts. He and Liz remained close until his death.

What was such fun about roaming the show with Liz was feeling able to peek inside the psyche of an artist so multi-faceted, while marveling at one facet, Parks the photojournalist. Liz wasn’t telling family tales, just dropping side observations about the times that set me wondering: was he just a little worried, perhaps, about his beautiful young wife talking too much to Marlon Brando at a party she was hosting? Or going to another party in New York while he was on assignment in L.A.? Could he have been, really!, a bit too immersed in an assignment (I was gazing at the resultant photos) when he dropped that young wife off at the hospital because their baby was about to be born?

In short, the man who gave the world such insight into the human condition was human just like the rest of us. It’s a pleasure to be part of the same human race. But what a superhuman talent, and what a rare glimpse. Thanks, Karen Jenkins-Johnson. Thanks, Liz.

Wars and cherry blossoms

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

If St. Patrick’s Day is a good time to be Irish, the Cherry Blossom Festival is definitely a good time to be Japanese, at least in San Francisco. The procession of sparkly-costumed, drum-beating, flag-waving, frenzied-dancing groups of revelers in the Cherry Blossom Parade, combined with the parade watchers, would lead you to believe everybody in town is Japanese at cherry blossom time.

Walking home from church about 20 blocks or so away (walking was the only option; Post Street was closed to traffic) I decided to follow the parade route coming east from Fillmore Street and see the action up close. Bad idea. The sidewalks along the parade route – i.e., Post Street, my new address – were already inhabited by about 14 people per sq ft, six rows deep. Before being totally overwhelmed with panic I managed to extricate myself and detour uphill a few blocks, out of the crowds.

It occurred to me, from a slight safe distance away, that in those crowds were:

People, waving Japanese and American flags in each hand, whose parents and grandparents fought for “the enemy” a few wars back.

People whose parents and grandparents were interned during that war by their own government here – and have managed to forgive.

People whose religions are vastly different – there were more than a few hijabs in the sidewalk crowds, and definitely more Sunday morning beer drinkers than church-goers – all cheering with the sheer joy of it all.

And probably no one who hadn’t spent many hours in the past week bound in a sort of national community of grief by the horror that struck a similarly festive event in Boston.

All of us just enjoying the sunshine and the cherry blossoms.

Moving in with mom and dad

Waiting lines at the bathroom? Overflow in the kitchen cabinets? Welcome to the suddenly multi-generational family home.

Yesterday a friend of mine was alternately laughing and crying (I mean, literally) over the tales of her once comfortable, now overstuffed home. Her daughter and son-in-law, both unemployed for an extended time and overwhelmed by mounting debt and loss of health insurance, recently moved in with the older generation. With them came three grandchildren, ages 3, 8 and 11. It could make a great sitcom pilot. “My husband was so desperate to get into one of our two and a half bathrooms the other day,” she said, “that he suggested getting one of those take-a-number things they have in hospital waiting areas. The kids put labels on their snack bar boxes, but now I can’t even find which shelf the boxes got stuffed into or what they’re hiding behind.”

Welcome to the brave new world of extended-family housing.

The extended family is making something of a comeback, thanks to delayed marriage, immigration and recession-induced job losses and foreclosures that have forced people to double-up under one roof, an analysis of Census Bureau figures has found.

“The Waltons are back,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the analysis.

Multigenerational families, which accounted for 25 percent of the population in 1940 but only 12 percent by 1980, inched up to 16 percent in 2008, according to the analysis.

For the rapidly growing 65+ segment of the population, there’s good news and bad news in this. Loneliness is often cited as a great fear among the aged. At talks and workshops this writer often does on end-of-life issues (advance directives, end-of-life choices, etc.) the response to any “What do you fear most?” question is never “death,” almost always “pain,” “isolation” or “loneliness.” When younger generations move in, loneliness is unlikely, but other problems may well take its place.

The analysis also found that the proportion of people 65 and older who live alone, which had been rising steeply for nearly a century — from 6 percent in 1900 to 29 percent in 1990 — declined slightly, to 27 percent.

At the same time, the share of older people living in multigenerational families, which plummeted to 17 percent in 1980 from 57 percent in 1900, rose to 20 percent.

While the pre-World War II extended family may have been idealized as a nurturing cocoon, the latest manifestation is too recent and a result of too many factors, positive and negative, to be romanticized.

“It calls to mind one of the famous lines in American poetry, from Robert Frost: ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,’ ” Mr. Taylor said. “I don’t know that I can offer a value judgment of whether it’s good or bad. It reflects our time.”

The decline of extended families coincided with an exodus to the suburbs, where many young adults preferred to raise their children, and the enactment of Social Security and Medicare, which made older adults more financially independent.

A lot of factors combine to create the more than 49 million adults currently living in multi-generational homes, the census figures show. We’re living longer, getting married later, getting divorced more often, losing jobs and losing homes. One ray of good news is that the homes now housing multiple generations tend to be larger than a generation ago. Two and a half bathrooms for three generations still beats the olden days of one bathroom for a family of five. But not many families get along as well as the Waltons did. “We love the kids and the grandchidren,” remarked my stressed-out friend mentioned above, “but my son-in-law’s first paycheck is going to go for the down payment on a new apartment.”

Households With Extended Families Are on the Rise, Census Shows – NYTimes.com.

Polish anti-abortionists invoke Hitler

It gets worse. After yesterday’s post, in which the linking of abortion to “Black Genocide” by Georgia Right to Life was reported with sadness and a little rage, I received a link to a story in the European edition of Telegraph U.K. It concerns a newly launched campaign to link abortion in Poland with Hitler’s extermination of Polish Jews. It reaches a brand new low.

Accompanying the article is a large, color photo of the poster which is at the centerpiece of this campaign. A leering Hitler, two horrific pictures. You may or may not want to read the Telegraph story or view the nightmare-producing poster. You are probably not old enough to remember Adolph Hitler, but I am. His images were all over the newsreels of my childhood. My father woke my sister and me in the middle of the night one night to hear his voice over the short wave radio so we would know the voice of a madman. Some of my most cherished and admired friends are Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors. Now, because I believe in a woman’s right to control her own body, to be equated with Hitler is a little much.

The provocative images, which appeared in the western city of Poznan as a part of a promised nationwide campaign, also carry the slogan “Abortion for Poles: introduced by Hitler, March 9, 1943.”

Fundacja Pro, the organisation behind the billboard, said that it wanted to remind Poles that abortion was first introduced to Poland during the Second World War by the country’s Nazi occupiers as a means of limiting the population of a people they deemed inferior.

One of Europe’s most devoutly Catholic countries, Poland now has some of the strictest abortion laws in the EU, and any attempt to have them liberalised arouses furious and passionate debate.

“It was Hitler who first introduced abortion to Poland, and in several days it will be the anniversary of that event.

“In this context it is worth recalling the words of Pope John Paul II: ‘History teaches us that democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism’,” Fundacja Pro said in a statement.

Values? Whose values? Does the value of a woman count? Does a woman still have a right, any right, to determine what happens to her own body? Or are only a few pontificating men allowed to decide what our ‘values’ should be?

(T)he use of Hitler, along with the torn foetus pictures, has already incurred the wrath of critics. Nazi Germany inflicted horrific levels of death and destruction on Poland, so any perceived attempt to hijack that suffering for the sake of a political or ethical agenda can be viewed with distaste.

“I understand that this campaign is designed to shock but there are limits to the use of shock,” said Elzbieta Streker-Dembinska, an MP and member of the Polish parliament’s health committee. A foetus and Adolf Hitler is unjustified comparison. The design of the billboard is unacceptable and crosses the boundaries of decency.”

Well, yes. One wonders if decency is a word the creators of this campaign can even begin to comprehend.

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

Hitler abortion poster sparks anger in Poland – Telegraph.

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.