My maternal grandmother was born in 1922. A Midwestern farm girl, she lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She was part of that revered group known as “the greatest generation.” She married at 18, had my mother two years later, then my uncle.
She could whip together a massive and tasty meal for a group of farmhands while my curly-haired uncle sat nearby in his highchair and my mother clung to her leg. She baked bread while her family slept, could drive a tractor, worked in a lawnmower factory many years alongside her husband, then came home in the evenings to work the farm, trying to pull together the money to send their two children to college—quite the dream for a woman who was the first in her Norwegian-American family to graduate high school.
She took life by the horns, but, in “greatest generation” fashion, she did it with grace. Too poor to buy suits from a department store, she made her own clothes, modeling her Sunday attire on the suits she saw Jackie Kennedy wearing on TV. She paired them with white gloves, high heels, and pillbox hats set atop her dark red curls. She had steely blue eyes, but she rarely smiled—she was ashamed of her less than perfect teeth.
My dad (her son-in-law) remembers her as a force to be reckoned with—one who would turn heads the moment she entered the high school theater to watch her daughter in a play. Never mind that she worked hard and had rough hands. She radiated an aura of dignity and strength.
She wore high heels to church on Sunday until she was nearly 90. She put on pretty blouses, jewelry, and lipstick to go to the grocery store.
She was… is…my model of what a woman should be—resilient, courageous, and willing to do what needs to be done.
Her husband, my grandfather, like her, was not perfect. But he aspired to great things; he was ambitious and entrepreneurial. Some said he had the best farmland in Cottonwood County, Minnesota, and he worked hard, played hard, was as stubborn as he was small and skinny. He was a voracious reader—in the attic of my grandparent’s house are boxes and boxes of his books, mostly history. Saturdays would find him playing baseball—lanky and quick, he could run like the wind. He lived on strong coffee and Lucky Strikes, adored his four granddaughters, wanted them all to have red hair just like his wife, paid off his farm before he died—young, at age 63.
Seven miles north of my maternal grandparents’ farm, my dad’s parents lived. My paternal grandfather, only a second generation American, was president of the local bank and a member of the schoolboard. He wore suits to work every day, accompanied by a fashionable hat, which he removed whenever he entered a building. He was distant but carried within him a deep desire to do good, to change his little corner of the world. When local farmers couldn’t qualify for loans at the bank he oversaw, he provided them “character” loans out of his own pocket.
These were the potent models of my youth—their strength of character emblazoned on my memory….
I remember reading a book in college by Michael C. C. Adams, The Best War Ever, in which, to a degree, he debunked the American myth of World War II as a time of prosperity, equality, and national unity. But he couldn’t debunk the greatest generation. There was no undoing the fact that the cultural norm (or at least aspiration) of that period included a phenomenal sense of doing the right thing (even if history would prove it wasn’t always right), being a man (or woman) of character, eschewing the self-absorption so common to our modern world, and giving one’s all.
I was at a conference this last week in Berkeley, California, where life is a bit more lax than in the East. In my typical nod to the manner of conduct my grandmother taught me, I dressed in a suit and heels. Always, she advised me, one’s dress should reflect how one feels about what one is doing or whom one is with. (Perhaps I owe to her my discontent with a man who wears flip-flops and shorts to dinner.)
Let’s just say I was severely outnumbered by much more careless attire at this Pacific Coast event, and one of the conference attendees even came over to me and said, a bit snippily, “So I guess you are one of those women who can do everything and can do it in heels!”
A little miffed, I replied, “Well, yes, this is how I roll.”
And, to a large degree it is. Because I can’t really get the “greatest generation” out of my soul. Or maybe it’s ancestor guilt—being the great-granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrants who came to the U.S. with little but were soon landowners, had banker sons, doctor grandchildren.
Lift the next generation a little higher.
Recognize your individual responsibility. Don’t blame others for your failures.
Be honest about who you are and what you stand for.
Know how to take care of yourself and your family.
Don’t be pitiful. Don’t whine.
Care about the welfare of your friends and neighbors.
Don’t pretend. Actually be the person you envision in your soul.
I won’t claim my grandparents were infallible. By today’s standards, many of the greatest generation’s cultural norms would be considered downright dysfunctional—like staying in an abusive marriage, hiding one’s pain from family and friends, maintaining stoicism (and stubbornness) in the face of trouble or the revelation of personal fault.
I am a student of history, and I look at my grandparents’ generation through the lens of history, through the cultural standards of their time.
My maternal grandmother met my grandfather at a dance. Those were the days when, unless you were Baptist, knowing how to dance was a social requirement. I am sure she danced backwards beautifully in heels. Because that was just how she rolled….
Finding women and men of that ilk today is no small feat, and grace is a largely lost art. Grace of conduct, grace of soul.
Back to Berkeley: When I sidled up to the bar at the hotel where I was staying, I was soon joined by a man to my left, who asked, “Is this seat taken?”
“No,” I replied. “Help yourself.”
Given his camaraderie with the bar and restaurant staff, I knew he must be a local and began asking him about the restaurant scene. He obliged, all the while wearing a baseball cap…indoors…when it would have taken half a second to remove it.
These are the things my grandparents taught me to notice, and my mother contends it has all made me a very fussy woman who is overly selective in her intimate friends and romantic interests.
But, if the greatest generation has taught me anything, it has taught me to hold myself (as well as others) to high standards and to aspire to and inspire in others a striving toward what the Buddhists call Nirvana but which is merely learning to feel divinity and exercise grace regardless of one’s outside circumstances.
I prefer to call it skill in dancing backwards in high heels.