For me, they were the old folks that surrounded my eleven-year-old self at the kitchen table. They puffed cigarettes, drank pots of coffee, and delighted in sharing a pastry treat from the local bakery shop when company came. They did all of this while they “shot the shit” as they called it. They spoke of politics, and Johnny’s younger brother from way back when-remember him? And other topics that at eleven bored me. I didn’t know it then, but I was blessed. I was in the company of America’s Greatest Generation.
My grandfather never spoke of the war. It was as if it were a secret code. He didn’t mention his Medal of Honor or tell me why he had nightmares at night. My grandmother never mentioned that she quit school to care for her youngest sisters when her father walked out, and her mother was ill during a World War. Neither of them spoke of standing in bread lines during the depression as children.
I wish I paid attention more. I didn’t. I was a kid. I don’t remember all their stories. I took them for granted. But I knew they made me feel safe, in their values and their history. I didn’t need to understand fully. There was something about their presence, the way they didn’t shy away from anything that made me feel brave.
I’m 32 now and they are dead. I find myself looking at the world around me and thinking about the things my generation x has faced, as well as the trials of the baby boomers and generation y. Together, we’ve witnessed 9/11, continue to face economic crisis, political turmoil, and a dying planet. I watch as our “greatest generation” disappears. Their fast extinction feels strange to me. They are a generation my daughter will never experience. I worry if any of us younger generations can live up to their passing of the torch.
Now, certainly I don’t want to romanticize anything. I get it-every generation has faced something. I mean, look at history. You think the civil war generation didn’t face something great? No generation is perfect. Each is filled with triumphs and mistakes. We could spend all day challenging the WWII generation on their slow response to race issues, women’s rights, or the environment. But let us not forget their bravery, struggles, loyalty, tenacity and good old fashion common sense.
For me I’ll always remember those mornings. The smell of coffee, the appreciation of donuts, and even the smell of cigarettes. What I wouldn’t give to talk to them now. To ask them what they think about the world and today’s issues. They taught me that it is our triumphs and mistakes that make us human, but it was their values that made them heroes. I only hope I can pass the torch.
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