I’m in my fifties and I’m trying really hard not to freak out!
Today, as I headed to Costco, it hit me, my generation has never really experienced anything like this global pandemic and there’s a chance that we don’t have the chops to deal. We’ve tangoed with some intermittent hard times, but we haven’t really experienced a cataclysm to this degree. The lessons we learn as we manage, withstand and persevere through the COVID-19 outbreak will likely be life-changing. Sure, most of us have probably had a dance or two with hardship, but never all together, simpatico as a peer group and across the entire country, much less the world. What I’m saying is, we have a bold task ahead and, it seems, little experience to draw from.
There have been many horrible hurricanes in the south, especially Puerto Rico, tornadoes in the Midwest and central regions, we were all heartbroken when 911 occurred, earthquakes and fires have shaken up communities, but as a whole, and together, we’ve never had to undergo and embrace sacrifice on the scale that is about to emanate.
When I was a tiny tot, running around the dining room table legs of my grandparent’s home, I can remember hearing my grandmother talk about the rationing that occurred during World War II and the incredibly long lines she would endure in order to purchase staples such as soap, sugar and key ingredients for her family’s dinners.
My grandmother’s parents immigrated to the United States from Italy and her family, after passing through Ellis Island, put down roots in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, NY. She lived in the same apartment for the majority of her childhood and then the same apartment for the first half of her adult life. Only when her daughter, my mom, moved to the suburbs of Long Island, did she follow. She was the epitome of an Italian matriarch from Brooklyn and she was deeply in love with her family.
Mammoo, as we called her, was a prolific storyteller. I remember her performing to her audience, a table full of immediate family members, with her forearms stretched out along the surface, ready to help her tell the tale. Every Sunday afternoon, even as I played under the table, pretending I was in a cave, I can remember my grandmother’s engaging and sometimes horrific stories of sacrifice. Her pinky toes held the secret that she was forced at a young age to wear shoes that were too small for her, so her last toe on each foot was permanently embedded above the one next to it, to make it look like she only had four toes on each foot. A few times I asked her if it was painful, and she’d look down at her feet, beyond her sensible apron and reply “only if you don’t like looking at them!”
Mammoo, as we affectionately called her, endured years of struggle, especially as a child, and even though she grew up as an American citizen, English always seemed to be her second language, as she often preferred to communicate in Italian. Mammoo lived through the Great Depression. Her dad had jobs off and on, and the family struggled with poverty, hunger and limited access to post-secondary education. No one is quite sure how far she made it through school before she quit to contribute her paycheck to the family’s earnings. Mammoo was resourceful. She made reusing aluminum foil fun, she washed out and repurposed the plastic bags you get free with lunch meat purchases and no part of a chicken roast was ever wasted. She could cook big, bake even bigger, and feed the masses until all of our buttons burst. And she did this with a very limited fixed income. Survival was her persona, it was in her DNA.
On June 9, 2020, if Mammoo was still on the planet with us, she would be turning one hundred years old. She passed away in the early 1990s and is missed daily, especially during the holidays, which was always the stage for her hospitality and talent.
Studying my grandmother’s toils and triumphs make me wish hard that she was still here to give me advice. Our generation needs her wisdom and the stories of so many other grandparents, as many of us missed the boat on collecting their counsel. I wonder what she would think of all the hoarding that is taking place across the country as modern-day matriarchs stockpile toilet paper, hand sanitizers, bottled water, and bleach, risking the creation of a supply desert for their neighbors.
That’s not how they did it back then. Members from my grandmother’s generation, also called the Greatest Generation, were the ones to hide Jewish families in their attics in Europe and they were the ones to be issued ration books here in America. Sacrificing certain items during WWII became the norm for most Americans. It was considered a common good for the war effort, and it affected every American household.
One of the most memorable and emotional scenes that so poignantly depicts this sentiment is from the movie “The Way We Were”. A Political Crusader named Katie Morosky played by Barbara Streisand falls for a war hero named Hubbell Gardner (Robert Redford). Katie uses all of her saved up ration tickets to purchase the ingredients to make Hubbell a home-cooked meal and then finds out he may not stay for dinner. There are many moments in this film where I weep, but for some reason, this scene always gets to me every time and is haunting me into our present-day situation.
Does my generation have the moxie to gracefully get through the next weeks, and maybe months, of substantial sacrifice? Will we come through with kindness, generosity, and humanity? Will we define altruism and exhibit compassion? This is our chance Gen X-ers, let’s show em’ what we’ve got and become the model. Let’s get some new exultant stories on the books.