My adopted mother and I were never what one would call, “close,” but, although it would take some time to develop “love” for her, I did respect her. She was fair and I knew she was trying her best, she was well regarded by others, and she was now my mother and I was grateful to her. But, I never felt that I really knew her. Her life growing up was not something she ever shared with me. Maybe since my early years were so different from hers she didn’t feel we could relate to one another. An email I just received from a friend explains so much. I’ve transposed some of these timeline numbers to fit what I wanted to say.
My mother was born in 1904. I spent so many years just trying to survive growing up, it never occurred to me to try to imagine what the world was like for her during her lifetime. That seems so selfish of me, I’m embarrassed to say. But children are like that, aren’t they. On reflection, I’m inclined to feel very, very fortunate, indeed.
Imagine if you had been born in 1904. In your 10th year, World War I starts and ends in your 14th year. An estimated 22 million people perish in that war. Later in that same year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits our Earth and isn’t stamped out until your 16th year. Estimates of 50 million people have died from it in those two years. Some estimates were higher, some lower, but still. That had to be frightening.
In your 25th year, the Great Depression begins and runs until you are 29. The United States’ unemployment rate hits 25%, the World GDP drops 27%, and our country nearly collapses along with the world economy.
In your 35th year, World War II starts. I remember my mother telling me she was in Europe when war was declared and she had to scramble to get home to the U.S. via an ocean liner converted into a troop ship. In her/your 37th year, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 35th and 41st years, approximately 75 million people perish in that war.
Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your late 30’s and killed some 300 million people during your lifetime.
At the age of 46, the Korean War starts, killing 5 million and all your life, you’ve dealt with fear of Polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and even dying from it. (I remember Uncle Don and Aunt Nell.)
At 51, the Vietnam War begins and during the Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. (I, myself, remember air raid drills in school, and years later, my career military husband going off to war during Vietnam.) In your 58th year, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis which was a tipping point in the Cold War.
To deviate from the timeline I have established here, at the age of 60 my mother found out her mother had breast cancer so, although my grandmother had lived with us before, and had left for a few years to live with her sister, she came back to live with us after her sister passed away so my mom could take care of her. Then at 63 my mother was also diagnosed with the same type of breast cancer. She cared for my grandmother knowing she would die the same way. She never even mentioned this to me. It breaks my heart thinking of this. During her illness, I was married with a family of my own, but I visited as often as I could. My dad was a champion and took wonderful care of her until her death at age 71.
My mother had a PhD, and taught chemistry and home economics at college level and later at a high school level. She also served on several national boards. Serving her community was paramount to her. I can remember her saying how important it was to be someone, meaning someone useful to the world, not just someone taking up space. Many of her choices in life were made because of the serious and spare life she had led and because of her sense of an unsure future. Her calculating mind had come from seeing what a lack of education and poverty could do to people. Traits of hers that I thought of as negative when I was a child suddenly became ones of a plan for her own survival.
I finally feel like I know my mother better now than I ever have; forty-five years after her death. This pandemic has forced me to discover and reevaluate my life, and to see how much others have had to sacrifice and endure during their lifetimes. This telling, perspective lesson has been educating and even sad, but also enlightening for me and I feel I am better for it.
Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland. Please join her here each 11th of the month.