In Our Time

I look into the sleeping face of my four-month-old granddaughter and find myself considering the fact that in a few days it will be the 100th birthday of my mother. There is a pause in me over this realization because she is gone now from the scene. And I cannot help but know that I have been very fortunate. I would like my granddaughter’s world to be at least as good as mine has been, and better than my mother’s was. 

My mother was born to a poor family. Her parents were uneducated. They knew nothing of the books I love so much. My grandmother was a seamstress—a fancy word for someone who can sew, as she did all her life, as well as to clothe her 11 daughters, and to clean the small house they had built, and to farm the food her family ate, and to cook simple meals so good that the memory of it might be the last sweet thought I have before I die. 

Theirs was a red dirt world, and my grandmother’s life was not easy. Out of what is academically called “economic necessity,” she left behind a storied family in the deep Smoky Mountains to work in a textile mill when she was still only 15 years-old. In turn, my mother left her mother’s world behind when she was 17, just out of high school, and went to work in a Hot Shoppe near Washington, D.C., where an older sister was already a waitress. For a farm girl to find herself suddenly dealing with a rude public, this must have come as something of a shock. 

My mother was, as all her sisters were, very good-looking, and one older sister had gotten a job as a model with the Powers Agency in New York City. My mother followed her there and did very well. That was the real break in her life. She took speaking lessons to suppress her Southern accent, educated herself to high fashion, and left any thought of poverty behind. 

My mother raised four children who had no real idea, beyond the shallow observations of summer and holiday visits to “grandma’s house,” of anything other than the great prosperity of the second half of the 20th century. Their daughters had given my grandparents as much as they could without making them dependent, so I had little understanding, beyond the small five-acre red dirt farm that remained, of what had come before. That story, in itself, is quite astonishing considering the world I was given in my turn. 

Now I watch the sleeping face of my granddaughter and I am confronted with a reality beyond my fixing. I cannot repair the damage of the years between. All that my mother and her mother worked for has been spent. Politics has become the coin of our time. The promise of fiat currency and false profits has replaced the good, animus is our only savings, and it does no good now to complain or blame. 

I sat with my grandparents and watched the first moon landing on a small black and white television. This was yet another product of the world I expected, but for them, it was a pure wonder. The television itself was quite enough magic, and their comments then suggested the landing was just another show. But they had once been present when a Wright Brothers’ army aircraft crash landed in the stubble of a cornfield and still thought that was true wonder. 

Theirs was a time when wealth was not assumed to be a right, but a privilege, and earned by hard work and frugality. Those who were born to wealth and abused it would lose it. But of course, they knew nothing of trust funds and tax exemptions and corporate reinvestments. With these “vehicles” we have debased our currency with credit and debt to pay for our toys and leisure while we print cheap money to cheat those who were not smart enough to do the same. 

My grandmother did not have any form of artificial birth control, and despite her strong religious faith, I don’t believe I would be here if she had. My mother didn’t have that option, either. She was a very successful fashion model and likely would have opted for a longer career if she had. But I can only speculate that if she had chosen to avoid having children when she was doing so well, she might have regretted the decision in middle age. She had so many other regrets as it was. 

Recent generations have found little use in childbearing—with credit easy, there are so many more important things to do, places to go, people to see. Children are too much trouble, a burden, and besides, they are raised more now by the public schools and state mandates than the family. Let someone else do it. Someone else can cut our lawns, or grow our food, or cook our food. We will be perfectly happy to eat it. 

In my time, what had been a special Christmas gift or two proliferated and became 10 or 12 not so special tokens of our ability to buy, on impulse, anything we wanted. Christmas was not improved by the gaudy display. In my time, the family car became two, and then more, as children grew old enough and the driveway became a parking lot. In my time the camp in the woods became a vacation home and then a real estate investment, while all camping skills were lost. Yet, Sierra Club and Audubon memberships increased. 

Many would say these were improvements but learn too late that love and affection cannot be purchased. Nature does not return our care. Families, once only broken by economic necessity, are now scattered merely by the winds of impulse with little to anchor them to any one of the various homes they knew in childhood. In my time friendships were relegated to networking advantages, and true love devalued as a product of hormones and a figment of a foolish imagination. Marriage for better or worse became only for the better. 

Most of the people in America in my grandparent’s time would be considered poor by today’s standards. My mother said that to me on several occasions as she later pondered her own life. But how is it they did so much with so little, and we are still living now on what they built? All the second homes and petty luxuries of middle-class America have been purchased with the credit that our parents and grandparents earned and left to us. And in the meantime, we have debased that very currency that we might have used to repay the debt to our own children. 

We brag about our scientific achievements and longer lives. The doctor will see you now . . . for seven minutes. The pharmacy will dispense your relief. But you will never go to the moon and your longer life will be spent alone in a retirement home. The AI will never bother to make a CGI of your life. You will never know the taste of a handmade buttermilk biscuit, or homemade jam, or lick the ripe blackberry on your fingers the moment after you picked it on a summer day. That nostalgia will never be yours. But at least you can argue over the better store-bought brand. 

You can pack yourselves into a metal and plastic blister of a boat and cruise the Caribbean, or all the old ports in Europe, or see Alaska from the rail. They are all so happy to see you there—and thrilled each day to dance the same authentic jig they have danced for countless hoards before. The credit card payment will only be $150 per month. Or, instead, you can download your thrills and adventure now with a $20 monthly subscription and mail order the same sweater from the comfort of your Ikea couch for less. (The stuff in the duty-free shop was all made in China anyway). 

In my time, we went from the strivings of my mother to have a better life, to a life of hollow things and artificial means. Too late, I think, she realized that she had mistaken the gloss for the fact. But in a single life, there is usually no going back. And back is not where it was in any case. Being poor was not being without. It was making do with less. Wanting more is not a sin, but for the way you get it. The cost of things is truly in what it takes to make them good. 

My granddaughter will be OK, if we don’t manage to incinerate ourselves. I trust my daughter will see to that much. But we have spent our legacy. The old values have been discarded for a computer simulated effect—a simulacrum. High fashion now has no bearing on the human being within, just as Christmas has no connection to its source. Books are too much trouble to keep unless they can be stored on an electronic device, but when electricity becomes an extravagance, what then? 

As I see us watch our lives away in digital bits, I cannot help but wonder, would we be better off if an EMP were to wipe the slate clean but for the memory in our own heads, and make us reclaim what is worth the trouble of reclaiming; each of us judging thereby what we care for most? What use is the rest except to constrain us, distract us, and bury us. We are so much better off with the smell of buttermilk on our hands and biscuits for breakfast instead of Froot Loops. 

The losses are already irreparable. Too few have noticed. And those who do notice too often have lost the skills that made the things worth remembering. And I ask myself today, are we beyond rebuilding?

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Barbara Watson