Our backgrounds are all different, our histories diverse, but almost all of us have had at least one parent in our lives, often two, sometimes more.
You might want to talk to yours about their past. Before it’s too late.
Mine are both gone now. I of course know some things about their lives before me, but there are huge gaps in my knowledge. So now there are many things I will never know. Too late, regrets.
My mom, circa 1933.
So I know odds and ends about their younger years, and about those who came before them (I met all four of my grandparents but spent a significant amount of time with only one of them, my mom’s dad).
Both of my parents were children of The Great Depression. My mom told me that her parents would set aside two pennies every weekday so that she and her brother could each have a five-cent ice cream cone on weekends. And that airplanes were still so uncommon that people would run out of their houses and point to them in the sky in wonder. Her dad (a CPA) remained employed through The Depression (at least by official statistics, the unemployment rate, at its worst point, “only” got up to just under 25%).
But I know basically nothing of my mom’s teen years. Her slightly younger brother was a bit of a motorhead who worked on “old jalopies”. She once had to walk through snow drifts in high heels. A boy down the block who was a few years older than her never came back from the war, having been shot down during a raid on the Ploesti oil fields. After college (complete blank from my point of view), she lived for a while with three roommates in Manhattan, slowly realizing that a woman who lived down the hall was a prostitute.
That’s it, basically every thing I know about my mom’s younger years. With my dad, only a tiny bit more.
My dad, circa 1929.
My dad was 14 at the time of the Nazi invasion. He witnessed the sinking of the Blücher. The next day, he cheered with his neighbors as an anti-aircraft gun shot down a German plane and then shed tears as the plane crashed into the house of a school mate, killing the entire family.
But like many who lived through WW2, he didn’t talk much about it. I know that, for a time, because of the difficulty of finding food, his parents sent him to live on a farm with an uncle (his younger brother’s growth was stunted by the lack of food). My dad later returned to Oslo after the Germans seized his uncle’s draft horse. His parents were peripherally involved with helping Norwegian Jews to escape to Sweden; they served as lookouts for German patrols, helping to warn a couple living in the apartment below them who was more directly involved. By 1944-1945 my dad was involved in the Resistance (as were many, many Norwegians). I know almost nothing about what he did other than that once in the 1970’s after he’d had a few beers, he mentioned that he’d killed a Waffen-SS man by hitting him over the head with a radio. When I tried to ask for more, he got quiet, and then changed the subject.
After the war, he served for 49 weeks in the Norwegian Air Force, “rising to the rank of corporal” as the newspaper wedding announcement of my folks later recorded. He was assigned to their meteorological service and once flew in an uninsulated DC-3 to Jan Mayen, assigned to hold a glass barometer for the weather station there between his legs because his superiors did not want to trust its safe delivery to putting it in a crate. He also ended up on Svalbard where a camp had been established to house German POW’s.
1946-1950 is a bit of a mystery to me. I know that my dad lived in France for a while, studying French at some school near Grenoble. Money ran out and he joined a traveling circus. No wages, just room and board. He wasn’t one of the featured acts, just tended to the animals. Crossed the Alps into Italy sitting on top of a trailer containing a lion (“Hannibal crossed the Alps on an elephant, I did it on a lion.”)
And then he almost emigrated to Algeria, still at that time legally a constituent part of France. Not sure why, but those plans fell through. Just as well, the Algerian Civil War was just around the corner.
For some reason, back to Norway. Enrollment in some kind of business school. In 1950, he left for America. The shining postwar beacon.
He applied to Harvard and they laughed; his English was so-so (“John, here is an apple for you. No thank you, it is worm-eaten.” was a snippet that he remembered learning).
But he got accepted to Columbia University and went to night school for about 10 years, eventually earning a B.S. in banking (about when I was in kindergarten?). During those years, he took a Money and Banking class and was disgusted that his final exam consisted of three words.
“What is money?”
Others wrote detailed ramblings about M1 versus M3, the history of the Federal Reserve System, and such.
My dad would have none of that, he wrote a three-word answer to the three-word question, “Money is sweat.”, turned in his exam, and walked out the door. He got an F and had to retake the class the next semester. Same three-word question for the final exam. And gave them the cookie-cutter answer they wanted. Got an A.
While taking classes, went to work at Chase Manhattan. Where my mom was a teller, marveling at Bernard Baruch’s bank balance.
After a few glasses of wine, speaking of my dad, my mom once told me how she had wanted “to get that man.” Oh yeah, he was a handsome devil back in the day. According to my mom, he was at the time juggling three girlfriends, all of them stewardesses who flew in and out of New York.
She got that man. They were married in 1954 and I was born in 1955.
But that’s basically everything I know about the early years of my parents’ lives. I kept meaning to ask them to fill in the gaps and let me know more. But I never did.
Don’t make the same mistake. Talk to them. While you still can.