Sunday afternoon. Sitting in our car in front of a Wal-Mart on the drive back from my parents’ house down south. My wife ran in for a minute to get a couple of things, so I get to people watch in my air conditioned cocoon, buffered from the 104°F heat just outside my door.
I feel sorry for the cart guy as he leans into his conga line of shopping trolleys in the searing sun. Here comes a young woman in an orange T-shirt (logo illegible from this distance) and bright purple hair. We once had a Chevy that color, but I never associated it with a part of the human body. Out comes a middle aged woman pushing an empty cart. You have to wonder what’s up with that. Wouldn’t you leave the cart in the store if you couldn’t find what you’re looking for? Maybe she needed the cart to lean on. The woman’s deeply wrinkled face makes her look old, perhaps a legacy of years of nicotine. Indeed, she has a cigarette hanging from her lips; the second she crosses the store’s threshold into the dreadful heat, she lights it.
My thoughts drift away to our Fathers’ Day visit to my dad. We went out to dinner to a local Italian place on Friday night (I need the gluten-free pizza crust, please, and here’s a little Baggie of vegan cheese to use in place of the mozzarella, okay?) and to a steak house on Saturday (an order of broccoli, please, steamed with no butter, and a baked potato with just chives; also a salad with no cheese, croutons or dressing). Family occasions can be a challenge for gluten-free vegans.
It seems that I seldom come away from a visit to my parents without at least a few stories that I hadn’t heard before. I need to hear these while I still can.
This time, I learned that my uncle, age 90, is one of the youngest veterans of World War II. He was sent overseas with the Army Air Corps at the very end of the war; when the war ended, he was still eighteen years old.
Then there’s my dad’s take on history. During the Great Depression, he tells me, the life expectancy of an American male was 62 years. A guy who had a job would remain employed until he was too old and sick to work. Then he’d spend a year sitting on a park bench. Then he died. There was no Social Security. No one took care of you, my father went on; people took care of themselves. Before FDR’s New Deal, he told me, our guarantees extended to life, liberty and property. How you ate and paid your rent was up to you.
My father seems to long for those days. His ideas put me in mind of Archie and Edith Bunker, opening each episode of “All in the Family” by singing “didn’t need no welfare state/everybody pulled his weight.”
I have some questions. Was it really like that? Or is it more like wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the Good Old Days? How did the old, sick guy on the park bench support himself for that year? And what about his wife?
I suspect that part of the answer lies in extended families supporting each other. I’ve been rereading Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath lately, and it is not lost on me that the Joads dragged the elders of the clan along with them as they headed west, even though Grandpa had to be drugged to prevent him from stubbornly remaining behind.
Just as my octogenarian father waxes wistful over a time long gone, I wish we still lived in an age when people stuck together. The breakdown of the American family over many decades results in people in need having no support (of either the financial or the emotional kind). We have elderly folks living by themselves in little apartments, spouses dead or divorced, children moved to distant cities and states to pursue their own lives and dreams. Perhaps striking out on their own and leaving family behind is reflective of the pursuit of happiness. After all, family members often don’t get along. And yet, in the days before public assistance, it seems that families had to get along just to survive.
It makes me sad that we seem to cherish the freedom to worship the self and ignore others and, ultimately, the freedom to end up old and alone.