History Repeats Itself

It feels like 1968 all over again: a divisive president calling for law and order, mayhem in the streets, a divided society and distrust of the police, who we referred to as “pigs” back in the ’60s and ’70s—and for good reason.

In 1968, I remember watching with my father the Democratic convention. on TV. It was held in Chicago, where the police force viciously attacked mostly peaceful demonstrators in the streets outside the downtown convention hall, about 25 miles south of where we lived. While I watched with increasing horror as the police clubbed protesters, my dad was on the opposite political side, shouting “Get ‘em,” and “knock ’em down.”

There was a generational divide then that I don’t think exists now: between parents baffled and disgusted by their teen and young adult children who were letting their hair grow long, smoking pot, engaging in sex before marriage, burning the flag and rebelling against a country that our fathers fought for in World War II.

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The Gardening Gene

I come from a long line of gardeners. In the old country, my German grandparents came from peasant families who farmed outside their village. In the new country, they lived in a two-flat apartment on the north side of Chicago, where my grandmother grew what she could in their small backyard—the garden crammed between the garage and the neighbors’ fence (above, my father and his grandfather barely a corn stalk apart). Eventually, some yearning for the country and more room for planting spurred my grandparents to buy several acres of land 40 miles north of the city in what was then open farmland. There my grandmother planted rows of corn, tomatoes and green beans.

On Sundays aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents would gather together and enjoy fresh tomatoes and corn just picked from the stalk. I can still remember the taste of the corn that grew in that rich Illinois dark soil. And it was here, in her country garden, leaning over to pull carrots from the earth, that my grandmother had a heart attack that killed her at the relatively young age of 68, younger than I am now.

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Just Pass Me By

It’s tricky enough being an older person navigating a world that belongs to the young. But in this time of pandemic, it’s becomes even more problematic. A few weeks ago, I was walking on a path near my home, when a group of children and their mothers were heading straight for me. When we saw each other, we all froze in place, unsure of what to do. Because the path had a ditch on either side, I couldn’t move off the path and keep our distance at the prescribed six feet or more. Finally, I squeezed myself as close to the ditch as possible, and they silently walked by.

In normal times, they would have seen me smile, and I likely would have made some conversation, like “How are you doing?” or “Beautiful day,” but the mask prevented them from seeing that I was happy to encounter a bunch of children enjoying this spring day, and anything I said would have been muffled. The situation felt awkward, and after they passed me, I heard one little girl say: “Some people are just jerks.” Was she referring to me or someone else?

Since then, I’ve made it a point, when I encounter others on the path, of stepping off and loudly saying (through my mask) hello or waving. If they’ve stepped off the trail for me, I thank them loudly. Yet each encounter feels slightly tense, as if my presence requires some action on their part. Or maybe they regard me, as an older person statistically more susceptible to the coronavirus, with some suspicion. Maybe I’m a reminder of the deadliness of this disease, as if they spotted the grim reaper coming down the trail.

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