My dad is basically ancient. He was born in late October 1929, the youngest child of three. His mom’s grandmother was Jewish, but he doesn’t even know if his mother knew that. His dad was about as protestant as a man can be, before a man turns into an atheist. Before he became an atheist, he was a stock broker. He was a stock broker in October 1929, working in a ground floor office in Manhatten. One day he heard a thud and then screams on the street. One day he looked out his window and saw that another stock broker, a man he knew, a man that he was friends with, had jumped out of a window to his death. Another man followed him down to his death, jumping on purpose because life had become too much. It had no hope for him anymore. When the U.S. stock market crashed in October, 1929, it wasn’t just numbers that crashed; it was people too.
It was a time of death, and fear. It was a time that began a ten-year depression that crashed even more American families. That was when my dad was born. He was born not into an atmosphere of joy and the American Dream and prosperity, but into a time of fear.
My grandmother was a tiny woman – maybe 4 feet 10 inches tall. Her favorite thing in the world? A beautiful ripe tomato. Her other favorite thing? Butchering her own meat. She was a poet who never submitted a poem. She was an artist who never showed a painting. She was a mother who brought three children into the world and the last of those was my dad. But most of her favorite things had to do with food.
She could weep over the perfection of a tomato.
She could do a happy dance over a good cut of meat.
She knew how hard it was to survive after you were used to surviving. She knew how hard it was to eat when there was no food.
So, my dad grew up a pessimist. The first ten years of his life were grim. He expected bad things to happen. He expected the government to fail you, for life to be scraping and angry and tough. His father went from stockbroker to idealogue. Disheartened by a system that could allow such things to happen, he made my father stand on street corners, passing out leaflets that my grandfather wrote, but that my father was too young to read or understand. Those leaflets talked about people working together for the common good, about people taking care of one another, about the role of government. Some people would take the leaflets and throw them at his three-year-old and nine-year-old face, screaming at him that he was a socialist or an idiot or worse. Some took pity on him and just pretended he didn’t exist.
My grandfather ran for state senate and U.S. Representative for New York. He always lost. My dad ran for nothing, but he always lost, too. My grandmother watched them struggle and dreamt of food to feed her family. My grandfather dreamt of changing the world. My dad probably dreamt about sweets and girls or something like that. He hasn’t told me. It would be kind of embarrassing, since I’m his daughter, but he’s currently an 84-year-old player, so I’m guessing it’s likely.
This story of my dad’s has no pretty end. The economy got better. My grandmother was able to buy meat and grow tomatoes and cry. My dad grew up to be a truck driver who always felt stupid even though he is smart, who always was grateful when people were kind to him instead of mean, who always longed for sweets.
The true stories don’t always have pretty ends, I don’t think. They are hard to make sense of. How do you explain to your wife about a friend who was joyous a mere six months before, and then plummeting to his death in front of you? How do you explain to your infant son that the world is full of cycles of joy and pain and want and have and some people only get to see one part of the cycle? How do you make sense of people being cruel to a three-year-old boy holding political papers on a street corner in New York City?
Because true stories sometimes can’t be explained easily. Just like the world now, like the news now, like the stories now, true tales have to be picked at, layer by layer. They are the lived-out poems of people, and the truths aren’t always easy to see, but the meanings rest underneath the laid-out facts. My father is a man who expects the worst and gives his best. His father expected and gave the worst. His mother found miracles in everything and nothing. And they survived. My father survived to have three children of his own. I am the last and the youngest by a lot, sort of an afterthought. My grandfather fled the country to Mexico and Canada, reading books and getting irate and dying in a bathtub when he was in his 90s. I don’t remember him. My grandmother lived until she was 104, scribbling out poems, admiring tomatoes, rejoicing in protein. And my dad keeps living too, plagued by worries about the country and the world, plagued by people’s apathy or conversely their inability to investigate deeper than reposted Facebook statuses and twisted truths.
“What will become of us, Carrie?” He always asks me. “What will become of people?”
And I tell him, “We will survive if we want to survive, Dad. We will find tiny moments of hope and truth if we want them. We will make our lives and our friends’ lives into stories that we tell each other again and again.”
And then he will tell me a story about how his dad and uncle (after the Crash) ran a tug boat business in the Hudson River, hauling trash across the water on barges. My grandfather would be on the barge and his brother-in-law would drive the boat. Once, the barge began to sink. Neither of them could swim. All they could do was try to hurry across the open water to get to the shore before it was too late. The whole time, my grandfather expected to drown in the garbage other people didn’t want any more. He clung to the tow rope as his brother-in-law tried to get the tug boat to speed. He survived.
“Can you believe that, Carrie?” my dad will ask me for the 1,000th time. “He survived.”
And I think, yes. Yes, I can.
People are still enslaved. Now. People are still killed for no reason. Now. People still starve. Now.
Go change the world. Change it with your stories. Change it with your money. Change it with your hope. Change it by just surviving.
And feel free to check out these links:
End Slavery Now