On the Occasion of Her 82nd Birthday, 2002
Today is my mother’s 90th birthday. For a while we didn’t think she’d make it to this juncture. She’s had a tough last couple of months. But there she is now, charming the staff from her bed in the nursing home.
A birthday like this gets you to thinking about all the things someone this age has seen. My great grandparents were born right at the end of the Civil War. One lived long enough to see a man land on the moon.
When my mother was born, children routinely died from sicknesses that we barely remember or take seriously today. Prohibition had just gone into effect. The average worker earned just a few dollars a week. For the swells, it was the Roaring Twenties, a time of speakeasies and bathtub gin. Times were okay until the Great Depression hit at the end of the decade and left its stamp on just about anyone living at the time.
At Age Two, 1922
Some of the other notable events of 1920 that remind me of what a wide lifespan my mother has had:
- The Yankees purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000. (There was big money in sports even then!)
- A New York Times editorial falsely reported that “rockets will never fly.”
- President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Prize for conceiving the League of Nations.
- Republican isolationists who controlled the U.S. Senate punished Wilson by blocking the United States from joining the League of Nations.
- The League of Nations was established anyway.
- The Senate additionally rejected the Treaty of Versailles (twice) as a show of its distaste for diplomacy and nation building.
- The Swiss voted to prevent women from voting.
- Women’s suffrage was passed in the U.S.
- Greece adopted the Gregorian calendar.
- Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks got married.
- The British parliament accepted Irish “home rule.”
- Arabs attacked Jews in Jerusalem. (Some news never changes.)
- Joan of Arc was canonized a saint.
- Eugene O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize.
- Transcontinental airmail service began with a flight from New York to San Francisco.
- The first commercial radio station in the United States went on the air (in Detroit).
- France cobbled together the nation of Lebanon.
- A bomb explosion on Wall Street killed 30 people.
- In Milan, Benito Mussolini was testing the waters for fascism.
- Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight boxing championship.
- Bob Hope became an American citizen.
- Enrico Caruso gave his last public performance.
- Half of the automobiles in the United States were Model T Fords.
These are distant names and events most of us only learned about in textbooks or in old black-and-white photos and shaky newsreels. But they are actual parts of my mother’s experience. I wonder sometimes whether those of us who came along in the good times of the 1950s and later—for all we have experienced and will yet—will feel that the march of progress we witnessed was half as dramatic.
In my mother’s youth, it was rare that anyone survived to the age of ninety. Work was harder and more physical. Men’s bodies wore out sooner. Women died in childbirth. In 1920 more than a million American children under the age of fourteen still worked full-time in industry, mines or farming. Stray germs and simple accidents took lives. People back then didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the quality of life at age ninety.
Today we have a whole new array of questions to face as we age. The answers to our questions, though, are probably no easier to divine than all of the unexplainable things people experienced ninety years ago.