Buried somewhere amidst boxes of family papers and genealogical material is the photograph of a child. She’s standing in front of an unlit fireplace, laughing as she extends her hand toward the photographer — freshly painted fingernails prominently displayed. The photograph is dated 1968, the place was New London, CT… and the little girl was me.
My parents and I were on a rare visit to my aunt and uncle — a man and woman whose activities are documented today in historical collections and libraries, but about whom my family very rarely spoke.
Through my eyes, my aunt was a lover of animals who sent pictures of raccoons raiding the scraps on her back porch, while my uncle was an intense, quiet man who listened gravely to my egocentric childhood pronouncements. From my juvenile perspective, they were typical adults whose lives were completely irrelevant to me… but in the four decades since that visit, I’ve learned far more about them than I knew at the time.
It turns out that they were anything but typical. Not just pacifists or war objectors, they were part of the very earliest and highest profile nonviolent resister groups in the United States… and as America splintered to the left and right in that era, so did my family.
A father who could not understand a son-in-law who interfered with nuclear submarines or weapons testing; a mother who had no frame of reference for a daughter who fought, however nonviolently, against our government’s actions or did not pay her taxes in protest; a sister who confounded them all when carried away by the police.
We were a microcosm of the polarized America that grew around us, and it is through this very personal family lens that I read Rick Perlstein this morning in WaPo:
The ’60s were a trauma — two sets of contending Americans, each believing they were fighting for the future of civilization, but whose left- and right-wing visions of redemption were opposite and irreconcilable. They were a trauma the way the war of brother against brother between 1861 and 1865 was a trauma and the way the Great Depression was a trauma. Tens of millions of Americans hated tens of millions of other Americans, sometimes murderously so. The effects of such traumas linger in a society for generations.
Is this true, do you think? Are we so very damaged by the social upheavals of the 1960s that it will linger, like the Civil War, for generations? Is Andrew Sullivan the “gauzy champion” of Barack Obama’s premature vision?
Certainly the deep tears in my family’s fabric were not unique, but they’re no longer fresh, either. Generations have passed, and although millions of Americans absolutely do remember them as part of their own immediate stories and lives, millions more do not.
Yes, Polimom and other post-Boomers were here when the ’60s drifted purposelessly into the ’70s, but we were not part of those traumatic years. The closest I can approach is in my aunt’s books and archival material, stored today on my office shelves. The anger is not mine. It’s remote; impersonal.
Someday, I will sit down with Adorable Child and show her the scraps and bits that were so carefully preserved. We’ll look at the photograph of my uncle taken during the Omaha Action, and I’ll explain about the sentence he was given. Together we’ll touch the fabric of my aunt’s blouse — worn only twice, then folded and tucked into a manila envelope with a note to explain the creosote stains from dock pilings in New London harbor.
I will try to explain why I so very rarely saw my aunt as a child — about the whispers of jail and the sudden silences. We’ll talk about my grandfather’s anger and my grandmother’s shame, and how wide the gulf of understanding was between them all.
But for Adorable Child, this will be merely another chapter in the interesting history of her family — as remote as the Irish immigrants and the freed New England slaves. It will certainly shape her view of the world, but no more so than any other bit of history.
After forty years, my grandfather’s stern traditionalism is an artifact — an interesting item that can be examined in the same way I can view my aunt’s radical pacifism. I can’t get any closer to them, personally, than that photograph.
I believe that America can indeed move beyond the 1960s, but only if we are ready to live in the present. We can look back through the window of time, but we cannot travel there.