The Good Old Days?

My Facebook page has recently been flooded with images such as, “Aren’t you glad you grew up before technology?” These posts generally talk about blissful play, returning home “when the street lights came on,” and “drinking water from a hose.” I have two concerns about these memes. First, they devalue today’s experiences and secondarily, they romanticize a time that was far from idyllic. Maybe it is a survival instinct that, as we get older, we focus on memories of joyful times and compartmentalize (or forget) the experiences that were less than perfect.

If you are younger than 60, it may be very hard to truly understand what it was like living in “the good old days.” Some folks often say it was a time of greater faith, more safety, greater innocence, and strong family values, but I think it is all about perspective. I believe humanity is brimming with potential and that the best times are still ahead. I am also very aware that many things are better today than when I was growing up.

I will soon turn sixty-four and my memories of the 1950s and 60s are not all roses, unicorns, and rainbows. I have lived through riots, assassinations, wars, “military conflicts,” kidnappings, murders, terrorism, and recessions. I have also experienced great innovation, altruism, spiritual awakening, courage, and perseverance.

For eons there has been nastiness in the world. In my youth, media outlets were prevented from publishing many of the darker stories. The underbelly of life was relegated to small-circulation tabloid papers. Today, the shadows are out in the open. Unfortunately, this disclosure can cause people to fall prey to cynicism and pessimism. I want to challenge those temptations with some reasons I am glad to be living in this time.

My maternal grandmother lost two infant sons. One was called a “blue baby” and died because he had a hole in his heart, the other died of rickets caused by malnutrition. My mother’s older sister was a premature baby, born weighing two pounds. She was wrapped in cotton and kept warm in a shoe box on a coal stove. She survived, but remained sickly and had “dropsy” (congestive heart failure) most of her life. She married a man “from the old country” and gave birth to 10 children in nine years. Only six of those children survived, and of those it was her eldest who was physically and mentally strong. Subsequent children had various disabilities including club foot, schizophrenia, and what was then called “mental retardation.” Though doctors often suggested that her “tubes be tied for health reasons,” her Catholic beliefs prohibited the procedure. She died at 48 years of age and most of her children died in their 40s. I am grateful for improvements in reproductive health.

The same aunt’s husband was an immigrant, and could never manage to secure anything but menial labor and my mother and father often had to help their family financially. I know there are dishonest people, but statistics show that the vast majority of welfare recipients truly are in need, just like my aunt’s family was. I appreciate the work of food pantries and welfare programs.

The ladies in my old neighborhood would speak in hushed tones about local suicides and murders due to, what would now be called, postpartum depression and spousal abuse. Yet none of these episodes were on the Nightly News with Walter Cronkite. Women suffering depression were often institutionalized. Battered women were instructed by the police, courts, and religious leaders to be “submissive,” and if their husband beat them “they must have had it coming.” I am thankful for all the efforts to assist women in dangerous relationships.

When I grew up there was a definite separation in my neighborhood between Catholics and “pagans.” Churches in the south were often fire bombed. When John Kennedy ran for president, editorials and political discussions showed concern that a “papist” would allow the Vatican to rule the United States. Religious finger-pointing and suspicion is nothing new! I am glad that people are discussing and fighting for equality among belief systems.

In my childhood, racial and ethnic epithets were common place and even acceptable. My dad, and many of his friends and business associates, regularly used at least a half-dozen derogatory references for people of color, or ethnic origins. We were often called “Polacks” and portrayed as being stupid. I grew up among real live Archie Bunkers! I am glad that “political correctness” makes people moderate their language.

My mother managed a “beauty salon” for Goldblatt’s. One of her co-workers was a homosexual man. He was a great worker and clients always praised him, but they also talked behind his back. He was never invited to any co-workers’ homes, including ours. He could never be honest about his inner thoughts and feelings. In the 1960s he committed suicide. I am grateful that we have open discussion about the dignity of all people.

When I was a girl, prostitution was hidden but common place, and men knew where to go to obtain those services. There was little concern they would be caught and/or prosecuted. Heck, some fathers took sons to a “pro” as a rite of passage into manhood. I am grateful that there are organizations to fight against sexual slavery.

My paternal uncle and grandfather both died of tuberculosis, aged 27 and 48 respectively. My paternal grandmother died of congestive heart failure at age 32 only six months after giving birth to her 7th child. My husband’s father and four of his maternal uncles died of heart disease before age 45 and my dad died at 58! I know people who were orphaned in the influenza pandemic of 1918. I went to school with a girl who wore leg braces because of polio, and my stepdad had a permanent limp because of that disease. I rejoice daily that my husband, and many others, are alive because of the advancements in medical treatment.

I have two cousins who died in “mental institutions” and another cousin whose family member died in an “insane asylum.” I am grateful for improvements and hopeful for future advancements in the treatment of depression and other psychological struggles.

We certainly have a long way to go in learning to truly be the land of the free. Still, I believe the vast majority of people are doing their best to live honest and loving lives in the pursuit of happiness. Ultimately, I agree with Billy Joel, “the good old days weren’t always good, tomorrow’s not at bad as it seems.”


One thought on “The Good Old Days?

  1. Barbara Surran

    The best written article I have read on this subject. My parents and mother in law always said they were stronger then their children because they lived a life we could never imagine. Mary you capture how tough life was in the good old days. When asked about going to visit Czechoslovakia where her parents were from she said ” No my parents left for a reason. “


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