Perhaps it was watching Ken Burns’ series The War the past two evenings. Or maybe it was talking with a colleague who last week lost his dad and is feeling that pain more intently than he imagined. But the matter of adulthood has been much on my mind lately.
There is a lot of talk, not much of it flattering, about how boomers have taken, and resisted, the mantle of adulthood. Many of us seem startled as we move to the lead position with parents now elderly or having passed. Are we just averting our eyes from the truth that we will be the next in the ground? Or, as it seems, is it broader and we’re simply not very comfortable being the grown-ups? We want to be our kids’ friends. We want to be friends with our kids’ friends.
Never had the sense that my parents were anything but the adults. They weren’t particularly stern. They weren’t remote. But they were the grown-ups. They set the expectations, the rules. Everything did not seem to be up for negotiation, as too often seems to be the case in my house.
The other day I was talking with my sister about this-as I said, it has been on my mind. What, I asked, is the difference between these generations? The history teacher in her had a ready answer. “Our parents lived through the Depression and the war.” Those, simply, are two events which made clear that life is not all about oneself. That it is not even particularly about oneself.
Thirty-plus years ago when I had my used bookstore over on Marion Street, I bought a lot of books. Brought me into a lot of attics and back bedrooms across Oak Park and Austin and River Forest. I don’t remember, and wish I did remember, where, from whom, I bought the Webster’s New International Dictionary. It is one of those five-inch thick dictionaries that was intended for a stand in the dining room, that was purchased with some financial pain along with the Encyclopedia Britannica as an investment in one’s children.
I opened the book to pencil in a price inside the front cover. As I did, I came upon two typed letters glued into the frontispiece. I read those letters from Uncle Guss to the four Butler boys in Oak Park, and I set that dictionary aside as my own.
Uncle Guss was living in a residential hotel, the Holland Hotel, in South Shore. He was, as he noted a bit dramatically, getting older. “My journey from East to West-in the economy of nature-is near at an end,” he wrote. But beyond giving the four young Butlers a dictionary that would take them through high school, Guss Craig had a message to impart about growing to be men.
In his first letter, written Nov. 22, 1933, he was most direct.
“Herewith Webster’s New International Dictionary and New Atlas for love of you and with the hope that in time your knowledge of things worthwhile will unmistakenly and convincingly point out to you the responsibilities of your future as men who do things and find you equipped for their full and faithful discharge. May your laudable ambitions be realized.”
And in a closing that resonates as West Side Catholic to me, Guss wrote, “Have a good time as you go along, boys, but have a clean time.”
A day later, having re-read the “carbon copy note,” Guss had more insights.
“I love you boys as the entire Craig family loved your dad from the earliest days of his infancy and have loved your wonderful mother since I have learned to know her.
“I am anxious your lives may be days of usefulness, that you may be valuable members of the community of which you are a part, and in that way, so far as it is humanly possible to do, repay your parents for what they have been to you and done for you. … I have the desire to add to the advice which comes from your most worthy parents with the belief that some day the world will be the better for you having lived in it.”
Bob, Charles, Jack and Bill Butler did as Uncle Guss asked and pasted the letters inside their dictionary. I don’t know their ages in 1933 but I wonder and expect that a decade later most or all of them went to war, became men, and with good fortune came home to Oak Park.
Idolizing a “greatest generation” seems too simple to me. Learning a thing or two, though, seems right.