Biff America: The greatest generation
Sarah Cohen lived a modest life.
Like many children of the Depression, her aspirations were lofty yet reasonable. She was born during meaner times to a poor family. Later in life, she spoke of a childhood where the words hunger and homelessness that were not just terms in Dickens Novels.
The fact that she was able to attend college and graduate was both a tribute to her intelligence and work ethic as it was to her parent’s conviction that their job was to do whatever possible to allow their children to seek a better life.
She was in her teens by the end of WWII, when the world learned of the atrocities committed in the camps.
Truth is I only knew Sarah as a light hearted elderly lady who was the mother of one of my friends. But I cannot imagine how, the leaning of the brutality of the Holocaust could not but help shape her and all those of her tribe’s perspective of humanity.
Like most of the poor and working class, post-depression Sarah went from college to work as soon as she was able to get her teaching degree. For a decade, she taught in the Boston school system.
As a young girl and woman she was beautiful and had her fair share of suitors. She was 17 years old when she met Benjamin, a handsome boy of humble means who was both fun and ambitious. They courted as teens but waited for Ben to return from his military service during the Korean War before even imagining a future.
After he returned stateside, they dated, fell in love and married.
Benjamin worked for others, and then started his own business. Eventually Sarah quit teaching and joined him in a true family business.
Five children and 11 grandchildren followed.
Though being a young mother of five, Sarah maintained her girlish figure her entire life. Her children would tell stories of their Mum standing in front of the black-and-white TV exercising to Jack LaLanne followed by her doing walking hot laps back and forth in their basement while wearing dress slacks and penny loafers.
I have heard that tale of Sarah speed walking around the basement for years, but it just dawned on me that, in the ’60s, it might have been considered unseemly for a young Jewish mother to be seen jogging around the neighborhood.
Sarah and Benjamin died this year, two months apart, almost to the day.
They were born poor during poor times. Through hard work and boundless love, they provided an opportunity for their children to live lives that they could not imagine as Depression children themselves.
Like many of my generation, lately, I’ve come across obituaries of friends’ parents. Reading a summation of a life well lived in a few hundred words, I’ve been reminded how good my generation has had it by comparison to those who raised us.
Of course parents of every era strive to give their children a leg-up. But the jump between parents like mine and Sarah and Benjamin, and their children, was dramatic.
Some have called it the ‘Greatest Generation.’ A generation that witnessed the Depression, world wars, countless conflicts and saw America go from telegrams to the internet. An observation I’d make is the modest lives our parents lived allowed their children (me included) a sense of security and free time that many of us take for granted.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing people who have done extraordinary things. I have some well-educated friends who are much accomplished professionally. I have known some people who have literally lessened the suffering of the world’s poorest. Last week I skied with a guy who was a guest speaker at the Cannes Film Festival.
Equally extraordinary, I know many who, though not renowned or world class, have managed to live a good life doing what they love while raising a family in a town where housing, clothing and feeding a family can be a challenge.
I hold that those, the ones who have done amazing things and those who live their traditional mountain lives in amazing ways, have one thing in common — parents who have lived more modest lives.
Sarah and Benjamin, and their generation, were born in an often cruel world where monumental skills and labor were required to simply get by. The offspring they sired were well gifted by their efforts.
I don’t know anything about parenting, but I do know enough to be grateful for mine.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at email@example.com.
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