Did You Hear That? An Era Just Passed

Ellie — Your great-grandfather, Bill Pennebaker, died almost exactly a year ago. I was in New York City that weekend in October. Your grandfather was supposed to join me, since New York was a business trip for him. But he’d flown to West Texas when his father got sick and stayed there as he got worse.

That Friday night, October 14, 2016, Opa and I were on the phone talking. He told me about being with his father the past two days — how his father had hallucinated and talked, reliving scenes from his life, and how hard it was for Opa to be there.

“Just a minute,” Opa said. “I have to go. I’ll call you back.”

A few minute later, he called me back to tell me his father had died. We didn’t say much after that. A strange, dumb silence often sets in at a time like that. There’s nothing important enough to say.

So we hung up. There I was, in a strange, shabby hotel room a couple of thousand miles away from home, at 11 on a Friday night, by myself. I can’t tell you how lonely and unsettled I felt. I went to the hotel bar, which was closed. When I told the desk clerk my father-in-law had just died and I wanted a drink, he sent me to a nearby neighborhood bar.

At the neighborhood bar, I ordered a bottle of wine so I could take it back to my room later. “My father-in-law just died,” I told the waitress. She said she was sorry and brought me some food, too. I sat there, listening to the talk and merriment, and drank a glass of wine.

I didn’t understand then why I was so upset and disoriented. I hadn’t been close to my father-in-law. Bill was a good and admirable man, but he was distant and unemotional. Why did his loss hit me so hard?

Months later, I feel as if I finally understand it better. Bill was an anchor in our lives, in his own way, the last of our four parents. But he was also a part of a generation that had dominated our early lives and marked us indelibly — and now that generation was vanishing.

I don’t think human beings change that much from generation to generation, but the times we live in do mark us forever. Bill, like my own parents, had grown up during the Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 till the beginning of World War II in 1941. It colored the rest of their lives and never left them, no matter how many decades passed or how much money they made.

They saw unemployment lines and bread lines. My mother told of men who came to their door, hungry and desperate. Whole families and communities migrated from the ravages of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to find work in California. Houses and farms were taken by foreclosure. Stock owners who lost their life savings in the market crash jumped out of skyscraper windows.

In the troves of wonderful black-and-white photos from the Depression, you can see the hopelessness and despair on people’s faces. Everything they had trusted — banks, a booming economy, the sure rewards of hard work — had failed them.

1936 photo, Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange

Those were the memories and life experiences of our parents’ generation, but they lingered with my own Baby Boomer generation in countless ways. We grew up with parents who had seen institutions fail and families beggared. They taught us to hold on to our money, save it, spend it thoughtfully. They showed us how to save aluminum foil, hoard rubber bands, create new meals out of leftovers, use goods sparingly so they lasted longer.

They taught us that — or at least they tried to. But my generation had never known real hardship. We laughed about our parents’ stinginess, their obsession with clinging to money, We never figured out why anyone would want a ball of aluminum foil (I still don’t know the answer to that one). They thought we were thriftless ingrates — and yeah, they had a point.

Somehow, though, your parents’ experiences and their beliefs linger in your bones — even when you’ve rolled your eyes and laughed at them. I see it in myself when a bottle of shampoo only has a few drops left: I always add water and make it last a little longer, the way my mother taught me. I can’t not do it.

And now her and my father-in-law’s generation is vanishing, leaving only records in history books and online sites and traces of memories in their descendants. So that, I’m thinking, is why I hauled that bottle of wine back to my hotel room the night of my father-in-law’s death. A generation and a way of life were disappearing from the earth, and I didn’t want to forget.

You’ll never know them, Ellie — but I want you to know of them. love you, Coco

One comment

  1. Janet Givens · October 24, 2017

    Adding water to the nearly empty shampoo bottle, oh yes. That and so much more. I thank you for a lovely post.