My Parents’ Generation and the Pandemic

Seventy-five years ago today, my father learned he’d soon be heading home. World War II was officially over in the Pacific, where he’d served with the RCAF. Two years earlier, he’d said goodbye to family, friends and, most notably, a wife and their new baby – not knowing if he’d see them again.

He returned full of optimism at age 30 and set about building the life he wanted: a family, a home, a career, a contributor to a strong society. Much of this was already in place by the time I arrived, five years later.

As a boy in the ’50s, I had little understanding of the horror of war, imagining it was something glamorous and exciting. I asked my father about it, hoping for tales of intrigue and daring. One of the few stories I got back was about Brussels sprouts and how he ate such a steady wartime ration that he couldn’t bear to look at them again.

Reflecting on that years later, I wondered if wartime memories were something he didn’t want occupying his present. Now I think there was another  reason he said so little.

To him, his generation’s hardship was not as exceptional as it seemed to me. It was something one just did, largely without complaint, as part of your responsibility to society, country and family. My mother was also stoic about the war years, telling me it wasn’t as rough as you’d think because she was with her family.

Both my parents, it’s worth noting, were teenagers during the Great Depression. They’d even lived through the 1917-18 “Spanish Flu” – our last catastrophic pandemic – when they were young children. I don’t remember them saying much about those events either.

Over the past six months, I’ve thought about how my parents’ generation would have responded to our pandemic, the largest societal hardship in 75 years.

Their first reaction would be sadness that their children and grandchildren must struggle through a time of such widespread fear, loss, and anxiety abut the future. And, my parents would be appalled that, as a society, we have so failed the elderly in our long-term care homes.

Mostly, though, they would have been puzzled by any complaints about the relatively small adjustments we’re being asked to make: Stay six feet away from anybody not in your bubble; if you go to a bar, stay in your seat; in public places, wear a mask; wash your hands a lot; when the time comes, get vaccinated.

No going off to war. No massive unemployment without a government safety net. No rationing, unless you want to count the short-term panic over the shortage of toilet paper.

My parents would have been glad to see most people making the best of a difficult situation. For those less able to put on a brave face, the elders in my family would have offered the view that times have changed, and that we can’t judge peoples’ behaviour today by the standards of days gone by. That’s because they were, as a generation, remarkably generous and kind – all the more impressive considering the adversity they’d lived through.

Now, we can only hope their strength of character has been passed on to the generations that followed, those who need it now while we wait, months or years, for a declaration that the pandemic is over. Seventy-five years from that day, people will pause. Our children and grandchildren will talk about what they remember. And there will be stories, we hope, of how we rose to the occasion.

This week’s song, recorded by Ink Spots in 1944, helped a lot of people through World War Two. The lyrics work just as well today.

Best wishes,