As baby boomers, we have seen changes in America that have been documented ad-infinitum: our life-style, our economy, our technology. But BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson has just taken a personal journey, and come across something that has not gotten nearly as much attention: The End of a Prideful Culture in America.
My mother was much too young when fast-moving breast cancer claimed her life in 1983. In a span of less than two months, the cancer metastasized to her brain. I can only imagine how painful it must have been for her but she kept her grace and thoughtfulness toward others until the end.
When I think of her final weeks, I also think of the hundreds-of-thousands of other women who have suffered that awful disease and wonder why a cure has not been found over these many decades.
Even though we lived in northern Virginia — where for many years my mother was a well-known elementary school principal in Fairfax County — it was her wish to be buried in the family plot on a hill overlooking a small eastern Kentucky town called Louisa.
But on a recent trip there, I came to a sad conclusion: for generations in this country, a prideful way of life was engrained into much of the American culture, regardless of whether someone, even an entire family, was financially poor or not. People were usually defined by the respect they showed to others. Some of that has disappeared.
My mother had grown up in a quaint, beautifully maintained small house on Locke Avenue in Louisa, a street lined with trees. Nearly every house was kept with pride by its owners. My grandmother’s home was surrounded by an always immaculately maintained lawn with many, many flowers, ferns, and herbs. I remember the giant zinnias and fresh dill to this day. My grandmother said her secret to gardening was to use coffee grounds as fertilizer. It must have worked.
Few residents of Louisa, Kentucky, in those days had much money. Many were poor but few people knew it because they had grown up knowing the meaning of pride.
My grandmother was the manager of the largest business in town, a department store called The Bargain Store. And, she was a remarkable businesswoman. As a kid, I watched her politely approach a working man who was looking at some new boots. His were worn out. I heard her quietly and respectfully suggest that he just take the boots and give them a try … and to not be concerned with the cost. She didn’t write anything down, there was no IOU. She just gave him the boots.
Afterward, I asked my grandmother about it. All she would say was that the man had a big family and needed the boots for work. She didn’t say another word. I learned from my mother that whenever my grandmother did something like that, she always paid for such items out of her own pocket the moment the needy customer left the store. My grandmother never talked about that, either. But I did learn that the man who got the new boots returned each week with a small amount — whatever he could afford — until he had paid for the boots. A poor man rich with pride. And with honor. And, he wasn’t the only one she quietly helped.
That was how things were in Louisa a half century ago.
Maybe I never allowed myself to know how to grieve but I never quite got over my mother’s untimely death. For at least the last 20 years, I have felt a need to visit her resting place for no other reason that just to be there for a few quiet and private moments.
I was sharing those feelings earlier this year with my daughter, Anna, who was three-years-old when my mother — her grandmother — died, but still remembers her. Anna said she would like to go to Louisa, too, which thrilled me, because when our children grow up, we treasure time with them as never before.
After the 450-mile drive to Louisa, we entered a town I neither recognized nor found appealing.
Louisa is run down, boarded-up, and dilapidated. It is as if there had been an intentional effort to erase or tear down any of the charm of a small town. Many of the tall trees are gone. Many homes are replaced by prefabricated garages for pickup trucks with oversized tires, and machines shops. The downtown is abandoned, including the department store that had been turned into a failed video store. It was as if pride, as a spirit, had given up and fled.
Anna and I escaped and drove up the hill to the cemetery. Unlike the town, the sprawling cemetery was well-maintained, just as I remembered it from my youth, and the times since then when we have put loved ones to rest there.
We visited the family plot, including my mother’s grave. And, we said prayers and had private moments to remember, knowing of course that souls have long since left this place. Only the marble markers, the headstones, the flowers, and other symbols of remembrance are left there, along with the quiet. We each placed small stones on the grave markers to signify we had been there and would never forget … and then, Anna and I knew.
We had said our goodbyes, with finality. It was time to return home.