Outside the car windows it’s dark, but hundreds of red lights glow on the road ahead. The smell of exhaust from idling cars seeps in over the chemical tang of the air conditioner. I can’t hear the engine because my mom has turned up the radio so high. The droning voices are interrupted periodically with cheering, but, from the back seat, I can’t quite hear them. When I can, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Suddenly my mother shouts, waking my brother snoozing next to me, “Agnew! Who the hell is Spiro Agnew?”
It was August 8, 1968. I was seven years old and we were stuck in traffic, late on a Thursday night driving from our summer cabin back to Detroit, my mother listening to the Republican convention.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about our nation’s history as if it were in a history book. Today, I take a different angle, remembering summer history as I experienced it. Moments in history that we live through don’t feel the same as the ones we read about. They are often mundane memories, pierced with meaning only by the action and reactions of the adults we orbit around.
Earlier that summer, we drove to my grandparents’ farm in Minnesota – a two-day drive that involved a stop at an elderly aunt’s, the kind with knickknacks that you mustn’t touch. As we packed in the morning, my mother couldn’t find her “McCarthy for President” button. As this memory comes to me, I realize it must have been late June. My parents loved JFK. They would have supported Robert Kennedy; he must have been already assassinated at the time we took the trip. I don’t remember them mentioning him, but if my mother was supporting McCarthy, it must have been after the shooting but before the convention.
She wanted to wear that button not just proudly but defiantly as she embraced her Republican parents and siblings. She particularly liked to argue about politics with her brother Floyd. I had a “Snoopy for President” button, so I thought it was that kind of joke, but I know now it wasn’t, not to her. I still remember her childish wail, “I want my McCarthy button!” as she rifled through the suitcases. She had clothed me in a flouncy blue dress to show off to grandma, and I was trying to see if I could do somersaults on the musty bedroom floor. When she snapped at me to stop, I knew it was really about the button that had gone missing.
We spent most summers during those years at our cabin near the lake in Michigan. It was small, with a kitchenette, breakfast table, and three beds shoved into the space of a normal family room. It was also spartan – we had electricity but no running water, no indoor plumbing. But my mom had limits to the austerity she would endure, so, in our second summer, she installed a phone and plugged in a television. It was the only phone on our side of the lake, so strangers would occasionally knock on the door to ask if they could make a call, usually a sobering one to find out how someone in hospital was faring.
Since we also had the only television in camp on July 20, 1969, the tiny room was crammed with more than a dozen people – adults squeezed together on the beds and kids elbow to elbow across the floor as we listened to Walter Cronkite. The black and white picture was grainy when it switched to a bulky suited figure climbing down a ladder. It was hard to grasp what it would mean to step on the moon or that it wasn’t pretend, like 2001 or Planet of the Apes which were on movie screens the year before. But I knew it was important because everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen and open with wonder.
In the summers of 1972 and 1973, my mother wrote a book on images of women in the media, a trailblazing work in the early days of women’s studies—a thread in the weave of feminist history now. Back then, it meant she wanted peace and quiet to work in the cabin, so she shooed us out the door early each day. We went to swimming lessons, drama practice, more swimming, and meandered among cabins to see if there was anything interesting to do. Rainy days were a misery; it was either sit outside in the wet, or stay indoors and stay quiet. I was relieved when my mom started leaving the TV on all afternoon, rainy days, summer 1973. Endless questions and answers by men at tables with microphones. At twelve, I understood that Watergate was some sort of crime, but found it hard to follow some of the political intrigue. My mother, with no adult to talk to, would rail at my brother and me about the case, addicted to the proceedings and the hunt to bring down Nixon, the household enemy for so many years.
When I share these memories with my children, these momentous times that they study in history class or are shown with reverence in documentaries, they sit patiently, but bored. Such as it has always been, I suppose. Our friend Socrates died, today, said Plato to his son, he took the hemlock as a good Greek should. Gee, Dad, sorry to hear that, can I have another olive? My children will tell their own stories someday, how they were sent home early from school on 9/11 to find their parents distraught about something that happened thousands of miles away. Or how they stole lawn signs supporting ballot propositions that upset us, the ones against same sex marriage. Their own children will roll their eyes and wonder if there is still light enough outside after late summer sunset to play one more game of hide and seek.
brought to you by today’s Daily Prompt: Journey