Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Good Old Days That Weren't

I grew up hearing about the Good Old Days. A lot. Perhaps it was because, being a child of the 60s, I hit the planet during a time of particularly acute social upheaval. The fact that my parents were both around 40 when I was born, and this during a time when most couples were reproducing in their 20s, may have had something to do with it. The psychedelic, acid rock, drug-taking, sex-rocking, war-protesting 60s were a far cry from "their day."

The Good Old Days talk grew old. And frustrating. I didn't understand why my parents were so privileged to have grown up during such an innocent, honorable, grand, hardworking time when I was stuck with everything that was evil in life. They were The Greatest Generation. This generation selflessly survived the Great Depression, valiantly saved the world from evil in WWII, and built the greatest nation on earth, all the while (supposedly) refraining from 4 letter words, premarital sex, too much liquor, and, basically sin of any kind.

You can imagine my surprise, while sauntering through the book of Ecclesiastes, when I stumbled across this verse:

Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecc. 7:10)

I was struck with the fact that this Good Old Days mindset was not new. Not new at all for, as the author says earlier in Ecclesiastes, indeed "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;there is nothing new under the sun." (Ecc. 1:9)

I still see this though, this longing for the Good Old Days. I see it all the time when the true hideousness of our current culture shows its colors. I see it all the time in families, as they raise their children, and long for a simpler time of prairie life and one room schoolhouses and barns and chores and horses and buggies. I saw it, and sometimes still, see it in myself. Sometimes I need a reality check.

The reality is that three of my four great grandmothers died prematurely, for lack of the most basic of medical interventions that we now take for granted. Two of them died of infections that, today, would be easily cured with antibiotics. The other one died of "lockjaw." Tetanus.

Then I came across this family in my husband's genealogy. Take his great, great grandfather. Born in 1812 to a well educated, prominent family. Educated at West Point. His first wife and newborn son die. He remarries 11 years later and begins a family. Remember, this was a wealthy family and if anybody could afford the best medical care around, they could. Following is a list of the birth and death dates of his children, with age at death in parentheses:

Clara, born July 5, 1851, died May 23, 1853 (22 months)

James, born August 8, 1852, died June 2, 1853 (9 months)

Harriet, born November 7, 1853, died May 22, 1855 (18 months)

Julia, born January 25, 1856, died July 5, 1889 (33 years)

Emma, born February 23, 1858, died February 15, 1885 (26 years)

Benjamin, born December 31, 1859, died January 2, 1945 (85 years

William, born January 30, 1862, died July 7, 1862 (5 months)

Caroline, born October 15, 1863, died July 26, 1864 (9 months)

Mary, born April 4, 1865, died March 7, 1873 (7 years)

Albert, born February 24, 1867, died April 8, 1958 (91 years)

George, born September 7, 1868, died July 12, 1919 (50 years)

When my husband's great, great grandfather died in 1892, he had already seen so much loss: one wife and nine of his twelve children, six of them before the age of two.

What I found interesting and heartbreaking is how these losses just happened, over and over again. I have yet to delve back into history to try and correlate any of these exceedingly premature deaths to outbreaks of cholera or Yellow Fever or malaria or diptheria or any number of the other illnesses that could sweep across a city in the blink of an eye. But how terrifying to never know when the next fever would bring a funeral and lifelong heartbreak rather than a few days in bed.

I recently read another article. This one tells the story of a family in Kansas around the turn of the (last) century. You can read the story for yourself here. The family lost eight of their nine children in less than a week to diptheria. The article does go on impress upon the reader the seriousness of theses illnesses and the need for immunizations, but that is not necessarily my point. (If you are tempted to start a vaccine debate here, do not. I say it again, DO NOT! Go somewhere else and do it there.)

My point is that we all seem to long for those Good Old Days, even though they held such widespread unimaginable heartache and loss.

Maybe there was something good to it all. Maybe it was seeing up close and personal the fragility of human life, the uncertainty of the future. Perhaps there was something character building is seeing how desperately out of control you are of the most dire of situations. Maybe people valued one another more because of that. I don't know.

What I do know is that, given the present day alternative, I would rather not bury child after child or die, myself, prematurely from childbirth or TB or a bad cut on my foot.

I guess God is right. It is foolish to look back and long for the Good Old Days because, in so many ways, they weren't good at all. And more importantly, God didn't put us back then. He put us now. And in some ways, now is very good.

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