Months ago I was working slowly through some photo albums, a tumble of memories stashed in my basement since my parents died. It’s been difficult to get myself motivated to go through them. What am I supposed to do with all these photos and newspaper clippings, these tiny windows on a past I can hardly piece together? They’re fragments, all mismatched shapes and sizes in various states of decay.
Sometimes, though, a moment from the past seems to zing through to the present like an electric jolt. These photos of my parents, for example, young and smiling, clearly at a Lake Michigan beach. Dad is wearing a coat and tie, Mom—of course—a fashionable outfit. The photos are marked “V-E Day.”
On V-E Day, they went to the beach.
For some reason, I keep mulling over this fact, archived in three blurry photos. I knew, of course, that they had lived through World War II. They were both born in 1926. They graduated high school in 1944. They were married in 1948. Never before, though, have I wondered what they did on May 8, 1945, V-E Day. Now I know: they went to the beach.
I’ve been thinking more than ever before about what it must have been like for my parents to live through the Great Depression and then World War II. To come of age during a war, especially, to live every day with fear about the future, to wonder when it would all end—and what that end would bring. I mean, we know that World War II ended with an Allied victory, but they did not know that. How might years of intense uncertainty shape a person, forever after?
Unsurprisingly, I’ve been wondering about that especially since March, when the pandemic deepened the layers of crisis we were already dealing with. I think about my own children, all in their twenties. I think of my students. These young people coming of age right now, in a time of intense uncertainty—how is all this shaping them?
I found a newspaper clipping in one of the photo albums, an article about four of my mother’s brothers, all called up to duty within seven months in 1942. The article says that Peter was called up in March, Joe and Tony in June, and Art in September. Imagine the parents. Pearl Harbor happens in December, and in less than a year, four of their sons leave home for the service. I know now that all four of them survived and came home to live long lives, marry, have children, die in old age. But they did not know that, not in 1942.
As we find our ways to cope, decently or not very well, with the daily traumas in the news, I think about how Americans like my parents coped in those days. They went to church and prayed. They took comfort in the rightness of the Allied cause. They joined with all other Americans in “the war effort.” They rationed sugar and took up new jobs—right out of high school, my mother worked in the Army Ordnance office. In another photo, I can see the backyard of the house my mother grew up in, and I notice—wait, is that… a garden? Right. Americans planted “Victory Gardens.” It was something to do. It helped the cause.
After that dumpster fire of a presidential debate earlier this week, husband Ron and I were having a little mope-fest together. As we talked, we slowly realized that part of our malaise was this sense of causelessness. The things we have loved and served and worked for right now seem splintered and compromised, even threatened.
The church? Divided, severely, with our own denominations tearing themselves apart (as Marijke wrote earlier this week). The educational institutions we serve? We believe, strongly, in the work we do, but both seminary and undergraduate education are paddling hard in rough waters, with our institutions trying to stay afloat financially and stay on mission as the waves buffet. Not to mention the daily weight of doing all this over Zoom, distanced from each other, with masks on.
And then: what will happen to this country? It’s not as if Americans can even agree on “the cause” of America. We can barely stand the rancor, our differences of vision are so severe for what America even means.
Sure, ultimately we serve Christ and The Kingdom. But we do that within and through and despite these other entities and when they erode, we have to find news paths.
Historians can correct me, but I get the impression that uniting Americans behind the cause of Allied victory required not a little propaganda work. I’m sure my parents and their families and friends received news of the war carefully curated to help keep their spirits up and bolster their resilience. I’d much rather know the truth, however terrifying or disheartening, but I do envy my parents that feeling of being united with all Americans behind a cause that seemed so unequivocally right, right enough to justify shared sacrifice. What rejoicing they must have shared when the cause at last triumphed!
I do not underestimate the terror of living through war. What we’re dealing with now is different and comparisons don’t quite line up. Nevertheless, we wait now in a similarly excruciating, seemingly endless moment of not knowing. Will things get worse? How long will this all go on? What day will mark its end? All this is harder because we can’t be together, not as we wish we could.
I wonder what it felt like when the news came on V-E Day. Relief, disbelief, a weight lifting? I wonder what propelled two teenagers to celebrate by heading out to the big lake. Maybe it was the need to be near something wild and timeless, to put the great machinations of history in perspective, to feel the wind and glimpse where the sky meets the horizon.
Even after we have weathered this storm of an election, even when a vaccine eventually comes—we may not get a clear V-E Day or V-J Day. I think the best we can hope for is a slow easing off, a gradual sense that things are getting better, that we are making progress healing ourselves and one another. If God shows mercy on us. Even then, we still have a grave climate crisis to deal with and a rapidly closing window in which to bring about massive transitions. That’s a cause that will challenge our every capacity for unity and cooperation.
Meanwhile, those of us so inclined continue to go to church—over Zoom anyway—and we pray. We are tired, but we pray. So many young people I know are angry and despairing, and they need us grizzled oldsters to dig deep into our years of practice and keep praying, even though we are tired and bewildered, too. Maybe the longer horizon of our years can offer a little perspective. I think of Psalm 126, which begins with recalling God’s mighty deeds of the past—“Our mouths were filled with laughter”—even as the psalmist earnestly pleads “Restore our fortunes” and determinedly imagines a harvest song of joy.
V-E Day was, of course, not the end of the war. V-J Day did not come for another three months, not until August 15, 1945—which happened to be my mother’s nineteenth birthday. I have no record of what she did on that day. I like to think that she put on a fashionable outfit and went to the beach.