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Inside the Brown Bag By Peg Brown

The Parents—of the “Greatest Generation”

There are none left. According to recent census data, there are just a little over 3.5 million of their children, dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” still alive. As one World War II milestone after another is pause for remembrance in recent years, the “Greatest Generation’s,” acts of sacrifice, valor, patriotism, and perseverance are stories often told.

Last year, in a salute to my parents, both members of this generation, we made a trip to the beaches, monuments and cemeteries of Normandy. For all of us who have seen war movies of the military maneuvers of the Allied Forces we might think we understand what these men, mostly teenagers, faced on that June day as they approached the Normandy coast. However, nothing can prepare you for the experience of standing on Omaha Beach, gazing across that vast expanse of sand, with not a blade of grass in site, staring up at the cliffs where the enemy was conducting wholesale target practice. I thought about those young people—what could have possibly prepared them for that challenge?

Another recent birthday (not a milestone!) reminded my place at the top of the family food chain. I was motivated to explore the last box of family memorabilia that had been passed down four generations—and, attempt to bring some closure to what I regarded as my responsibility to preserve family history—even if it went unread by future generations. Tidying up, I call it. Okay, obsessive, compulsive.

Among the yellowed clippings (many over 9 decades old), dog-eared photographs (mostly unlabeled), documents (yes, there were wills, mortgages, marriage, baptismal, and confirmation certificates, deeds and even a few warranties from appliances long discarded, I found a newspaper article, clipped by my paternal grandmother, dated 1925. It is a reprint of an address given by a Mrs. Daniel Dowd to the Child Conservation League, gathered in a small living room in a modest home in Ogdensburg, NY, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River— the small, rural town of my birth.

My grandparents, as many of yours, were born to immigrant parents who traveled, in my case, from India, England, and Scotland to both Canada and the United States in the late 1800s. They came, many of them alone, as teenagers, to forge a path for their yet to be born children. Those children, my grandparents, had a better life as a result of their courage. Although my grandmother (who attended this address), had to quit school in the eighth grade to help care for her five sisters and one brother, and grandpa, with only a high school education, worked most of his life in a grain and seed mill, they somehow helped to form the character of that greatest generation.

The newspaper article I mentioned provided some insight into what principles may have guided their parenting years for those children who would go on to earn that “Greatest Generation” label. Let me share some excerpts from that address:

Mrs. Dowd began with a review of the dynamics of the key relationship between husband and wife, including moments of disagreements and discord, and the need to focus on mutual respect. “Every home circle is made up of strange contrasts in temperament…In succeeding years their home life is a campaign of concession and adaptation…discreet parents who are aware of their differences, adopt a straight forward policy of mutual courtesy and forbearance…they are therefore better to guide their children and the children are spared the experience of stumbling through a briar patch of contrarieties.”

“Let the child be led through example and suggestion.” If the (husband and or wife) “is accustomed to say unkind things occasionally and to find fault, all of this should be kept absolutely between themselves and never should take place in the presence of the children.”

“The parents’ policy of always treating each other with respect, consideration and deference will usually teach the child by suggestion and example to respect parents.”

“Be as considerate in home relations are you are with strangers. Cultivate patience…if expressing disapproval, do it seriously and with dignity.”

“Constant bickering over trifles between parents makes a home unwholesome and unpleasant for children. They also will soon form the habit of arguing and quarreling with their playmates and companions, and will eventually try to argue and quarrel with parents, teachers and others with whole they come on contact.”

“Children brought up in a home where fault finding, nagging and angry words are a common occurrence… (will not have) the love and respect for their home and parents… (and this will influence) their dealings with others as they grow up and go through life.”

The impending Great Depression undoubtedly stained all family relations, and it was this difficult environment of want and need that continued to shape my parents’ generation as they came of age. For most of their youth, they saw their parents compromise, struggle, provide and weather the most difficult of economic circumstances. While there are no doubt endless studies, commentaries, and research papers related to how the Depression and other factors influenced this generation, somehow, they were prepared to face a world in turmoil, as their parents had during World War I. What role all of these factors—parental policies, environment, economic circumstances, opportunities presented, and obstacles overcome contributed to those teenagers answering the call of the draft and storming those far away shores, would likely fill volumes.

But this one article, faded, but preserved by my grandmother for the message it carried, must have a tiny place in the tide that pushed this generation forward.

While many of those who raised us are now celebrating birthdays into their 90s, and 60, 70 or more years of marriage, they still represent an extraordinary slice of 20th century life. They returned home to a hero’s welcome, took up the reins of the family farm, went by the thousands to college on the GI bill, and forever changed the demographics of the United States by giving birth to the “us” “Baby Boomers.” They supported the growth of the infrastructure of America; they endured the many storms of a changing family life, social upheaval, and unpopular wars. The bought their first home, paid off mortgages, raised and educated their children, and supported them while these “boomers” faced their own personal and social challenges. The children of this Greatest Generation coined the phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30,” marched in the streets, and lobbied for civil rights, equity and equality, often in violent language and actions. Yet, these resilient parents also coped with this sea change in values and life styles.

What does all of this say about THEIR parenting skills?? I am sure that somewhere there is a yellowed newspaper clipping that would give us some insight. I know most of my readers will have a few theories.

Notes: The phrase, “The Greatest Generation” was coined by Tom Brokaw on the occasion of the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy in his book by the same title. According to the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs (2018), there were just under 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II still alive. In Rhode Island there are just over 2,000. It is estimated that they are dying at the rate of 350 a day. One study I read suggested, based on recent medical advances, it was possible that the oldest living person of the Greatest Generation would be 119 in 2046. I doubt that I’ll be around to see if that is a true projection.