It brings back a lot of memories.
Not from that day. I didn’t come along until three years later. No, the memories have to do with stories she would tell me about World War II, about America and freedom.
I have her journal from 1939, written in her best 13-year-old penmanship. She writes about a meeting at their branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held to say goodbye to American missionaries who were being sent home. Nazi soldiers were poised to invade.
She was at a time of life when silly adolescent fun should have dominated her free time, yet she writes ominously, “What will become of me?”
The current pandemic has been compared to war, but it isn’t really comparable to WWII as experienced by someone who lived under Nazi occupation for five years. Still, it is a difficult crisis that has exacerbated political divisions and raised questions about our collective commitment to greater ideals.
Some think the threat is overstated. Some think it’s a plot to destroy the economy and the Constitution and to impose a different ideology. Others blame the government for being unprepared as they push for tighter restrictions on movement and gatherings.
Meanwhile, no one can deny the real pain being felt by millions who are out of work or by the loved ones of the now more than 72,000 who have died from COVID-19.
In this season of Mother’s Day, I can’t help but wonder. What would mom think of America today?
She told me of huddling in the basement of her apartment building while German and American fighters sparred in the skies, of the soot that would rain down from ceilings when nearby bombs exploded. She told of the joy she felt when Americans prevailed and, without any hint of desiring occupation, turned Norway back to the Norwegians.
One of the great myths of American history is that the nation was united in facing past trials. This has, since its beginning, been a land of competing ideologies and suspicions. World War II is often seen as an exception; a time when people of all stripes came together for a cause.
That was mostly true, eventually. But it didn’t start out that way.
In “The Darkest Year,” a book published last year about the first year of that war, author William K. Klingaman describes the suspicions, the anger against government, the people who tried to avoid conscription and the many who found ways to cheat on their gas rations in the months immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
And people hoarded. In February of 1942, a dozen major retailers banded together and published a newspaper ad that sarcastically featured Adolph Hitler presenting an iron cross to a typical American couple, “For distinguished Service to the Axis — for Hoarding.”
The book doesn’t specifically mention toilet paper, but you get the idea.
Despite it all, and in spite of themselves, Americans banded together and triumphed.
As I said, this is a different sort of crisis. It’s also one being fought separately, and in different ways, by many nations.
The certificate of naturalization I’m looking at provides the answer to my mother’s question as a 13-year-old, “What will become of me?” I’m sure, as she signed it in 1956, she must have reflected on how improbable it all seemed — coming from the dark days of Nazi invasion to citizenship in what she always told me was the greatest nation on earth.
I’m guessing mom would still believe that today, looking around at everything we’ve built since she died in 1977. She would believe Americans, despite their differences, will find ways to pull together to protect lives while raising a robust economy from the ashes.
It’s a thought I like to cling to this Mother’s Day.