John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born 100 years ago this Monday and my mother, Clare Wood Currie, was born 100 years ago this coming Sunday. When JFK was assassinated in 1963 – the shot that stunned a country and most of the world – my parents grieved. Someone bringing so much hope, tragically cut down in his prime, leaving a country to mourn. They were not to know that their lives would be cut short as well, my Dad in 1965 and my mother in 1974. Though obviously the loss of my parents did not change the course of history for many people besides immediate family and friends, they share the status of remaining in my memory at the age at which they died, just as JFK has remained forever in people’s memory as the young president with so much potential. As well, they share the era in which they died.
I have often thought about what my mother would have to say about what has changed in the world since 1974 and what has not changed. Needless to say, technology has changed in extraordinary ways. People can communicate relatively cheaply and frequently (aka incessantly) through Internet- and broadband-enabled media. We can be entertained on HD screens of all sizes, all the time. We can shop online, bank online, order food online, make travel arrangements, you name it. This has allowed us to connect better with each other – if that’s what we choose to use the technology for. It also allows people to invade your privacy. It changes business models, putting some operations out of business while spurring new ones … I suppose just as previous waves of technological changes have done. It was JFK who challenged the U.S. to go to the moon, and in those days the computers they used wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful as a MacBook today.
Although appalling and incomprehensible prejudices remain in today’s society, civil rights legislation and human rights legislation have been enacted and enforced since JFK’s assassination. Indeed, some human rights issues, including LGBTQ rights and protection for people with disabilities, have come into being long after my Mom’s death. These are actions which she would see as positive, although she’d rightly feel that we’ve not exactly reached Camelot insofar as how well embraced some of this legislation is. Mankind remains a work in progress.
Some of the things that have not changed, at least in significant enough ways, she would find deeply discouraging and frustrating, and she would not be shy about saying so. Three in particular come to mind.
- Leisure time. When I was quite small, my father still worked Saturday mornings. It was a big step forward for leisure time for families when the work week shrunk to 40 hours per week. It was a big step forward for our family when my Dad got three weeks holiday per year instead of two. The expectation then was that the time people spent at work would gradually decrease – at least somewhat – and there would be more leisure time, all because of the time-saving advances of technology. My parents would be dumbfounded to see how differently that has unfolded. Instead of being a saviour, because of technology you never really leave work. It’s always with you. And the fact that a response can be rapid means that a response is expected to be rapid. We have allowed technology to change us and our expectations in unsettling ways. At the same time that technology (automation) is putting many able-bodied people out of meaningful work, it has turned other jobs that should be 40-hour jobs into non-stop 24/7 jobs. Neither side of the coin is good for society. My parents brought work home in their briefcases and worked on it for a few hours on the weekend when needed. Period. They would not be impressed.
- Gender equality. My Mom had ‘the benefit’ of knowing when she was dying and so took the opportunity to write a fair bit of her own memorial service – that’s my Mom! About her upbringing she wrote, “this I always knew … I was always a person – not ‘just a girl’. I never would have understood ‘women’s lib’ growing up, as females were equal with males in both my father’s and mother’s families.” This from someone born in 1917, having spent her formative years in the 1920s and early 30s in upstate New York. She never would have understood women’s lib! And yet, here we are decades later and it’s still an ongoing topic of analysis and soul-searching. Just this past weekend there was an article in the Business section of the Globe and Mail entitled “There is no better time to be a woman”. The article reads as though the author is trying to convince others – and herself – that this is really true. I grew up in a neighbourhood where all the mothers worked by the time we kids were in middle school, and that was in the late 1950s. They were nurses, teachers, social workers, office workers, etc. It all seemed to work just fine. How did it all become so complicated? Whenever I read articles about glass ceilings, wage disparity, and advice for how to get along in a male-dominated world (which I admit to writing myself more than once), I can hear my Mom making scathing comments about how this could still be an issue!
- Political intrigue. My Mom was a huge political junkie. Sundays always included watching Meet the Press and Face the Nation. Due to advancing inoperable cancer, she spent a great deal of time in bed in 1973-74. The up-side to an otherwise horrendous situation was that the TV offered continuing high drama, first with the historic action of the Vice-President of the U.S. being forced to resign after being indicted for tax evasion and then the grand spectacle of President Nixon’s impeachment. My Mom couldn’t get enough of it! Nixon had the good grace to resign 8 weeks before she died, so she didn’t have to miss it. Political drama doesn’t get much higher than those heady days … until now! Needless to say, as I pore over the constant barrage of tweets, newspaper articles, and TV shows from north of the border, I think of my Mom often. She’d be glued to every bit of tantalizing new revelation coming out of (or about) the current U.S. administration. Absolutely glued. Who would have thought, eh, Mom?!
Sadly, JFK’s presidency and the hope that came with it was short-lived. And in those few years, along with the hope, the style, and the grace came the Cuban missile crisis and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. His legacy is frozen in time, with us never knowing how things might have unfolded if he had been able to complete his first term and go on to a second term.
Sadly beyond belief for me, my family and I never got to share so much of our lives with my mother or to share in the life she might have had. Her legacy is also frozen in time. She might say that the one bright side of missing out on so much with us, including with lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who she never met, is that we are all remembering her as 57 years old rather than as 100! She would have liked that part. Happy birthday, Mom. ❤