For some reason, I was overwhelmed last week with the need
to get an Obama shirt to wear on Tuesday. I am so excited about the
inauguration, I can’t stand it.
Historic events like this make us all do a little reflecting
and I’m no different. Having adult children to share this with adds an element
of nostalgia; the question of what it was like “back in the day” comes up and I
couldn’t help recalling, somewhat vividly, a devastating time in America
that had a lot to do with how I approached the rest of my life.
What also struck me were the similarities between my
freshman year – 1968 – and that of my youngest daughter – whose class of 2005
was nicknamed “The Class of 9/11.”
I started high school with the hope that all budding
freshmen have – excited about the prospects of learning, socializing and
growing up. We were in the middle of both the Civil Rights Movement and the
Vietnam War. While it was trying, it was exciting. My parents encouraged me to
get as involved as I wanted to and always taught me to treat people equally.
One thing we did – and maybe this explains why I’m such a
news junkie – was watch the political conventions and talk shows ad nauseum.
While my parents weren’t politically active, they did talk about the candidates
and we had some spirited debates in the house about who could do the best for
the current situation.
Then my father and I were watching TV one April night and
the news broke in: Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in Memphis.
I can remember running through the house as clearly as if it
was an hour ago, going through the dining room and kitchen to find my mother in
the laundry room, folding clothes. I told her the horrifying news and recall
her expression of shock, followed by tired acceptance.
I also remember thinking that her reaction was unsympathetic.
It would take 40 years for me to get it.
The assassination made for lively discussions at school. Our
student body, which was overwhelmingly Caucasian, worked up some posters, held
a candlelight vigil, talked about equality and marched to school in solidarity.
With who, we weren’t sure.
A week later, the prom was back on top of our minds.
I wanted to get involved in politics, to honor the man whose
legacy I respected. I thought about volunteering for Robert Kennedy because his
support of Coretta King at her husband’s funeral touched me deeply.
Then a week shy of the end of the school year, the phone
rang late in the evening and I heard my mother scream.
Bobby Kennedy had been killed in Los
I was a maelstrom of emotions. I was shocked at the violence
gripping the country and could not comprehend why our leaders, our bastions of
hope, were being murdered right in front of us.
I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the hate.
And I felt guilty that I hadn’t acted on my desire to help
Kennedy before that tragic day. I vowed that from then on, I would become part
of the process, to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.
After looking carefully at the candidates and their stand on
issues important to me, I went to work for Richard Nixon and the local
Republican Congressional candidate. I learned how to stuff envelopes, to answer
phones, ask for money and developed a lifelong addiction to coffee.
I also saw how critical every person is, regardless of their
political affiliation, to getting things done in politics – and on a greater
scale, in life. Commitment. That was the key.
Thirty-three years later, my youngest daughter started high
school, full of hope and curiosity and ambition. In mid-September, about a
month into the school year, it was me on the phone, screaming.
had been attacked. My daughter had left for school, but her car pool driver brought
the girls back home, where neighbors gathered in stunned disbelief at the
attacks on our country. My son, who had joined the military, partly because of
the service we taught him to honor, was in Europe,
training. My oldest daughter shifted into helping mode, setting up collection
boxes, working through the shock of what had happened to her country.
The feelings were the same. The horror. The disbelief. The
attempt to honor, while trying to bring back normal. It took a lot longer this
And I finally realized why my mother sighed after I told her
about Dr. King.
No matter how much hope we have, no matter how good we are,
there are pockets of evil that occasionally rear their ugly heads and the
greater good suffers. A generation later, we still struggle with some of the
issues King and Kennedy railed against.
These things are going to happen, my mother was saying with
her sigh. We need to carry on, maintain normal and try to make sure those left
behind are all right.
Tomorrow, history will be made. The first African-American
president will be sworn in and things will change. Whether it’s for the better
or not remains to be seen.
It’s all about hope. And perseverance. And carrying on.