Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning
The Year You Were Born
In June, UUFE member Marilyn S… pulled me aside after a service – “I have something to talk to you about.”… “Ok” I answered. (Tentatively.) It turned out to be an easy one. She and Paula L…, also a part of UUFE, would be having birthdays on July 13, 2019, both turning 88. Could they bring cake for after the service?
Of course. And today there is cake.
I started wondering, what was the experience of those born in mid 1931? Might there be a shared overall experience – a prevailing backstory of the times – which influenced Marilyn and Paula’s lives? I started to wonder how might the Great Depression have influenced their earliest years? what was it like being a junior high ‘kid’ during WWII? and did being a parent during the Civil Rights and Viet Nam Eras shape who they were?
I had no real hypothesis (exactly), but a curiosity about the shared experience of being born in 1931 and living well into the 21st century. What might we all learn together?
I’m grateful each couple agreed to meet with me these past weeks. I know them better. We laughed. And of course I look forward to learning more.
As I learned a bit more about these two women born in 1931, my guesses about how ‘the times’ they grew up in were challenged.
Taking the time to listen and to look back and hear the particularities of individual stories is such a wonderful reminder of why our assumptions about any group are at best inaccurate. Assumptions can blind us to the deeper understanding.
Birth year for each of us does provide some context. For famous people born in 1931 we have Barbara Eden from ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and actress Anne Bancroft, news anchor Dan Rather and actor James Earl Jones.
On their early roots, Marilyn grew up in Springfield, Ill, land of Lincoln. Paula started in Massachusetts, outside Boston, and early on moved to Waldoboro, Maine – just over an hour past Portland.
Picture each family that exact day – Monday, July 13, 1931 with new babies (in Marilyn’s case two new ones; Marilyn is a twin and her sister died this past year). Everyone here had a first day.
A few years ago an acquaintance began between Marilyn and Paula during one of our services when one of them shared during Joys and Sorrows that it was her birthday. Both were excited…”The exact same day…” It took some time to run into one another again, and from there a friendship grew; a reminder that a small moment of connection can blossom when we pay attention, make next inquiries, and find ways to learn more. You’ll see a picture of the two couples (up front) at a recent holiday together. A valued connection.
Marilyn grew up in a middle-class family in Springfield, Ill. I asked if it was different to grow up as a girl or boy in her times. “Oh, yes. I went to college, but couldn’t do any of the activities. Women couldn’t participate.” Asking further I found women could not be in the marching band or play sports. Marilyn was a PE major, who eventually working at the YWCA and in varying schools, yet in college she could only part way engage.
In the book ‘The Amazing Journey of American Women’ author Gail Collins notes, “Altha Cleary, who attended Indiana University in the 1950s as a physical education major, said women who got caught taking part in actual athletic contests were tossed out of the program. ‘Our department chair there said ….girls were psychologically unfit: we would cry all the time if we lost.’”
Paula grew up in Maine, one of five girls, “I was right in the middle.” She might be a bit embarrassed as I share her record in high school, but it is noteworthy. “Top student, all the time,” Paula told me. She headed from high school to work, taking on a variety of jobs, primarily administrative. She and her husband-to-be Bill met as teens, when his family would travel to the area from their home in RI.
Paula and Bill married in 1951, when she was just shy of 20. A few years later, shortly after their first child was born, she joined her husband, who had already moved to Maryland to work at Fort Detrick (an Army base near Frederick, Maryland which closed in 1971). They had two children, son Dan and daughter Beth. Beth today arranged for our cake!
Back in Illinois, Marilyn, was not (yet) interested in marriage. Just out of school and ever the athlete, in her 20s Marilyn was involved organizing bicycle trips, and through this role (and a longer story) she met Ed. They married in 1959. An early marriage adventure for them was a 10-week bike trip through Europe in 1960, including travel on steamships and in convertibles. Ed’s education and career path at Purdue took them to W. Lafayette Indiana where they too had two children.
I still wondered, ‘What was unique about being born in 1931?’
As I talked to Marilyn and Paula and their husbands, I asked about the Great Depression. With the depression running from 1929-1939 it seemed like the depression would have been a critical ‘backdrop’ to their lives. Wouldn’t their experiences as young children have been affected by all the challenges? Wouldn’t there have been an impact growing up in proximity to those who had struggled?
I’d guessed yes, yet all four answered, “It wasn’t a focus. Had no real impact.” Their personal circumstances hadn’t changed. Fathers, who were the breadwinners, had kept their jobs. If already poor, they don’t recall having any less. For one family who had a bit more, likewise, no stories in the family on the depression.
I moved on. “Well, what about World War II?” You were 10 at Pearl Harbor and 14 as the war ended. (Including the husbands means the span birth years from 1929-1933.) “What do you recall? …was it significant?” All four responded, “Not really – we were not directly impacted. …we just missed it personally.” One recalled, “I do remember things like stars in windows.”
So I ask those here: What year were you born? Where were you at age 10, age 14? What was going on the world as entered high school? What was impacting your parents’ lives? Did they talk about this with you? What were the defining moments of your communities? The nation? The world?
It’s tempting to glob folks into generational labels – ‘WWII/Greatest Generation – most born before 1925.’ Or the ‘Baby Boomers’…,’Gen X’ers’… or ‘Millennials.’
I had assumed growing up for Marilyn and Paula during the war meant a heavy cloud hung in the day-to-day lives of all Americans – that one couldn’t help but hang by the radio, and wait for headlines. And yet…for these individuals, not their memories. A reminder that movies offer only a thin slice of reality. When we label generations broadly, Marilyn and Paula are part of what is sometimes called the Silent Generation, more or less those born in between 1925 through 1945. Some call the generation the Lucky Few.
Interestingly the Silent Generation is often defined in contrast to the WWII generation that preceded them. Those born from 1910 to 1925 are seen as having endured hardship, including the Depression, and having fought the war, and then having returned as the leaders old and wise enough to lead the prosperity of the 1950s.
On the ‘Silent Generation’ in one explanation noted, “The children who grew up during this time worked very hard and kept quiet. It was commonly understood that children should be seen and not heard.” (Wikipedia) There is also speculation that during the McCarthy era there was a sense of danger in speaking out. Focus was on career and family.
The Korean War had some impacts for those born near 1931. Bill, a few years older than Marilyn and Paula, was 21 when this conflict began, and 24 when it ended. He was drafted and served doing biological research at Fort Detrick.
The year you were born impacts your life. Ed’s career in bio-medical work also had him providing service to our military as a civilian – many parallels to Bill’s contributions, yet he was younger than Ed.
Do the math: During what years were you ages 20-30? Birth year plus 20…birth year plus 30. For me, this would be 1976-86 – barely post Viet Nam and Watergate. … For my son, from 2008-2018 …Around these ages, were there political events, military conflict, or high or low unemployment rates which shaped your experience? Recall your 20s – What decisions did you make? What opportunities were present? How did you have awareness of opportunities? Who was guiding you? How did you take in and sift information?
These are questions which open deeper stories – which help us see the other.
On opportunities, Marilyn and Paula grew up as females in the US – the Midwest and New England. They both identify as white. Generally, they each grew up and raised families in white communities. They were in their 20s from 1951-1961 occurred in a pre-civil rights time. And with TV!
By the time of the most active years of the Viet Nam War these couples were in their late 30s, and were deeply focused on the details of family.
What questions came up for you as Viet Nam unfolded? The Civil Rights actions? How old were you in 1968? your age in 1969 for the Moon Landing? in 1974 when President Nixon resigned? For those here who are younger, what is have been defining events of your life Challenger…9/11…Facebook/Social Media. Or how did the absence of ‘big’ events shape you, or not?
As Marilyn and Paula entered the late 1970s (in their later 40s) their stories continued in fascinating ways.
As a family the Schmidt’s were campers and hikers. Trips included interaction with bears, aggressive rafting and in one episode climbing across crevices in Alaska on planks – and some subsequent risk assessments by Marilyn on this last one. Marilyn ran a 10K in DC at 50, and skied as Ed attended conferences, including some Nastar ski racing (where you race for time). She has a Silver Medal time for her age – not quite the Gold she shared (well Ed shared).
By the late 1970s Paula had spent time learning ‘Decorative Arts’ – particularly learning artistic painting of furniture. Wanting to take her skills to the next level off she went to Kansas for a class. On a plane, into a rented car on her own. While these may not sound like big steps – and for Paula she was pretty matter-of-fact about these independent steps, – not all woman in would have had the courage. Yet, she grew as an artist, taking classes from the best, opening her own teaching business – inviting students to realize they could do this – could create beauty.
She opened an art retreat center of sorts – they could sleep 22. She taught, and Bill cooked, cleaned and sewed. And she was invited to teach in Russia, and Australia, and Canada
Both couples became grandparents, and part of the Marilyn’s experience included a special needs grandson, who died this past year. Learning from him, and caring for him added to the flow of their plans and travels.
Life unfolds. At times choices we make and move forward. At times realities are there, and our choice is in the response.
The year we were born is known. The experiences which came with your birth year – personal and societal – in part frame who we are today, and for all of us the stories are still unfold.
There is power in sharing the stories. There is power in taking that time. As UUs, our faith holds that relationships matter – to one another, and in our promises which foster relationship to a larger community.
When we’re with our families of origin, or childhood friends, there is a shared sense of what was. We share memories of what it felt like when you moved to a new house (loss of old, excitement of new), or had a vacation rained out, or the memories of first cars, or in times of accomplishments (especially the nuances of what seemed undoable) and times of loss and disappointment.
If we want to keep expanding our circles, we make times to hear the stories of others – in some ways as we did this morning.
I invite us all into the practice of inviting the stories of others, and then making time to hear the stories in detail. We are called to hone questions which open space for others – questions that move the story toward the unexpected.
I invite us to listen and to make space for the unique parts, with peers ad across generations.
And as we listen, it helps to not assume what it might have been like to come of age in the 1940s, or to be in first jobs in the 1950s, or to weigh in on political matters in the 1960s or 70s. Or to raise children in 2019. Connections come in the particulars; connections come in curiosity; connections come when we put our assumptions aside.
As we honor this milestone for Marilyn and Paula, and include in our celebration their husbands Ed and Bill, know their rich stories include a bond formed a few years ago when Marilyn and Paula realized they were both born on Monday, July 13, 1931. Happy Birthday!
(Beth to lead song.)
May It Be So