As we observe the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War this Veterans Day, a popular song from that era, "Keep the Home-Fires Burning" by Ivor Novello with lyrics by Lena Gilbert Ford, comes to mind.
My maternal grandmother, Marie Theresa Newman, who died on Veterans Day 28 years ago at age 78, did just that, kept the home fires burning through two world wars and then some. Of French and German ancestry, her family came from Alsace-Lorraine which is now in France but had been part of Germany, historically a tug-of-war, shuffling back and forth between the two nations.
Grandma was six-years-old at the start of WWI, known as the Great War, the war to end all wars, called that because it was believed there would be no more major wars after this one. The Great War did not become known as WWI until there was a WWII, barely 20 years later.
Grandma not only lived through two world wars, she also lived through the Great Depression with a husband and three children. She would have had five, except for a stillborn child and a miscarriage. All born at home. Not unusual in those days. When she was growing up, she left school after ninth grade to help support her parents and her many younger brothers and sisters. Married at age 20, just months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.
Lot of "greats" in her life, the Great War, Great Stock Market Crash, Great Depression. Except they weren't so great. Why were they called great, such a misnomer, when you think about it. Maybe they were called great to shift focus from the awfulness of it all.
But Grandma kept moving forward. Worked in an airplane factory during WWII to help the war effort and family finances. Her husband, my grandfather, because he was married with three children, wasn't called up to fight right away. He was about to be just before the war ended. He worked for the federal government as a mail carrier.
I was the first woman in my family to go to college. That almost didn't happen, my mother told me. I was the firstborn, the only girl of five children. When I was born, my parents had a discussion about whether they would need to save money to send me to college. My father was opposed to it. But my mother insisted and made him promise to do it at my birth and held him to it.
Fast forward 17 years later, when I was accepted to Vassar, my dad especially, was so proud. I was accepted at some other places, too, but my dad was really happy when I chose to go to Vassar.
A few weeks later, at my senior prom at a public school in a Cleveland suburb, the city much maligned at the time as "The Mistake on the Lake", there were ten of us, going around the dinner table saying which college we would be attending in the fall. When it came to me and I said, Vassar, my best friend chimed in that I was kidding. I hadn't gotten around to telling her yet, what with final exams, prom, and graduation, so much was going on.
She thought I was kidding because no one from our high school had ever even applied to Vassar before, let alone got in. My high school friend was still planning to go to Kent State, despite the May 4th deaths of four students and nine wounded by National Guard gunfire in a protest against the escalation of the Vietnam War. Of course, she and her parents were now quite concerned about campus security, but she had a good scholarship she very much needed.
While my parents drove the 450-miles from Cleveland to Poughkeepsie, hauling me and my stuff to Vassar freshman year, my grandparents insisted on taking me back sophomore year. They were curious and in awe that their granddaughter would be following the same collegiate path as recent First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, also of French descent and the Catholic wife of our nation's first Catholic president. My grandmother, a cradle Catholic, persuaded my British/German grandfather to convert to Catholicism as a condition of their marriage.
Vassar did not disappoint. A thousand acres of what has since been designated an arboretum with 230 species of trees, Main Building modeled on the Parisian Tuileries Palace contrasted with the neofuturistic style of Noyes House, a dormitory with The Jetsons television-series-inspired lounge area designed by Eero Saarinen. They marveled at the beauty of it all and were so proud of their 18-year-old granddaughter.
Six years after my college graduation, my grandfather, Bismarck Otto Newman, Jr., died. Six years after his death, his widow, my grandmother passed away on Veterans Day. Neither had served in any armed conflict, although they raised a son, my Uncle Bismarck Newman III who fought in the Korean War; and a daughter, my mother, Lillian Frances, who married a World War II veteran -- my dad, Jack, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in General Patton's Third Army in WWII. My dad's father and his uncle both fought in World War I, Grandpa John in the navy, my great uncle Clarence in the army. But my maternal grandparents were among those, who stayed behind to "Keep the Home-Fires Burning" like that WWI song from 1914.
This Veterans Day as we honor those who risked their lives for our freedom, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice -- the giving of their lives -- let us also honor those who work for peace and those who kept the home fires burning. Let us remember that our great grandparents, our grandparents and those of "The Greatest Generation" , my parents' generation, whom Tom Brokaw writes about so eloquently in his bestseller of the same title, didn't always have it so great but had gratitude for what they did have. Let's all of us here today be grateful for what we have.