I don't generally talk about very personal stuff here, but this is different.
Those now fully adult, those born in the 1970s and '80s, to parents who were born in the late 1940s and '50s, have nothing much held over their heads. Their parents' lives were much the same (minus the obvious, such as iPods and internet). They grew up with television (some shows still seen, or at least see-able), they listened to music not that dissimilar (the Rolling Stones?), they went off to college (mostly), and argued about unpopular foreign wars that most never had to fight in.
My father grew up in what was still the Great Depression, in Philadelphia. His father drove a truck, but my father remembered the blocks of ice (for real "ice-boxes"), covered with straw, delivered in a horse-drawn wagon and he'd bum slivers of ice from the delivery guy to suck on in the hot summer sun. He was from an Irish Catholic family with eight kids to be fed and there were times they weren't fed much at all, and so, yes, it was an enormous treat each Christmas to get a real orange, so exotic, all to themselves, in the toe of each stocking. We do that now, in my own family. I insist on it. And after a few days, I go around and check the corners of the living room to gather the abandoned fruit.
He didn't go to college. His high school yearbook was dated 1942, and it's full of drawings of men in uniform. He went to war, to the good war. He went to England, where they drink warm beer, and he met people who'd never been more than two miles outside their town in their whole lives. He went to France, where they eat snails; he went not at D-Day but a little after, and he learned a smattering of the language, enough to teach us to say "oompity oompity purr" if asked if we knew French. In high school I learned it again: "un petit, un petit peu."
He didn't have many memories of Germany; he left too soon. The jeep ran over a land mine and he was sent back to the States, to a hospital in Virginia. He was paralyzed, a paraplegic, consigned to a wheelchair in a era where there were no curb cuts, no designated handicap parking spaces, no legal right of access, no equal opportunity, but he met my mother, a nurse, and they fell in love and married despite her family's reservations.
The government paid for training. They went to New York, and he studied watch repair, something that could be done sitting down, something that was considered appropriate employment, but my father had no patience for all those tiny gears and pieces. They went to Florida, where the land was flat and the buildings were all on one level, and he went to junior college to take courses in business, but he couldn't stay long enough to get a degree, and always regretted that. He made sure we didn't make that mistake and we weren't expected to pay anything ourselves for college.
They came back to Virginia because my mother missed her family, and, after many rejections, he found a job with a company willing to give him a chance. He stayed with the same place, giving his loyalty in return, as people did then, as he rose from file clerk to being an assistant vice president. But when I went with him to the high-rise building, to his fine office with the very nice secretary, we went to the back of the building, to his special parking space there, because at the loading dock there was a lift that could get his wheelchair to the ground floor level and that was the only way in for him.
They couldn't have kids the regular way, so they adopted. I was the first, from arrangements made through a minister who knew of a girl of good family who'd gotten in trouble, who needed to give up the baby because of course she couldn't keep it. They brought the baby home from the hospital as if their own. My sister came through an agency. She was older but still a baby, just a few months old, taken from her mother because of neglect. The mother had other older children, and no husband. My father would talk about what bad shape she'd been in, poor baby, so malnourished that her feces had no color.
How can I complain about my life? We weren't neglected, malnourished, children; our parents gave us everything needed and most of what was wanted. How can I complain about money, when I can buy more than enough to eat, everyday? How can I complain about aches and pains, when I can walk? How can I complain about lack of opportunity or progress, when I've been shown how real discrimination is, and what real determination can manage?
Once, after I'd been kicked out of college a second time for my low grades, I was at home and I said something about how I was feeling. It was late at night and honesty was in the darkness and the weariness from the day's work, and he told me I had no idea of pain, no notion of the true depths of despair, the black abyss of the soul. I told him he was wrong. I said I'd had to throw away some pills, leftover ones from a medical problem gone away, ones that could kill me if I'd taken enough, because I was so afraid that I would take them. And he apologized and said, okay, maybe I did know.
But I'd lied. I wouldn't have taken them, couldn't have, because to do that would have been pathetic, a ridiculous notion to commit suicide over a few bad grades, if compared to what my father had gone through. And that will always be there for comparison, it's simply so, even this many years after his death.
I know that would please him. Not the comparisons, not that, but that somehow what he was and what he'd done with his life had kept me safe. That would have been enough for him.