Monday, July 31, 2006

READING FOR MY LIFE: 1946

I started this project as an attempt to make sense of my life in terms of the major fiction published in my lifetime. Then I decided to start reading the major fiction beginning in 1940, though I was not born until 1947, to get a feeling for the decade into which I was born. By the time I started reading for 1946, I had already read over 100 books and I was beginning to get impatient about reaching my birth year. Surprisingly, 1946 turned out to be one of the best and most exciting years for fiction that I had encountered so far. Since I was conceived in 1946, I take that as a good omen.

Ten of the books I read were about war in some way; in eight of them World War II was either the main subject or influenced the story. One of the bestsellers, The Snake Pit, dealt with psychiatry and a mental institution, a new evil in the 20th century. Another, The Street, was about racism in New York City. East River told the story of Jewish immigrants in that same city. Three of the books were set in New Orleans, a city which turns up often in fiction, and though I have never been there, these novels gave me the feeling of knowing New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Why was I so impressed and emotionally engaged by this collection of novels? Partly it was the high quality of the writing, but also these books represented the world I was about to enter and felt somehow more familiar to me, whereas the early years of the decade felt like another era.

In film, "The Lost Weekend," about an alcoholic writer, won Best Picture, Best Director (Billy Wild) and Best Actor (Ray Milland.) "Mildred Pierce," about an obsessive mother, won Best Actress (Joan Crawford.) In these films are the modern anxiety and postwar ills that will be bubbling below the surface during the deceptively benign 1950s.

The popular songs, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Doin What Comes Nacherly" sing to me a somewhat giddy release from the tensions of war.

Because, the war is over and American is trying to get back to "normal" but life will never be the same. Women and blacks, who had the jobs during the war, are back at home or out of work, since the soldiers are coming back. Jews have been persecuted and butchered in Germany but are still hated in America. The economy is shaky and class lines are forever broken down. The world is a rougher place; hope and idealism have take hard blows. The River Road and Delta Wedding were novels of 1946 that told this story of change, of the struggle of the older generation to hold on and the efforts of the current generation to carry on. Of course, that is an age-old story, but in terms of my life, it is THE STORY.

My mom, a Midwestern girl, now lived in Pittsburgh, PA with her inlaws. She got pregnant with me in about November of this year. My parents didn't have much money and the plan was to save up so they could get their own home. After my dad died two summers ago, I was talking to my mom about him. She told me that one of the things she was drawn to in him was his deep faith, which I imagine helped them through this time.

In the fall of 1946, my mom was called in to substitute teach at the Lutheran parochial school connected with their church. The teacher they had hired was a young man just out of college, who ran away from his position and refused to come back. The job was to teach a combined classroom of grades one through three, though Mom was trained in music education. She said she just had to use her common sense. The students were mainly rejects from public school with behavior problems and Mom had quite a time dealing with them. One mother reported her as a child beater because she tapped a pupil on the head with a pencil when he was misbehaving. She worked there for about three months, taking the streetcar to work, until they found another teacher. By that time she was pregnant.

They had been trying for some time to start a family and were so happy about this pregnancy. All three of us girls were planned for. On the day that a doctor's appointment confirmed that I was there in the womb, my mom stopped at a bookstore on the way home and bought a copy of The Joy of Cooking (newly reprinted in 1946 with war-time rationing recipes deleted) as a present for her sister-in-law, my Aunt Lois. It was a celebration and expression of her happiness, though an odd gift for Lois. After all, my aunt was rarely home, worked as a nurse and certainly never has been into cooking. But they were good friends and still are, so I think it was just one of those whimsical things us women do when we are feeling hormonal.

In Europe, conditions were extremely unsettled. Russian communism was everywhere, socialism was taking hold in France and England, Italy was making attempts at democracy, Eastern European nations were struggling for independence, and Germany was divided between countries who had been allies during the war. At the first meeting of the United Nations, Russian immediately began making trouble. China was embroiled in civil war due to communism, Japan was in ruins and there were all sorts of shenanigans going on in Southeast Asia, which did not even come to light until the Vietnam War. President Truman made some attempt to create guidelines for uses of nuclear power and bombs, but there was a dearth of consensus on this around the world. Truly a scramble of issues and power struggles with new buzzwords coming into parlance, such as the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. One can just imagine the books that are coming, the spy genre especially.

Science and technology were still raging on from the impetus of the war. The first electronic brain, pilotless missiles and xerography were some of the advances of that year. Studies were being done on the effects of x-rays and on enzymes. Richard E Byrd began his third expedition to Antarctica.

1946 was a pivotal year. I feel like I was born into a world that was being made anew in many ways. The old beliefs and answers are all challenged, new answers are being sought. I will be born a Lutheran, baptized, taught to love Jesus, be a good, chaste girl and to grow up to be a wife and mother. But while I am being taught these values, the world is changing fast all around me. My mom has told me that they felt they went through the hardest times a parent could go through in the 60s. They were hoping, as were many, that we kids could have a good, safe life, without economic stress, war or threats to democracy.

5 comments:

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    Dear Judy,

    I can't wait until you are finally born!


    signed: From A to Z

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