A Boomer No More!

Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery.  One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue.  Indisputably incorrect.  Not founded upon fact.

Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!

Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world.  Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.

Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964.  Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling.  Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest. 

Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people.  This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years.  We are not exactly a fecund family! 

My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers.  We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted.  Just as I always did prior to learning the truth.  As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual.  By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.

“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all.  Alas, that hope has been forever dashed. 

It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them.  Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts.  After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century.  It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.

The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw.  After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present.  My two daughters are gen X-ers.

Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers.  One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort.  The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.

Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world.  In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following.  My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.

Can you imagine how I feel?  I’m part of the silent generation?  I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it.  It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.

But, you may ask, why do I care?  Why is this of such import?

Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own.  The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings.  Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites.  Male primogeniture reigned.

Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families.  Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers.  The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.

[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur.  Ah, well…]

In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.

There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family.  Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life.  Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream.  In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.

“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges.  Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where.  Without me.

And so, ‘tis true.  I am a boomer no more.

On the State of My Parents’ Marriage

As the 107th anniversary of my father’s birth approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the state of his marriage to my mother.  Their union was ended after sixty-one years when he passed away in 2003.  They had been temporarily separated several times during their life together, mostly during business trips my dad undertook, but never for more than a few days.  His last trip, at age ninety-two, is the only one from which he never returned.

My mother lived another seven years, until ninety-four, the longest period of her life without him since they married in 1942.

As I look back, they seem to me to have been an unlikely couple.  He was the only boy in his almost-Victorian family, coddled (if not spoiled) by his parents and sisters.  He wasn’t arrogant by any means, but he possessed a certain sense of entitlement, a sense that he was born to live at the centre of his universe.  Understandable, I guess, given that he lived at home until he married, looked after by doting parents.

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My mother, who had three sisters and a brother, was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Roman Catholic father—themselves an unlikely match—who taught her you had to earn what you wanted.  Nobody was about to give you anything for nothing.  Taking the lesson to heart, she became determined to succeed at whatever she did.  My mother had the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever known.

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I’m still not sure how two such different people—she a high-powered woman, he a less highly-driven man—could find each other, wed each other, and remain with each other for so many years.

During their marriage, she left him on very few occasions, mostly on excursions with family or friends, and never for long.  She was fearful, I suppose, of leaving him alone to cope with five children.  After all, we could eat only so much oatmeal porridge, grilled-cheese sandwiches, canned spaghetti, and jello.

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Not that my father couldn’t cook; he could.  He could also house-clean, do the laundry and ironing, shop for groceries, help with homework, perform small repairs around the house, or do any other chore necessary to sustain a family of seven.  But he preferred not to—not if someone else would.  I was a grown man before I realized he had mastered the art of feigned incompetence.

Mind you, that might have been a reflexive defence-mechanism.  My mother didn’t make it easy for him, being something of a perfectionist.  Although she believed in the adage that it was better to teach people to fish, rather than giving them a fish—trusting they would therefore become self-sufficient and proficient—she also had the annoying habit of checking everything my father did after he did it, to ensure it was done to her exacting standard.  I think he figured it was better most of the time to let her do the various tasks herself, rather than suffering through her re-doing of his attempts.

They were loving parents, although their parenting style evolved over the years between my birth and that of my youngest sister, eleven years later.  My mother never lost her sense of high hopes for all of us, but she became more tolerant, more forgiving of our shortcomings as we, and she, grew older.  It wasn’t easy for her, though, because her expectations of herself never lessened.  I loved her for that.

My father, on the other hand, entered parenthood with a blissful belief that everything would work out fine.  And I think, despite the contrary evidence we five children provided from time to time, he maintained that belief throughout his life.  Of course, he became exasperated on occasion—on dozens, even scores, of occasions, actually.  To this day, I can hear his favourite expression of frustration when I had somehow messed up again.

Crooked cats!” he’d say, shaking his head dolefully.  But he was ever quick to forgive.  I loved him for that.

He usually called my mother Dorothy—never Dote, as her sisters did, and never Dot.  His favourite pet-name for her was just that, Pet.  She called him Bill; if she ever used another form of address, I can’t recall it.  I never heard endearments for each other, such as Sweetheart, Darling, or Honey, from either of them.  Yet I never doubted their love for one another.

Perhaps it was their sense of humour that sustained them through difficult times and enriched the many joyful times.  I remember overhearing my mother’s admonition to my father, whispered from a hospital bed where she was recuperating from a near-fatal heart attack at age eighty-five.

“I guess this means no more wild sex for awhile,” she teased.

Crooked cats, Dorothy!” was all my ninety-year-old father could say, shocked that she would say such a thing in front of me.

Even at the end of his life it was there, that shared, loving camaraderie.  As my father lay moments from death, my mother leaned close to him and said, “Would you like me to sing to you?”

Without opening his eyes—which would have been twinkling if he had—he muttered, “Not particularly!”

It was their final secret joke.

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So that’s how I remember them and their life with one another.  And I choose to believe they’re together again, forever, their separation ended.

That’s just how it was with the state of their marriage.