When nostalgia is impossible

My father was born in 1950. He and his two older brothers were born in Paris, right after the end of WWII. My grandmother’s family had fled Russia on the eve of the Russian revolution and settled in Nice. They lived in Occupied France. Eventually, she ended up in Paris, where she met my grandfather, who’s family had followed a similar trajectory, except via Finland. Both my grandparents lived through WWII; not specifically caught in the front lines, or in the big hotspots, but close enough for those years to have been extremely unpleasant. Poverty, constant fear, uncertainty, and low-key cruelty and spite were part of their daily existence. 6 years of survival, not 6 years of living.

In 1952, my father’s family emigrated to Canada, with close to nothing other than their luggage, to join my grandmother’s brother, who had established himself in Montreal a few years prior. They stayed long enough to become Canadian citizens, but then my grandfather’s role as an eminent proto-deacon (that’s a super duper deacon for all you non Orthodox peeps out there) brought them to Long Island, NY, to be closer to the seat of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church of America (aka, the head of the North American branch of Russian Orthodoxy). Therefore, my father grew up as an American. He’d moved back to Montreal by the age of 20, to avoid any possibilities of being drafted in the Vietnam War. From that point on, he has made his life as a proud Canadian.

It’s funny sometimes, listening to him. He can sound very patriotically Russian, chest thumping for the Mother Land; he displays deep knowledge about American history and culture, due to having spent his formative years and education in the USA; and of course a deeper conviction that Canada is by far the best place to live in the world due to our liberal policies, peace, and openness to immigrants.

My father and I are both very similar, and extremely different, which means we easily can push each other’s buttons. I honor him, and most days, I respect him, except when talking about politics and current events: as he gets older, he has adopted the bad habit of avoiding the news, because it makes him anxious, and informing himself based on conversations with people at church. In my opinion, he frequently exhibits an absence of critical thought, relying on trashy biased internet articles, the kind that present opinions as statements of fact, with no supporting arguments or evidence. After innumerable arguments about this, he and I have tacitly agreed to never talk about current events. He doesn’t “like” 99% of the articles or videos I share on Fbk, and now that he has himself a fairly prominent role in the church, he refrains from sharing anything on Fbk related to highly emotional topics, to avoid Fbk trolls. I’m ok with this defacto truce.

One of the few posts on Facebook that my father did like was Billy Crystal’s eulogy to Muhammad Ali. If you haven’t watched it, it is worth a view.

It dawned on me that my father had lived in Ali’s time. As Billy Crystal puts it,

It’s great to look at clips and it’s amazing to have them, but to live in his time, watching his fights, experiencing the genius of his talent, was absolutely extraordinary. Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do. He predicted the round he would knock somebody out in, and then he would do it! He was funny, he was beautiful, the most perfect athlete you ever saw — and those were his own words.

But he was so much more than a fighter as time went on, with Bobby Kennedy gone, Martin Luther King gone, Malcolm X gone, who was there to relate to when Vietnam exploded in our face? There were millions of young men my age eligible for the draft for a war we didn’t believe in, all of us huddled on the conveyor belt that was rapidly feeding the war machine. But it was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself.

And after he was stripped of the title, and the right to fight anywhere in the world, he gave speeches at colleges and on television that totally reached me. He seemed as comfortable talking to kings and queens as the lost and unrequited. He never lost his sense of humor even as he lost everything else. He was always himself: willing to give up everything for what he believed in.

My father lived in Ali’s time. My father was one of those people that could relate to Ali, one of those young men that gave up a lot to avoid fighting a war they disagreed with. One of those people that witnessed and followed Ali’s impact on American society.

My father posted these two pictures on Friday, taken on a trip last year to Atlanta, without comment.

It must be bizarre to be my father, right now. My father was 18 when MLK was assassinated. My father lived through those times of extreme change. He saw America shift from terrible to better. And now America has slid undeniably back to terrible. Back to terrible, with no MLK and no Ali to guide people and effect change. Only Trump.

I can’t find the words to describe my feelings about the events of this past week. But I would have even less if, like my father, I had witnessed a period of history where there was a reasonable hope that America truly would be great and had the tools, the motivation, and the ability to overcome the crippling hatred pervasive in the country. Instead, America has repeatedly and consistently chosen hatred, when it had the opportunity and was on the track to choosing peace.

It begs the question: where are all the other Americans, who like my daddy, witnessed MLK and Ali? Are they silent? Too upset to have a voice? Where have they been all these years?

#altonsterling #philandocastile #blacklivesmatter




  1. I think history is like a stock market graph: there’s a long-term upwards trend, but a lot of ups and downs along the way. I try and find signposts about those big trends, rather than get overly worked up (and hence, depressed or nervous) over recent blips on the radar.

    100 years ago, a black or woman president would’ve been inconcievable, yet we just had the former and are likely to have the latter within 6 months. Other countries have had all kinds of people as leaders. Discrimination, despite everything, is on a long-term downwards trend, despite some people being able to stoke up old fears. Signs on stores that “Irish need not apply” are far worse than anything going on now – we’re just so much more aware of current trends, of what they mean and can lead to. We’re in a much better place when rights are well-established and we can be shocked when someone tries to limit them, whereas 100 years ago you’d just try to keep your head down and make your way in the world, like all those blacks who weren’t even allowed to sit down on a bus.

    If the Democrats (or Republicans, come to think of it) had someone with a little more ability to relate to people, Trump would be a running joke by now, just like Sarah Palin. I expect he’ll be a punch-line for late-night TV for the next 30 years, starting in January.

    Had Obama been up against Trump he would’ve made a fool of the Donald a long ago.

    Sidenote: Reading your family history really surprised me, it’s similar to my own. I grew up hearing stories of being under Nazi occupation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dylan’s song comes to mind as an answer to your final question: “Gone to flowers…when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?”

    Well said and summarizes what many of us who ended up on this side of the “pond” as DPs went through. We were called Displaced Persons. With no passports, we were “stateless” (Our grandparents expected the Bolsheviks to disappear and they would be able to return. My Gran died in 1975 with her suitcase ready to return home). We had no help from the “welcoming society” and were expected to do everything on our own: food, shelter, jobs, etc. My father chose to call us Delayed Pioneers. It took a that kind of mind set to be able to survive 3 upheavals, 3 different cultures, 7 new languages. His sense of humour put into perspective how many of our parents dealt with these changes. Talk about Resilience!

    We, the children of that generation, have learnt that we need to make our own destiny. We do it by choosing what we will tolerate, what we let in to our “sanctuaries” and how we will express the legacy our parents and our ancestors have bestowed upon us. Third generations out of the “homeland” are a different breed from the truly displaced (grandparents) and the first children born away (Our parents tried so very hard to integrate into “normal society”). Our loyalties and contradictions do not disturb us. And we know, deep down in our hearts because we have heard the stories and seen the results, that “this too shall pass” and wasting worry and energy on things we cannot do anything about drains us. Many of us are proactive and do practical things that make a difference one person at a time. And the mantra becomes: “one step at a time” “Slow and steady wins the race”…..

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!

    Liked by 1 person

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