When I was 15, I met an elderly gentleman (though he would balk at the notion of being either elderly or gentlemanly) who told fantastic stories while I worked my after-school job at a small library in an equally small town. I called him Mr. P for as long as I worked in that library. He was there at least twice a week for the six years I spent shuffling through the stacks for hours on end. Mr. P. was a cheeky Liverpudlian who came to the Lower Mainland in British Columbia, Canada, settled down at some point with his lady, and somehow got old along the way. The specifics of that story are lost in my memory in the 14 years since I left that library job. The stories that stuck, on the other hand, have been rattling around in my brain for the last few months with a strange sort of clarity that I’d never expected.
I have an eight-year-old daughter, and if you want to turn your world further upside down during a pandemic, toss a child into the mix and navigate lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and everything else this year has offered. It’s been mind-bending while I’ve worked on juggling the very adult world, while nurturing whatever sense of childhood wonder I can while I ask for an updated snack list for the weekly grocery shop from a kid who has, undoubtedly, grown a hair too attached to her ipad. The strangest hurdle so far has been learning how to tune out the 8th play through of the entire Full House series, though I have made my peace and graciously accept the half-hour intervals of mind-numbing.
And I think of Mr. P.
“I remember the last day of school.” I had been complaining to Mr. P about some irrelevant high school drama that was likely going to wind down by the end of the year only a few short weeks out. I initially accepted his statement as an opening to a comfortable almost-grandfatherly moment of reassurance. Instead, it was followed by a sort of wistful grin. “It was in May of 1941. I went to school one day, came home, and found out the next morning that the school was bombed in the night during the blitz.”
He went on to tell me that the destruction of the school meant that he and his friends were suddenly thrown into the world of adult things. His mum needed a man of the house, what with his dad gone away for the war. Now that there was no school for him to attend, he worked odd jobs and helped repair whatever he could in a ravaged city while he helped his mum around the house.
“Of course,” he added, “being a young boy, there were days when I wanted our house to be bombed so I wouldn’t have to clean it. Of course, I imagined that Mum and I would be elsewhere and safe. I’m not that horrible. Only a little horrible.” His humor never wavered.
I think back on this story and I’ll happily take the provincial briefing that announced school closures back in March. For all the things I’ve had to figure out, navigating a war hasn’t been on that list. My daughter hasn’t known that sort of terror; buildings destroyed in the nighttime and a parent somewhere far away with no way to know for certain if they were coming back. I’m able to safely say that the worst we’ve had is a headline and a generic email blast, which is a far cry from the sort of blast Mr. P was talking about.
But there is a different sort of weariness and, in some sort of prophetic way, Mr. P addressed it. I commented that I couldn’t imagine how it must have been: How hard it would have been to manage. He waved off my naive attempts at empathy. “I was young enough that it left its mark, but I was able to grow beyond it eventually. Things kept moving forward. I always had my friends. We all had community. I think if we didn’t have that, then I’d have been in a proper state, and would be an even bigger arse.”
That’s the part of the story that resonates with me. I think, for every major crisis the world has seen in the last 100 years, there have been unique struggles for each generation caught in whatever upheaval. War, economic catastrophe, disease. These have all thrown people off their trajectory at some point or another. 2020 is such a time, and our upheaval is one that a man who saw his city bombed for months on end said he wouldn’t have been able to handle with the youthful exuberance he’d had amid a rubble-filled schoolyard.
Our isolation is a valid challenge. It brings out anxieties and despair, while we trudge through in a strange internal battle as we reconcile the greater need with the desire to run into the arms of friends and family that we haven’t seen for months and hold them so tight as if that would be enough to carry us through whatever new waves could come. Is it the ugliness of war? Not at all, and I am thankful for that. But it is a struggle worth noting. It is a struggle that is shaping us in real time into versions of ourselves that we’d never considered before. And it’s a struggle that has our kids trying to navigate a strange sort of quiet that humans aren’t meant for.
So I reflect on those wartime stories with Mr. P and I imagine what stories my daughter will tell as she nears her 70s. Stories of a time when she couldn’t visit her friends or her family, and how she had to work with me to find new ways to play and fill time while the usually busy street below our building saw less and less traffic, and the stores were lined with arrows and reminders for masks. I wonder if she’ll regale some wayward teen at a part-time job with dark humor punctuated with hearty laughs as she explains just why no one blows out birthday cake candles, but she remembers a time when it was a standard event.
And I wonder what she will say when she’s met with the same naive empathy I once tried to offer to a man approaching his 70s who went through a war.