Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Half-Life of Grief

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The event that we here in Central New York remember as killing "35 Syracuse University students, and a couple from Clay." But as we've reached the point now where there are students at SU who weren't even born when Flight 103 went down, I've come to wonder about the "half-life of grief." How long do we feel that we have to remember? When will we finally be allowed to forget, without seeming to be disrespectful to those who were killed? When will we finally be allowed to no longer define ourselves by one terrible day, and to finally let it become history?

As I’ve thought about our “one terrible day,” I thought about Kent OH and Bath MI, and how they’ve handled their respective memories through the years.

I was in 8th grade on May 4, 1970, and I can't hear the names "Kent State" or "Kent OH" without thinking of that "one terrible day," and the famous picture that was on the front of every newspaper. But almost 40 years later, how many people are still on campus, or in town for that matter, who were there and still remember? Any faculty or staff members have long since retired or died, most students have long since moved away, and I wonder how much of the town itself has "turned over" since then. In addition, not only did the events of May 1970 happen long before any of the current students were born, it's getting close to happening before the parents of those students were born.

How are Kent and the University handling the memory now? Are they are still actively trying to keep it alive, or are they letting it take its natural course of fading - much like the memories of students killed during WWI, WWII, Korea, and even Vietnam. At some point the memories have to fade. We can't remember and hold onto every tragedy. It's not good for us...or those we remember.

Which brings us to Bath MI. I had never heard of it until the random Wikipedia "article of the day" brought up a piece about the Bath School Disaster of 1927. Then I got to thinking of how the people in this town have handled things in the 80-odd years since. Are they still actively "honoring the memory" of their "one terrible day," or are they trying to get past it?

I wrote to people in both towns, and only heard from Bath. I guess it really does pay to "ask a librarian," because that's exactly who I asked.

The response was that Bath does not want to be solely identified by that tragedy, and tries to play it down. There is a memorial in town, but no big formal observances. The youngest victims would’ve been 89 years old this year, and the remaining four or five people in town who still remember steadfastly refuse to be interviewed about it, and want to be left alone. It is history, and they wish it to be left as such.

At some point the memory of our "one terrible day" will fade, except for a few people still directly affected by it, and a few historians. It has to. It will become a historical footnote much like the Split Rock explosion - something that happened here, but doesn't define us. At some point it will have happened before the parents of the incoming class of SU students were born.

Hmm...maybe you remember every year for the first 10 years. Then every five until you get to 30, and every ten until you get to 50. At that point, most people with any ties to it will have been long gone anyway. Then you have one last observance at 100 years, and you put it to bed. Maybe that's what the half-life of grief is.

The time when the parents of the incoming class will have been born after our "one terrible day" will be around 2032, just six years short of the 50-year mark, and I'll be 76 then. I hope I'm still around to see the day.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good Grief! It's the Holiday Season.

Well, Charlie Brown, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we're now into the holiday season again.

"Oh, good grief!" I can hear both you and Linus saying. You're thinking that it's bad enough that Christmas has become as commercialized as it is (which is even more than it was when you first brought it to our attention back in 1965), but now I've made things worse by wimping out and using the politically correct, all-inclusive phrase "holiday season," when everyone knows we're really talking about Christmas.

Well, Chuck (May I call you "Chuck?" Peppermint Patty seems to be about the only other person who does.), I used to feel that way too. I used to get about as crabby as Lucy is on a daily basis when I thought about how much people have commercialized, trivialized and watered down my religious holiday - while all the time never refusing a gift from anyone.

Then I did a little reading and found out something interesting. You see, despite all the signs we see to the contrary, Jesus is not the reason for the season. I know, you're thinking I'm nuts here, but hold on a second and I'll explain.

Long before anyone was celebrating Christmas, there already was a pretty established December holiday season in the Roman Empire, and it entailed a lot of the trappings (and the excesses) of the current secular celebration of Christmas. When the church finally decided to make Christmas an official holiday, they picked a time when everyone was already celebrating - Dec. 25.

I guess they figured that by putting the religious holiday in the middle of all the other celebrations, it would tone things down a bit. What happened instead was that Christmas picked up all the trappings and excesses of the other celebrations. It was sort of like trying to celebrate Easter on the 4th of July.

And this 800-pound-gorilla of a December holiday season has been sucking up everything in its path for centuries, including, ironically enough, Hanukkah, which started off as a holiday celebrating the success of the ancient Jews in resisting forced assimilation.

So we sort of did it to ourselves by deciding to put Christmas where we did. Had we put it in the middle of the year with no other general celebrations anywhere near it, we'd still have a rowdy, commercialized end-of-the-year celebration, but we'd also have a quiet Christmas that attracts about as much outside attention as Pentecost.

Linus is nodding his head. I think he understands what I'm saying.

So the peace I've made with the whole thing is that there is a December holiday season that includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Divali, Beethoven's birthday (I had to say that for Schroeder), New Years and who knows what all else. I've also decided that there are two distinct celebrations that happen to fall on Dec. 25, one secular and one religious. I celebrate them both, and have been able to lighten up about it, no longer getting into a snit about people who only celebrate the secular one or people who ignore the "true meaning" of the holiday.

So, Charlie Brown, I'll wish everyone a "happy holiday season" without feeling that I'm wimping out, or being blandly politically correct, knowing that in today's diverse culture I'll I get someone's holiday in there no matter what they do or don't celebrate. But to you and Linus I'll make a special point of saying "Merry Christmas!"

First published in the Syracuse Post-Standard on November 25, 2001