A Death in the Family

An uncle’s passing took me this week to Connecticut, where I grew up. For some reason, George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” comes to me on these occasions: “one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!”

A partly mistaken picture (“invariably”?), especially for a man who was careful about language. But there is something to what he says.

Physical locations feel smaller than when you were a child: the field that seemed a forest, the church that loomed like Chartres. As an adult, you move through them without thinking and see them relative to much later experience. But by a curious twist of our early twenty-first century, in some respects, Orwell had it exactly backwards.

The world I only occasionally revisit now was larger than my own in important ways, and still is. Much of my understanding of and attachment to a universal Church like Catholicism and to mere human sanity stems from the people around in my youth, people like the figures in the Gospels, who knew – and mostly still know – how to work with their hands and be quietly and concretely productive. I’m miles below them – “deterioration ” is the right word – in  that respect.

In mid-summer, I feel an archaic sense of diminishment just in the fact that the trees around my house block the sun and don’t even let me grow tomatoes. Believe me, I’ve tried and even hoped to live according to the line from the prophet Micah (4:4), which also grabbed me early somehow, “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.”

The old timers easily managed all that, and much else (Don’t be deceived: they also listened to music and read books, mostly about the historical events that touched them). My grapes have never thrived. I moved a fig tree around in a large tub for almost a decade and did force a few dozen figs out every year, until it died.

How are you supposed to understand those parables about the sowers, the different depths of soil, the wheat and the tares, and much more if you don’t have a real experience of our dependency on the fruits of the earth – and ultimately on the Creator of that earth?

We now all talk a lot about the capitalist system, agricultural technology, the transportation network, etc. that feed us. All good things to be grateful for, but in an intermediate, secondary sense, not the primary and primordial way. It makes a big difference whether you think food comes from some system rather than from soil, and God.

The generation that knew this in its bones is coming to an end. My own, more tentative, is passing, and the newer generations will be something else again. Only with a very strong imagination can you put yourself back into that relationship with the earth and the way it informs real human understanding and the Gospels. It’s hard to say what will happen when almost no one has that living sense any longer.

The great generation now passing also had a real sobriety – in various matters. (They knew the importance of Catholic beverages at the proper times and doses.) My uncle was both a responsible and highly charismatic man. When I got married in the same church his funeral took place in last week, the priest who officiated kept calling me by his name – even after I leaned over and tried to set him straight.

You could still see the sweep of his large personality in the hundred or so people outside the family who knew him locally and came to the funeral – and were entirely unknown to me.

They were, by and large, the ones who built up the country over the last half century. Solid people who went about their business and to Mass Sundays. A large segment of them worked at Sikorsky Aircraft in my hometown, where my uncle did, and they designed everything from the heavylift Skycranes to the Presidential copters.

My uncle had a heavy responsibility. He certified that the ships were airworthy. Though he only had a high-school education, he worked his way slowly up from the Air Force through the ranks to the point of inventing (I’ve heard) the tests on the copter blades.

Along the way, he was not too proud to ask me to tutor him, when he was taking company-required math courses and I was grubbing at high-school AP math.   

Sounds nice certifying the ships are airworthy, and it was. People knew you personally and knew you could bear that responsibility. And also knew that when one of them went down, you would try to figure it out without whining about it and hoping to learn something so as to do better.

It’s typical, I suppose, as your parents’ generation is passing to mourn the passing of their virtues as well. But something really is passing on that score in America. Cell phones, tablets, computers are handy gadgets, but they aren’t in the same league with the things that built up the might of America – including the quiet strength of the people who built them.

Pope Francis warned on his way to Rio of a generation now growing up who may never experience regular work, especially in those early adult years when your character really is formed for the rest of your life.

We’ve got so many gaps in our social fabric at the moment – over and beyond the high unemployment, economic insecurity, international turmoil, and moral chaos – that it’s hard to know even where to begin. But at least those who remember a richer and larger world can tell of it.

I think of the last lines of King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young          
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.  

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.