Common Wisdom: The Way We Were

By now, everyone knows that the worst misfortune in America is to have been born just ahead of the tidal wave ultimately known as the Boomers. We, the immediate predecessors of that enlightened group, are dubbed the Silent Generation, participants in the unexamined life. We innocently consumed lethal popcorn and thought a biceps curl had something to do with hair. We lived contented lives, ignorant that our consciousness was in desperate need of raising. Catholics among us apparently suffered special indignities, spelled out by Boomers who, though spared our lot, are a tortured bunch ever pressing to find out why they can’t get no satisfaction.

Just when we think they’ve run out of gas identifying iniquities perpetrated on us by Mother Church, Christopher Durang writes another play or Phil latches on to one more aging apostate. Phil, of course, is chronologically one of us, but he had to play by the old rules in his Catholic youth and is terminally peeved he missed out on the new dispensations.

It is odd, in late middle age, to be regarded as a victim. Worse, one who defends the very practices and traditions which cause Boomer jaws to slacken and eyeballs to roll heavenward. Mind you, modern exegetes dismiss the idea that heaven is “up,” as presented in the biblical description of Christ’s ascension. Heaven itself perplexes Boomer theologians, attached as it is to its unappealing opposite. Surely, a God of mercy could not dispatch souls to hell? God is love, you know. And love is all we need.

That’s not the message my generation got, nor were they words to live by in my mother’s. In fact, the Church and country my mother knew as a child were not so different from those she knew as an adult. By contrast, my generation faced staggering changes. The Creed and the Constitution stand, but little else. We grew up in one world, but live in quite another. It is amazing what we didn’t know.

I didn’t know, for instance, that when told in first grade that I was a creature of body and soul made in the image and likeness of God, this was mindless rote. I probably understood about a quarter of what I was saying, but with Sister Genevieve standing over me I made sure I could recite it. Years later, when Boomers agonized about Identity Crisis, I was unperturbed. Wife? Mother? Tall? Blond? Accidents, all. Seared into my psyche was a rock-solid definition which defied speculation. Sister Genevieve and the Baltimore Catechism provided the durable essence.

Then there were the sexist insults that failed to register. In a girls’ high school, Sister Ruth routinely called us “Sonny,” because she had spent most of her teaching years with boys. We didn’t recognize this as a slight, losing out on a terrific opportunity to file a class action suit against the Sisters of Mercy and take the order to the cleaners. We were so naïve we thought Sister Ruth was funny. We called one another Sonny. We were too secure to feel threatened.

We also missed the boat in terms of experiencing church as a social venue wherein to chat and clap and otherwise behave informally. Our formative years in church pews occurred with nuns swathed in yards of black habit and starched white bibs strategically seated among us to insure that, short of breathing and praying, vital signs were not perceptible. Aside from triggering periodic giggles, heightened by the struggle to suppress them, the result was a singular respect for church as a place like no other, a place to focus on priest and altar. Most of us of a certain age still feel that difference and tend to be allergic to an atmosphere clashing with the building’s nature. The external imposition of reverence became for us internalized.

When our generation went off to college there were no orientation meetings instructing us to be sensitive to diversity. Catholics in secular institutions endured a lot of flack. On Fridays, for instance, our non-Catholic dates wolfed down burgers after the movie, and we had to order grilled cheese. This provoked “Oh, go ahead, confess it tomorrow,” necessitating brief explanations about the sacrament of Penance. Depending on our audience, we made the Catholic case for bodily discipline. Unfortunately, we were years ahead of Jane Fonda, who climbed down from a VC tank into leotards and made bodily discipline a religion. As for giving up meat, it didn’t achieve acceptable status until the advent of vegetarian zealots, whose intent was to better the flesh not the spirit. So we were stuck with tuna, put up with teasing, and were stronger for the challenge. In the process we were reminded there were things about us that made us different from other Christians. No one told us this was bad for our self-esteem.

We took seriously Sunday Mass obligation and, on those mornings, forced our bodies from dorm beds — there were no convenient evening Masses — because Mass was as much a part of our lives as food and drink. That we voluntarily continued to attend, even when far from our families, didn’t strike us as remarkable, although the witness we gave to non-Catholics was sometimes referred to many years later, in my case by a convert. We didn’t gripe that we got nothing from Mass because we sensed something was there to be had. If we didn’t get it, the fault was ours.

Some of us fell in love with Protestants and that meant we couldn’t be married at Mass. Worse, if the loved one wouldn’t sign a promise to raise children as Catholics, we were refused marriage in the Church altogether. It was, for many, the supreme test of faith. Emotionally conflicted, we struggled to find reasons to leave the Church, but Scripture only pointed more to its divine institution. We could no more deny its truth and primacy in our lives than could, before us, Thomas More and a host of martyrs. And martyrs for love sometimes we were. Mine was a happy resolution, but the trial showed me clearly where I stood. Today’s Catholic takes an oath every effort will be made to bring up children as Catholic, and the non-Catholic promises that he or she will not create obstacles to that objective. It is a kinder, gentler formulation.

Married, we were the generation who didn’t know the Cleavers weren’t cool. We perceived their portrayals as idealized, but rather liked their family and hoped ours might be similar. Marriage and children were our priorities. Women among us were only too happy to trade purse and heels and the office for loafers and jeans and home. The idea of giving birth then rushing back to the water cooler never entered our heads. We thought being with our children our purpose in life, and its greatest pleasure. We, not a day care surrogate, saw the first smile, the first step, and heard the first word of each baby who came along. The notion of dropping our child into someone else’s lap in the morning and resuming connection at six in the evening for a few hours of “quality time” would have struck us as pathetic. That, however, is the paradigm today, as progressive companies provide day care from infancy so a new mother can dash from her computer to nursing her baby and than back to the computer. Home is reduced to a Bed and Breakfast. Birth ’em and board ’em. Children as decorative accessories.

This shift in attitude is nakedly revealed in the recent New York Times/CBS poll which found that “girls surveyed were overwhelmingly committed to having careers — and far less so to making and maintaining a marriage.” One 16-year-old said, “I think a career is the most important thing, then children, then marriage.” Work as choice, not economic necessity. The hand that rocked the cradle prefers now to sign a deal. How successfully seductive has been the ’60’s message, in full flower in the ’90’s, that woman’s fulfillment lies not in the home but in the marketplace. Since it is contrary to nature, it will prove fraudulent, far more so than any domestic utopia symbolized by the Cleavers.

The net effect of my generation’s bungled upbringing — by a pre-Vatican II Church which offered no apologies for her traditions and no accommodation to secular fashion, coupled with a pre-Woodstockian nation where civility and morality were expected of its citizens — resulted in adults predominantly rooted in love for that Church and that country. So many changes occurred as to shake the foundation of our belief, and our allegiance. But most of us remain loyal and reject the label “victim.” The truth is, we think we were lucky.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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