Peggy Noonan: Among the things America no longer manufactures is stability
I will always feel America's culture saved me when I was a child, she says
Regular readers of my column know I speak often of my concerns about modern America’s culture, by which I mean the America we see all around us each day and experience as human beings. I grew up in what in my first book I called the old America, but in a relatively unprotected condition in that country. I survived to become myself because that old country was a more coherent place that, to a greater degree than now, knew what it was about.
Let me explain.
Every summer when I was a child, from age 6 to age 13, I was sent, often for long stretches by myself, to stay at the home of two great aunts in Selden, New York. Selden then, in the 1950s and early ’60s, was almost unpopulated. It had woods and flat, barren fields. (It is now a Long Island suburb full of houses and people; then it was empty.)
It was very lonely. My two great aunts, Etta and Jane Jane, were in their 70s, which in those days was ancient and certainly seemed so to me. Etta was a former cook in private homes in Manhattan and Jane Jane was a former lady’s maid. Both were retired. Neither had had children. They were Irish immigrants. Etta a widow and Jane Jane never married.
Etta was a deeply distracted woman who didn’t much like children. I remember her as almost completely silent. She would sit at her small, oil cloth-covered kitchen table and chain-smoke without inhaling, with a faraway look in her eye. I remember her saying whissshhtt for “go away” and “bad cess” of those she didn’t like; I remember her speaking often in Gaelic, the language she preferred for her sparse comments.
Jane Jane was equally distracted but also more ethereal – she recited poetry aloud – and viewed children kindly. She was kind to me and to the extent she could when nearby attempted to fill a parent’s role. She would tell me things that had happened in history. There was a sense they were still happening in her imagination. She was religious and took me each Sunday to church.
Etta and Jane Jane didn’t get along, so there was a lot of silence in the house.
There was nothing to do in Selden. Every day was lonely and the nights were terrible. The little, two-bedroom house was on Sanitarium Road, which led to an old sanitarium for people with tuberculosis. It had been shut down and was now a hollow, spooky building that looked like a fortress. There was one family within walking distance, the Klines, less than a mile away, but they were not always available and they too had stresses.
Warning signs of death
I remember walking by myself in the woods and poking sticks at dead birds. I remember being fascinated by moss, and how mica shined in stones. I remember talking with Jane Jane and hearing about Woodrow Wilson, the Lusitania, and the Fourteen Points. She thought Wilson a great man who had saved Europe. At night, I would get into bed with her in her little room with its little window and its bureau with pictures of the Sacred Heart.
You would think sleep would be a relief after the empty days, but Jane Jane was a bit of a mystic and like most mystics had a great interest in the subject of death. To keep me company and talk me to sleep she would tell me of things like the Warning Signs of Death. She had no awareness that this might be frightening for a child; she meant only to be interesting and share what was on her mind.
She would tell me that when you are about to die a great warm mist suddenly comes over you like a dense cloud. This was Long Island in the 1950s, without air conditioning. It was 90 degrees at night. I’d listen and suddenly be bathed in sweat – the mist! My heart would race, rivulets of sweat running down my head – more mist!
I couldn’t take the blanket off because another warning sign of death is that a spirit touches your hand or foot, so I had to keep them covered. Another warning sign of death: Suddenly, the ticking of a clock becomes very loud. I’d suddenly hear the clock on the bureau: It was ticking like a drum!
It was all fascinating and harrowing, and I promise she had no idea. In time she’d fall peacefully asleep. I would wait until she did, creep out of bed and go into the next room where I’d put the TV on low and watch it for hours – network dramas, old movies, Jack Paar. It was all jolly or thoughtful or hopeful, representative of future life, adult life. It was comforting.
But here is the thing. Etta and Jane Jane didn’t have much, not a phone or a car, couldn’t drive, were off in that lonely place in the house in a field. But Jane Jane understood a child needs at least something to look forward to. So once a week she would take me to the big stores in Riverhead, the Suffolk County seat, 25 miles away, or to Centereach, just five miles away.
She would announce the trip in the morning, put on her thin cotton house dress, put a black wool hat on her white-haired head, take her black purse and lead me out to Sanitarium Road. And we’d stand there. And when a car or truck came by we’d flag it down.
Someone would stop and Jane Jane would explain in her Irish accent, with her reedy voice, that we needed to go to the stores and would you be going to Riverhead? They’d look at us, shake their heads, sort of shrug and say, “Sure. Come on in.”
And they’d drive us, usually all the way. Jane Jane would entertain them with stories of the Titanic and World War I, both of which had captured her imagination when she was new to America. (Her arrival here, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, coincided with the invention of mass media – radio, the movies, a million newspapers.
Everything she absorbed then, everything blasted into her through the airwaves and the headlines, was on her mind for the rest of her life.)
We’d get to downtown Riverhead, or Centereach, and walk around in the air conditioning of the stores. We’d do almost every one of them – clothing stores, hardware store, candy store, five-and-ten (Heaven) and, at the end, the ice cream counter where we’d get a Coke. The air conditioning was so wonderful. The way everything smelled – the hardware store, the counter at the ice cream part of the store – was so wonderful. It was bliss.
We didn’t buy anything, but you don’t have to buy when you’re a child. Really, it’s enough to look, touch, get excited by what you see. Some day you’ll get it. There was a particular kindness I remember. There was a rack of magazines across from the counter in the five-and-ten, and they’d let you pick one up – Look, or Life, with pictures, or movie star magazines – read it while you had a Coke, and put it back when you were done. You didn’t have to pay.
And when this was over, four or five hours later, we’d decide to go home.
Here is what we did. We’d stand outside a store – the dottie old lady in the soft-flowered dress and the black wool hat, the fat, unkempt little girl – and we’d wait for someone to walk by, or drive by slow. And Jane Jane would call out, in the Irish accent with the reedy voice, “We are going home to Selden. Could you be taking us?” And they’d be surprised, and look at us, and fairly soon someone would feel amazement or pity or bemusement and say yes, sure, get in, and take us back to Sanitarium Road.
We did that for years, hitchhiking back and forth, the vulnerable old lady and the child.
I remember bouncing around in the back of pickup trucks watching the trees go by. I remember a big diesel truck that smelled like oil or gas and there was a big dog in the cab and we all squished in. I remember salesmen in short sleeves smoking with their arms out the window.
Prevailing American culture ‘a protective force’
I never told people this story until the past year or so and when I told my son, now a man, I said, at the end, wonderingly, “And nobody killed us.”
My son reflected. “That should be the title of your next book,” he said. This is my next book, so I decided to put it in here.
The point of course is that while I was not quite protected as a child, the prevailing American culture itself at that point still functioned as a protective force. Things hadn’t been let loose to such a degree. The messages, permissions, incitements and inducements of the culture were not rough, lowering, frightening.
Life then wasn’t Arcadia, there was murder and mayhem because humans are humans, and “history is an abattoir” – but there was a greater feeling extant of safety on the street. Parents could say to their kids, essentially, “Go out and play in America,” and know they’d come back OK that night.
People don’t feel that so much anymore, and it’s a real loss. (It is right here to note that life would not have been so safe for a little girl and an old woman of color; the world might not have been so kind. But the larger point, that everyone was at least a little safer, I think maintains.) Sophisticated Europe, I learned years later, had looked at our culture – its blandness, its innocence, its babyish assumption that the good would triumph – and saw it a culture of children. We were more appropriately understood as a culture for children. And you know, that’s not the worst thing.
Here is my concern. There are not fewer children living stressed, chaotic lives in America now – there are more. There will be more still, because among the things America no longer manufactures is stability. And the culture around them will not protect them, as the culture protected me. The culture around them will make their lives harder, more frightening, more dangerous. They are going to come up with nothing to believe in, their nerves essentially shot. And they’re going to be – they are already – very angry.
So that is the story. When I speak of my concerns about the cultural air all around us it is not abstract to me. I will always feel America’s culture saved me when I was a child, preserved my optimism, allowed me to be hopeful for the future, allowed me to become myself.