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Jim Gullo: Requiem for the luckiest generation

Artisticco/Canstock Photo##
Artisticco/Canstock Photo##

My mother, Sylvia Gullo Driscoll, passed away gracefully and somewhat effortlessly, as was her style, last month at the age of 83. Among the many things she did well, the quality that I’d have to put towards the top of the list was that she hit history at just about the perfect time. She played her brief time on Earth beautifully. If the American generation just before hers is accurately called The Greatest Generation thanks to their heroic and stupendous efforts to save the world from tyranny, I’ll dub hers The Luckiest Generation. Here’s why.

Guest Writer

Jim Gullo is a McMinnville author and journalist. His latest book, "Grouch Bag," is a historical comedy for middle-school readers that is set in McMinnville.

She was born in 1932, the third and last child of Italian immigrants who had settled in Rochester, New York, in a working-class community of like-minded newbies to America who, if not exactly embraced with open arms, were not threatened with walls or deportations. The Depression was largely over by the time she started school, and her mother found work as a seamstress, her father as a tool-and-die maker for Kodak, both jobs they would keep for the rest of their working lives, with pensions. They were jobs that, for the most part, aren’t available in America anymore. Her parents called her “Honey” for most of her childhood, and there was always food on the table. The only ill-effect of the Depression was to leave my mom with an utter inability to throw out anything, so we’ve spent the last month wading through cartons of everything from rare family photos to the swizzle sticks and cabin instructions that she once received on a cruise.

The photos show a skinny, pretty girl who was just 13 when World War II ended, so none of her classmates were in jeopardy of being sent off to fight. Nor was my father, five years her senior, who graduated high school in June 1945 and just missed the end of bullets flying and bombs dropping. She married at 20, lived in a community of friends and a large, extended family, and had her three brilliant and above-average children during the ‘50s as she stayed home and kept a house built from scratch on my father’s high school English teacher salary. There were new cars, new television sets, new hi-fis to play Frank Sinatra records, new labor-saving household gadgets. The family was frugal — we found booklets of S&H Green Stamps that she forgot to redeem — and the only credit they were offered was by the neighborhood butcher. Lucky again: In 1971, her boys were just young enough to miss Vietnam and, in the ‘80s, too old for the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.

Sylvia developed Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetes at the age of 26 while pregnant with my sister: If it had happened 30 years earlier she would have been a goner, doomed to an early, painful death. She would stay in perfect synch with advancements in medical technology the rest of her life, getting laser treatments to save her failing eyesight just after the treatments became widely available; likewise with kidney dialysis that extended her life by seven years, allowing her to stay alive to witness the birth and first years of Henry, her youngest grandchild. When, at the age of 79, her heart needed multiple bypasses, we incredulously asked the surgeon, “You do bypasses on 80-year old women with failing kidneys and multiple complications from diabetes?”

“Sure,” he boomed, “this is America!” My father hadn’t been so lucky: There were no bypasses when his heart attack claimed him in 1977. It was enormously expensive to keep her alive — I once saw a dialysis bill for $30,000/month — but it was all covered by Medicare, and her living expenses by Social Security. It may have been no picnic to experience old age, but she appreciated the opportunity to keep living. She grew increasingly feeble and weak after each dialysis treatment, and the last bout with pneumonia left her attached to an oxygen tube during her final nine months, but she toughed it out.

The Luckiest Generation invented consumerism, sucked the oil out of the Earth and burned it into the atmosphere, ate or shot for sport whole species into extinction, created and then unleashed toxins onto the planet in the interest of making money and creating comforts, changed the climate, and invented a “more is better” American ethic to which some of our astute politicians yearn to return. My mother’s second marriage included motorhome trips, tours in Europe and winters in Arizona on a golf course. Neither she nor my stepfather played, but they admired the wall-to-wall green grass from their patio every night as they drank their martinis and turned up the air-conditioning.

My mother grew old and didn’t bother to experience the guilt of seeing what has happened to the planet, or the sickening realization that all of that excess cannot, in fact, be sustained. As the great scientist Oliver Sacks wrote a couple of years ago upon learning he had terminal cancer, “I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming…this is not indifference but detachment…these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”

It is a future that may yet be prosperous, and is certainly sumptuous, but can’t hold a candle to the unbridled excess of her heyday. Her children and grandchildren will likely live shorter lives, with fewer resources to share with the planet. But what we’ll miss most of all is that hers was an era of optimism, and a certainty, perhaps misguided, that they were doing everything right. I’m glad to say that she enjoyed and appreciated every bit of it. Rest in peace, Honey, and nice going. It was quite an eventful 83 years.

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