I noticed a lot of picturesque cloud formations in the big blue skies of the last couple of days. Mother Nature’s pleasing visuals seemed apropos in light of what has been transpiring in the wide world of politics and beyond. Until this year, I was content on worrying about—and occasionally feeling embarrassed—at things said and done by a handful of loose cannons in my life circle. I never imagined that one day I would have to assume the burden of worrying about what my president might say or do in a tweet, during a commencement speech, or while conferring with a foreign leader. But, alas, it has come to that.
As a boy, I believed in the inviolability of “American exceptionalism.” I don’t remember that exact phrase being bandied about then, but I viewed my country as the “land of the free” and “home of the brave.” It was, after all, the geographical hot spot that attracted people from all over the world—men and women who wanted to make better lives for themselves and for their families. Most of us didn’t have to look very far to see that this “land of opportunity” was in fact the real thing and not some patriotic propaganda. My paternal grandparents emigrated from Italy, and my grandmother never, ever desired returning to the Italian mountain town she grew up in—even for a short visit.
I have in my possession a composition book, which belonged to my grandmother. It’s the one she compiled in preparation of her citizenship test. Learning the English language, American history, world geography, and civics was an integral part of the process. For me, one entry in particular jumps out: “Today is Wednsday [sic], July 15, 1942. Mayor LaGuardia lives in New York City. Gov. Lehman lives in Albany. Pres. Roosevelt lives in Washington, D.C. District of Columbia.” I don’t fault my grandmother for misspelling Wednesday, which is the most difficult day of the week to spell for native English speakers. But, really, what was she feeling on that summertime Wednesday three quarters of a century ago? The world was at war, including the United States of America, the country in which she would soon be a citizen. Basic food staples were rationed. Friends and neighbors were enlisting in the service and fighting in faraway places.
In those dark days, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered radio “fireside chats” from the White House, reassuringly referring to his fellow Americans as “My friends.” Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia read the comics, including Little Orphan Annie, over the radio during a newspaper deliverymen strike three years after my grandmother noted in her composition book his city of residence, which she shared. They were simpler, though far from easier, wholly different times. And these men weren't losers!
My grandmother and her new country overcame many obstacles in the decades to follow. America became a better place on countless fronts. But I wonder if we have we finally thrown the baby out with the bath water? I would very much like to believe that this too shall pass. However, the times no longer guarantee it. When I think of the number forty-five, I choose today to recall the late Tug McGraw and his screwball. Call it mind over matter.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)