23 June 2014

A G.I. Bride

My mother was a GI Bride. It probably is the act that most defined her life, a life which illustrates the effects of historical processes on 'little people', those whose absence from archives makes comprehending the past so difficult for historians. The briefest summary of her life shows how none of us can live free of the past, no matter how much we might think it is possible.

She was born in Portsmouth, on England's south coast, in 1927. The year and place establish that she would be exposed to two of the most critical events of the twentieth century, the Great Depression and the Second World War. But being born in England meant that she would be among the relatively privileged of the world, even if her parents were not among the elite of English society. She had the opportunities of a better education, better health care and access to the earning potential of work in one of the world's most advanced economies. The reasons why Britain could make all this available to her rested on the course of events over some three hundred years of history, from the reign of Charles I until my mother's own time. During this, Britain had risen from a Western European power into the greatest of Great Powers, with an empire that encompassed all of South Asia, much of Africa and included a degree of economic dominance of the South American economy. This power and wealth provided a job to her father, who made a career serving in the Royal Navy, that insulated the family to some extent from the effects of the Great Depression.

Her life would be changed utterly by the Second World War, like so many. She was very bitter about this, although would rarely talk about it. Once she commented that the Germans had robbed her of her adolescence, which itself was a concept that really only took shape for people of her social situation in the aftermath of the First World War. By the time of the war she was living in Fareham, a town along the Solent coast between Portsmouth and Southampton. There was some bombing of Fareham, although it was not 'blitzed' as heavily as Portsmouth. It seems she was bright enough to attend some kind of tertiary education, but the patriarchal mentality of that time meant that she left school at sixteen and went to work as a kind of office dogsbody in a Southampton hotel. It was in Southampton that she met he future husband, a G.I. who worked at the hospital at Netley. The war itself made possible this meeting.

After the war, she crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary to live with her husband in Detroit, Michigan. We rarely think of the Second World War as a time of great migrations, but displaced persons and G.I. or wartime Brides were part of a notable transference of people from one part of the world to another. The United States made special legislation, the War Brides Act, to cope with this situation. In Detroit, she found an industrial city that had continued its tremendous twentieth-century expansion during the war. Younger people today may have difficulty in understanding just how well-off one could be living in Detroit after the Second World War. Union jobs in factories associated with the car industry made the workers of Detroit enviable — if they had seniority. They could afford houses, cars and appliances that their parents could only have dreamt of during the straitened days of the Depression. Layoffs and long-term strikes, however, created difficult times, and contributed to my mother's tremendous sense of thrift. By the 1960s, however, my father had built up sufficient seniority that we were eventually able to afford a trip to England, during which my mother met her parents again for the first time since 1945, almost twenty-five years.

My mother was disturbed by the notorious racial tension in Detroit. She always expressed antipathy towards the very notion of 'white flight'. She also had a few telling observations about how jobs at J.L Hudson's downtown department store were segregated. There was little that an individual could do in the face of institutional prejudice except to treat the people one met on their merits. She did, however, believe strongly in education as the means by which people should equip themselves to overcome any disadvantages, and that meant a degree of assimilation to the dominant social mores. The 1950s and 1960s were the final years of the WASP Ascendancy, that time from the Gilded Age until 'The Sixties' during which the American elite was a caste rooted in the northeast who lived somewhat as 'offshore Europeans', aping either the luxuries of the pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy or the lifestyle of a British landed gentry. She raised her children to use this caste as a yardstick.

Her children all succeeded in the tertiary education that she missed out on. They benefited from the expansion of higher education that resulted in part from the G.I. Bill, but also from other Federal government initiatives that ensured students from humble backgrounds could acquire higher education without putting themselves into severe debt. I would think that this was the achievement of which she was most proud, because it would not have been possible without her help in making us self-disciplined, literary and mathematical. Nonetheless, it would not have been possible without a social policy that sought to ensure that capable students could benefit from inexpensive higher education. Currently, the Anglosphere drifts towards a system of higher education that burdens young people with debts while being stingy in the supply of good-paying jobs to equip the students to pay off those debts.

During the early 1980s, my mother returned to England for a time and lived in London. However, the birth of her eldest grandchild in 1983 transformed a temporary visit into a permanent one. In this she finally experienced the suburbanisation of America, as her Detroit home that she finally left in 1980 was within the city limits of Detroit. Subsequent to 1983 she lived in low-density neighbourhoods in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, in the city of Davenport, Iowa, and in the area of Kalamazoo, Michigan. This urban sprawl produced unprepossesing strip malls and big-box stores, while housing tended to be inaccessible by public transport (although not in the case of Davenport, where she lived by a bus stop). She never learned to drive, so in the absence of buses she was reliant on my brother to travel .

At the end, medical and pharmaceutical technology ensured my mother outlived her own mother by about four years. She suffered from colon cancer a few years ago, which was successfully treated, but a mystifying incident in the autumn of 2012, when she had a faint, took a heavier toll on her health. She wasn't quite housebound after that, but her mobility was sharply restricted as she became too weak to walk for too long. Tumours began to squeeze her Å“sophagus shut in the winter of this year, although a cough that seems to have been associated with lung cancer suggests trouble there, too. In May she decided she only wished to undergo palliative care, and lived out her life in a hospice until she died in the early hours of 20 June, last Friday. Despite having lived in the United States for almost her entire adult life, she remained British in her official citizenship, never having taken out American nationality. However, having been offered the chance to have her remains transported home, she declined. As the wife of a veteran, she was allowed to be interred in a nearby military cemetery. The last act of her life remained literally linked to the title of this post.

The point of this very long blog entry is to illustrate how a single life can be used to structure a history course. Simply by highlighting these broad historical themes, one can see how our lives are not matters of individual choice, but are subject to historical conditions over which we have no control, starting at the very moment of birth. Think of a eleven-week course constructed around this life, including some topics I haven't covered in this little essay:

1) Britain's empire in the twentieth century.

2) The Great Depression

3) The Second World War

4) Migration in Britain and the United States

5) Racism and the Urban Question

6) From urban to suburban in North America

7) The rise and fall of mass tertiary education

8) Women's role in peace and war, 1930 to 2010

9) 'Live Long and Prosper': medicine during the Postwar Era

10) From cinema to downloads, a history of modern entertainments

11) The strange rise and impending decline of the Anglosphere

History at its inception was a narrative art, and largely bounded by large events, just like a human life.