It seems the warranty has ended on my parents’ generation. A year ago, my high school friends reunited around my dining room table for the first time in 30 years. Since that day, we have been orphaned one at a time, my own mother exiting this spring. She lingered and faded with her favourite magnolias.
I remembered the parents of my friends as having no real identity apart from their suburban homes and children. Like the God of our Sunday school, they disappeared from view when not attending to our needs, and reappeared at intervals to bestow bounty, lay down commandments and occasionally loose their wrath. And like that God, they each had a personal name never uttered by such as us. Our parents could not be our closest friends because they were of another age and era, remote and accessible only by black-and-white snapshots where young men wore uniforms and young women looked impossibly old-fashioned.
That generation was shaped by war and the Great Depression. The memory of wartime shortages was tattooed on their psyches. My mother’s closets were filled with shoes, identical except in wear: size 5F, one-inch heels. The lightly worn were kept in upstairs closets, misshapen and scuffed ones exiled to the basement. If seven lean years ever followed the decades of post-war plenty, her personal stockpiles would provide. When a physiotherapist suggested my mother consider sensible flat-soled shoes with laces or Velcro support, she bristled. No “old people shoes” would ever touch her toes. Bunions and lost balance were small burdens to bear in a world where sacrifice was the norm.
In so many ways, the lifespan of the United Church parallels the cohort of Canadians who entered the world after the First World War. Born into exuberant optimism and unlimited expansion in the 1920s, humbled by loss and deprivation in the ’30s, galvanized to follow in their own parents’ footsteps through a second great war, they bloomed into post-war formidability. As if commissioned to counterbalance the shared experience of death and destruction overseas, they returned to make babies and build institutions: a baby boom, a building boom. The burgeoning Sunday schools and new church developments of the mid-20th century were their creation — unfortunately not their legacy.
The loyal among their children struggle to maintain those churches, sandbagging the perimeters to keep out the rising floodwaters of . . . what? Is it changing culture, loss of faith, the departure of God, the missing link of one great gimmick that could recreate the glory of 1958 (1,000 children in Sunday school!)?
In the second century, Clement of Alexandria saw the future in more ancient symbols. He said, “Let the dove or the fish, the vessel flying before the wind, or the marine anchor be our signets.” The ancient Christian crypts seldom depicted the cross because it was a symbol of death. More often, we see the fish, a symbol of Jonah’s three-day captivity and Jesus’ empty tomb.
The love of what we cherished is an honourable love, but the future lies on the wings of a dove, the wind in our sails, the anchor thrown into wild open waters.
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