The Lesson Of A Beloved Citizen’s Long Life

Tomorrow I will join with family members in Plymouth, Massachusetts to bury my mother, 94 years after she was born in the same town during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. People usually prefer to keep such personal moments private, but there is a lesson from my mother’s life that I would like to share.

My mother had quite a life. The fifth of six children born to a family of Italian immigrants, she joined the Army early in World War Two and ended up assigned as one of General MacArthur’s assistants during the occupation of Japan. My parents met in the Far East while both were serving in the military, and my mother might have remained in the reserves indefinitely except she became pregnant with me and the Army kicked her out. She fought her forced retirement all the way to the Senate Armed Services Committee amidst much media coverage, but in the end the Army had its way and her military career ended.

She then threw herself into public life as a civilian, and her life became intertwined with the great events of the day. When the Cold War turned frigid, she represented womens’ groups at the United Nations. When baby boomers threatened to overwhelm the public school system, she was elected to the local board of education in New Jersey. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery, she marched with him. And when the family moved to her hometown at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, she became the most prominent female politician in town. She was the first woman elected chairman of the Board of Selectmen there in 360 years.

She did many other things along the way, the most important of which were captured in a Boston Globeobituary on January 6. I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from her life about how the world has changed and how one person can make a difference. But for me, here is the lesson that matters most. Although the local newspaper referred to her last weekend as “Plymouth’s Grand Dame,” she always saw herself as an average citizen who was simply doing her duty. She felt everybody lucky enough to be born in America had an obligation to understand the issues of the day and take an active interest in how the government operated.

That sense of duty seems to have waned with the passing of her generation. People don’t pay attention to politics the way they once did. They don’t hold their hands over their hearts when the flag passes by in the Fourth of July parade, if they go to the parade at all. Our idea of what it means to be a citizen has shrunken to a point where many people never even reflect on the subject. That was the great lament of my mother in her later years — that people just didn’t seem to care anymore about government, or politics, or even the news. Maybe that helps explain the poverty of our current political discourse. A nation that once was full of concerned citizens like Alba Thompson now seems to have found other ways of spending its time.