By Paul Krza
My 16-year-old granddaughter is crawling the walls and yelling at her now, work-at-home mother. No, she’s told, you can’t go over to a friend’s house, just hang out and read a book.
It’s a new reality we’re experiencing as we try to evade this stealthy, marauding virus, and if it’s socially difficult for the young, we all realize that it’s life threatening for older adults. But we know a lockdown is the best hope to survive and help others to do the same. And after all, many of the families we’ve come from have survived worse.
At the risk of having “OK, Boomer” epithets tossed at me, I like to recall my family’s immigrant past when life was grim in ways perhaps unfathomable today. I think of my four Slovenian grandparents, young and desperate, taking that lonely ocean journey a century-plus years ago, ending up in dry and dusty Rock Springs, Wyoming. None of them spoke English or knew what they’d face in America.
What one grandfather found was down-and-dirty work in the coal mines, while another took to hammering hot metal in a blacksmith shop. But with them also came Slovenian gardening genes, so they planted vegetables, and joining with other Slovenians in 1915, they built the Slovenski Dom, a “home” for Slovenians to meet and socialize. My grandfather and several friends also ordered grapes from California, and together they started making their own wine.
Wyoming’s Sweetwater County was a tough place to raise a family, and having multiple children increased the odds. For one grandmother, there was heartache when two of her nine children died early, victims of a far more lethal pandemic called the Spanish flu. Back then no one knew how effective social distancing could be in stopping the spread of the virus.
My parents, who grew up as new Americans speaking English, faced an uncertain future after graduating from high school. First, they were in the midst of a grinding depression that was followed by World War II.
Early on in this unfolding COVID-19 epidemic, Reuters reported that, “…nerves had begun fraying after days of people working from home, looking after children whose schools are shut and severely scaling back on everyday activities.”
My father grew up in a tiny house by today’s standards and followed his father into the mines. In the early 1950s, when the Union Pacific Coal Company shuttered its mines, hundreds of men, including my father, lost their jobs just before Christmas.
I remember when “surplus commodities,” the government’s plain-packaged cheese and milk, became the bulk of our diet. My mother found a job as a telephone operator, but she also canned and preserved. She was a “Yugoslavian saver,” my Rock Springs Aunt Helen told me recently.
Children now have sophisticated technological expectations, abetted by parents who choose to focus their lives on just one or two children. In isolated Rock Springs during my childhood, kids from families often played outdoors, but before any of us escaped the house, mothers would demand, “Make your bed, clean the house, and pull some weeds.”
The university was my goal because I knew it was the ticket out into the wider world — to do what I wanted — whatever that turned out to be. I rustled up a meager scholarship and worked summers at FMC Corp’s soda ash operation. My father had gotten a job there, doing office work for the mine where workers dug out white minerals instead of black coal. As for me, my economic trajectory was up into the middle class, a launch that today, I realize, might be even harder.
Thankfully, my teenage granddaughter has come round to adjusting to our new reality. At some point the knowledge that she lived through a worldwide epidemic will help her realize that while most of us survived it, many died. Isolation was the tool that worked best to keep her safe. How strange that is – to fight an attacker with solitude.
In their time, her great-grandparents had different struggles, but with creativity and tradition, they made it through, and the generations that followed flourished. We’ll get through this too.
Paul Krza is a contributor to Writers on the Range.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues. He is a journalist and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.