Strangers Who Care

Written in a workshop on Wed. night, Nov. 3, 2004
by Pat Schneider
founder of Amherst Writers & Artists

Yesterday, after the election that gave George W. Bush another four years of presidency, someone I love was crying so hard, such a deep despair, grief and fear, I could say and do nothing to console her. She is young; she is lesbian; the country voted No on same-sex marriage, No on stem-cell research, No on a woman's right to choose abortion, No on most Democratic congress members, No on John Kerry and John Edwards. Three Supreme Court justices are due to retire and will almost certainly be replaced in the next four years. She said, crying so hard I could hardly understand her words,"I don't want to live in this country any more. The worst thing is, for the first time in my life I feel dirty. I want to die."

I am seventy years old. From the beginning of human conversation it has been the task and the privilege of elders to give guidance to those who come after them. What can I say to this beautiful young woman? What can I say to my children and their children?

When I was a young mother of one child who was two years old, and pregnant with another baby, everyone believed there was a great probability that we would be attacked with an atomic or hydrogen bomb. The news was not saying "if" a bomb falls, but "when" the bomb falls. We had done it to Japan, and we believed that Russia would do it to us. There was a lot of talk about "fall-out shelters" -- and some of the talk was terribly ugly. How to keep your neighbors out of your shelter, for instance. One week, the women's magazine on the rack at the end of the supermarket check-out counter had a cover article on how to build your own backyard fall-out shelter.

That week I had a melt-down of my own. I cried and cried: "How can I bring a baby into this world?" One evening we entertained friends from Alaska, and I completely lost control; I was frantic, hysterical. I truly wanted to die, and take my babies with me out of this terrible world of fall-out shelters and bombs. Peter took me into his arms and held me tightly. Our friends waited until I could talk again -- and we changed the subject from the cold war.

The next day, or sometime soon after, I spoke to my mother on the telephone, and I asked her the question. Mama was a complicated person; she did not have much formal education, but she loved to read history -- she read it for pleasure as some people read mystery stories. She did not even pause to take a breath when I asked her, "How can I bring a baby into this terrible world?" She said, "How do you think mothers felt when the Huns were sweeping down across Europe?"

Then I saw that long-ago woman -- that mother in her simple home made of stones from the fields. I saw her hands rough from hard work, and her children dressed in clothes she had made by hand by firelight after her work in the fields was done for the day. And I saw the barbarian Huns coming on their horses to kill her children, and to rape and kill her. Never mind that the Huns may not have been "barbarians". She could as easily have said "How do you think Indian mothers felt when the French and English armies swept across America?" What I saw was mothers helpless to defend their children from the hands of barbarians, and I understood for the first time that it has always been dangerous to be alive. That there have always been those who do not pity the poor, who take all they can take, who glorify war and believe themselves to be empowered by God to make others obey their wishes and their commands. And I understood that it would take all my courage and all my cunning to raise my babies, and that I was no different from mothers from the beginning to the end of time. I saw, too, that the end of the world is a private thing -- it comes to every person once.

I did not ever cry again about the possibility of an atomic bomb in my neighborhood. Like the Huns, it might come. Like women at the hands of the Huns, if it did, I would die and my children would die. There was no time for weeping, no time for despair. What I had to do was love them passionately, protect them fiercely, and work with all my might to make the world a better and a safer place.

This is the story that comes to me tonight, after we have elected to the presidency a man whom I believe to be a barbarian. Barbarous regimes do terrible damage, but they will not have the last word. They will be recognized for what they are. They will topple and fall. Would it -- will it -- help the young woman whom I love, if I tell her my story? Would it help my children? Perhaps not, but tonight it seems to be all that I have to give them.

Today I went to the market to buy leeks and carrots and celery. I needed fresh vegetables to make a comforting winter soup. As I opened the door to my car, a woman I did not know at all came toward me, calling "How are you today? It's hard, isn't it? How are you?" She did not explain what she meant -- she didn't have to. I was loading groceries into a car with two bumper stickers for the defeated candidate.

"Yes", I said, "it's very hard. Someone I love cried all day yesterday. She is young. She's a lesbian. She said she doesn't want to live in this country any more. She said she wants to die."

"Oh," the woman moaned. "You tell that young woman that there are strangers who care." We talked a bit more, and as she turned away she said it again, "Tell her, all across this land, there are strangers who care."