Among the accumulation of stuff I have at home are photos and correspondence from a century or more of my family’s history.
These possess a sort of magic. People I knew briefly in my childhood as old and stooped blossom to life as young people full of energy and hope for the future. There are postcards from Utah, sent back to my grandmother in Norway, dated slightly more than 100 years ago. They urge her to come to the United States and enjoy the fun they were experiencing.
She came, for a while. She worked as a maid in the Hotel Newhouse in Salt Lake City before deciding to return home.
But the photos and postcards do not exist independent of the times in which those people lived. A century ago this week, the first shots were fired in what has become known as World War I. Grandmother returned just before German submarines began attacking Norwegian ships in an effort to cut trade with Britain.
In 1918, when a virulent strain of influenza spread through the earth, caused in part by unsanitary conditions due to war, my grandmother’s husband became sick and died. Later, she married the man who became my grandfather.
I have another prized photo from Norway, taken in 1938. My mother, age 12 or 13, is smiling and standing with her siblings, dressed neatly in her Sunday best.
One year later, she would write in her journal about a meeting at the local branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was called in order to say goodbye to all American missionaries and church leaders. They were being sent home because of tensions in Europe.
She writes about feelings of loneliness and abandon, as well as dread. “What will become of me?” she asks.
The immediate answer was five long years of war, terror and enemy occupation. Her father would be arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. She would huddle in cellars and quake as bombs fell and aircraft fought.
In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus surveys the current troubles in the world — the Middle East in flames from Gaza to Libya, Ukraine under threat from Russia, Mexico and Central America in the control of hoodlums — and wonders whether global chaos is the new normal.
The past century would argue it has been normal for a long time.
Politicians and pundits have plenty to say about causes and who is right and wrong. There is merit to some of what they say. President George W. Bush was too trusting in the power of American liberation as he began conflicts. President Barack Obama was too trusting in the power of diplomacy and now is too timid to engage.
But after awhile, the analysis gets exhausting.
Twenty years ago, on a trip to Israel, I engaged a Palestinian cab driver in conversation. When he learned I was a Mormon, he became emotional. He told of a group of students at the BYU Jerusalem Center who had donated blood to help Palestinians wounded in a terror attack. He startled me as he pounded the dashboard and said, “Mormon blood is Palestinian blood, and Palestinian blood is Mormon blood!"
I have thought of this often as the years have passed, and as violence in that part of the world has kept old wounds from healing. I have thought of it as I met with secretaries of state and foreign diplomats, and as I watched my oldest son go to work for the U.S. State Department.
Benevolent blood donors may not alter the plans of zealots or erase centuries of hatred, but they touched the heart of my cabbie, and perhaps many others.
Many of us have ancestors who gave us an emotional claim to those who are suffering around the world, and therefore an obligation to their memory. Maybe kindness seems like a naïve solution to complicated problems. But maybe it should at least be on the table.