Like leaves adrift in an autumn breeze, dust motes circled in a shaft of sunlight. The yarn of the gray shag rug was soft beneath bare legs. My sister and I were sitting on the floor in our parents’ bedroom, watching TV on the black and white set. As if life could not possibly be any better, our mother gave us each a stick of Wrigley’s gum. Bliss. Sunshine, spearmint, and TV.
And then – it must have been during a commercial break – the screen filled with a series of photographs: the FBI’s Most Wanted. Some of the faces were female. Wait. What? Women could be murderers? Women? Women were mothers, babysitters, teachers, and nurses. They took care of people; they did not hurt them. My childish sense of the world as a safe place received its first fractures that day.
How old are most kids when they learn about the Holocaust? Maybe seventh grade? So, about twelve? That was the next jolt, being twelve years old with hellish knowledge to process and store. Didn’t the guards at those camps have mothers who taught them to do unto others as you would have others do unto you? Didn’t they have children? Had they never been children themselves? Thankfully, that brutality happened in the distant past – a decade prior – on far-away shores. Everyone had learned the lessons of that evil and it would never happen again.
I clung to that belief as long as I could. I believe, ultimately, in an orderly universe, but I can find no place in my wishful credo for the Holocaust, so it floats out there, evil inexplicable. And last week, two young men dropped lethal backpacks at the feet of children, and walked away.
So battered have we Americans been in recent years by armed men and Nature tempestuous, that the fragility of routine has been laid bare. I perceive the humdrum with flickering antennae: shoppers filling carts with Wheaties and milk, restaurant-goers sipping wine and perusing menus, teenagers tapping cell phones while strolling a sidewalk, families cheering loved ones at the finish line of a race. So normal. So easily blasted apart.
Deep breath. Deep breath. Quell the prickle in my nose, the mourning in my soul. This is new to us in New England, but it is not new. And it is in contrast to the goodness that unfolds minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, so commonplace as to rarely rate media coverage. Courtesies, small kindnesses, sweeping acts. A driver risks the annoyance of those behind him to wave in a merging car. Quilters meet to sew blankets for the sick, injured and orphaned. Schools run drives for mittens and scarves. Organizations – so many of them – raise money for human rights, cures for disease, conservation, housing, and food. Strangers rip fabric from their shirts to tie tourniquets for those wounded nearby. First responders, brave, brave souls, rush toward smoke, screams, and blood, to help.
The world does not feel safe right now, but remarkably, kindness is the unremarkable norm.