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Commentary: Adaptation and Resilience

Rich Egger
Alison Vawter

This was supposed to be an eventful week in our families, particularly those of us with Macomb high school students:  Prom and Mother's Day last weekend, and graduation this coming weekend.  Every special event in our lives is being celebrated as best we can against the backdrop of a period unique in the history of all but those of us who are over 102:  a Global Pandemic.  This week has me thinking about adaptation and resilience.   

I have two great uncles buried in the Bushnell cemetery who died during the 1918 epidemic, but my grandparents never talked much about this time in their lives.  When I knew them, 50 and more years later, they were pretty stoic people, looking back on a long life with all its ups and downs. 


The story I best remember my grandmother telling was about the February day in 1927 when the bottom went out of the dirt roads in McDonough County. She was driving a car and following my grandfather’s wagon full of hogs on the way to market.  It took hours to dig the car out.  The horse and wagon had to come back and pitch in after the hogs were dropped off.   At the end of the story, almost as an afterthought, my grandmother mentioned that my aunt, her first child, was born the next day. 

Nanny was from Pittsfield.  She was an only child, descended from lawyers and town people. She would eventually inherit such useful things as her uncle’s top hat that he wore to the Opera and a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a shoestring relative who was a one-term Senator from California, best known for a passionate speech about how wrong it would be to abolish the Senate tavern.  Notwithstanding this outlier, my grandmother was the distillation of generations of dignified, rational, and intelligent people.  She was in her late 20’s and an old maid in the making when she came to Bushnell as a schoolteacher, and later Principal, of the West Side School. 

Grandfather was two years older, a farmer’s child and one of many siblings.  When Poppy was in the spotlight, he defaulted to playing the fool – singing, joking, showing how he could jump the dining room table with a short running start.  He dreamed of being a professional baseball player or a businessman and went to Gem City Business College in Quincy until he was called back to take over the farm after his father died; between the brothers who died of the flu and the brothers who left to homestead in Canada, he was the only one who could. 

He proposed to my grandmother by saying, “Well, we aren’t getting any younger.  I guess we should get married.”  She went home at Christmas and watched the mail anxiously for the ring my grandfather said he had ordered from the Sears Catalogue.  It probably was not the way they envisioned this part of life going.

Thus yoked together in an oddball partnership born of practicality, my grandparents did well in farming and went on to have two children, who between them produced seven living grandchildren.  This generation produced 13 great-grandchildren.  My daughter, the youngest of that generation, was born 18 years after the last of my grandparents died.  She graduates from high school this week.

Overall, high school wasn’t a good experience for my daughter.  As much as she wanted to fit in, her authentic and unconventional traits refused to remain dormant, to her early frustration and later, defiant pride.  We tried making a few adjustments, including changing schools, but in the end we both had to agree that high school was not going to be the happiest period of her life.  We arranged for her to finish her academics in February, knowing that this would result in a very different Senior year for her than her classmates.  We could not have predicted that her classmates would forego these time-honored rituals as well, not from choice, but from necessity. 

As the young people we know graduate from high school this week during these strange times, remember, and remind them, that the ups and downs of high school do not define them.  14-18 is a very short period of time in a full human life. 

And as our children head off to leading the longest part of their lives – their lives as adults --they will tell the story of their last year of high school, how the bottom of the road of life unexpectedly went out, and what they woke up and did the next day and every day after that, to lead their wonderful, amazing, and sometimes complicated lives.  Someone, who needs to hear about strength, who needs to internalize resilience, will be listening.  

Thank you, Nanny. 

Congratulations to the class of 2020. 

And on a more personal note -- Happy Graduation, kid.  You’ve continued growing into the person neither one of us envisioned, but the person you were exactly meant to be.

Alison Vawter is an attorney and mediator in Macomb

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.