Hard times beget courageous times

I enjoy reading old newspapers. At college one year, following spring exams, I sought the coolness of a library basement to read back issues of The (London) Times. I chose the World War II period when London was being bombed.

Despite the bombs, The Times continued its tradition of devoting its front page to classified advertisements. Only in the right-hand corner did a small headline appear, such as "London Bombed," or "Heavy Bombing Continues."

In the Letters to the Editor section, I came upon a communication from an irate Londoner. He was upset with local officials for not providing sandbags to protect a statue honoring an obscure naval hero. I admired the writer's persistence in the midst of chaos.

The American dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille later was to write of this period that people "would wake up to the horrible sight of broken glass, and to sirens," and the charred remains of buildings.

Yet Londoners went every afternoon to the National Gallery, although the pictures had been removed for safekeeping. "They went there and heard Myra Hess play Beethoven, Bach, Schubert. And this gave them the strength and the courage and belief to go through another dreadful night."

Reading in the library basement, I learned of the fragility of human beings, for many Londoners died in the raids, and the resiliency and courage of people who continue with daily life.

This was a lesson I should have mastered already, for I had a shining example of personal courage at home: my mother.

A refugee of the Russian Revolution, Mother came to these shores alone at age 16, in 1919. Never again would she see most members of her family.

Later, it was Mother's misfortune, after a brief and happy marriage with Father, to be widowed at age 33. My sister was then 3, and I had not yet been born.

A less strong person would have been broken by these events.

But with her intelligence and the superb education she had received in Russia and the United States, and through hard work, Mother achieved a brilliant career in the field of international relations.

And she raised my sister and me. Every penny we lived on, she earned. In Mother, I had a daily example of courage and human resiliency.

These same qualities I find in abundance in my city today, following the calamity of Sept. 11 - a defining moment in the history of my country and city, and in my own life.

On a block in New York City that I frequent, West 43rd Street, there is a small firehouse with 25 firemen: Engine Company 65. They were fortunate, losing only one colleague in the World Trade Center attacks.

Five of the firemen from Engine Co. 65 came to receive the thanks of their neighbors.

They arrived on their firetruck, red lights flashing, having just returned from answering an alarm. These men had fought an inferno beyond even Dante's imagination.

During the brief ceremony, they were modest and gracious. Quiet heroes.

The heroic residents of London. My heroic mother. The many heroes in my city.

There is much to praise in human beings.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.