Volume > Issue > Struggling With Today’s Evils

Struggling With Today’s Evils

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | April 1986

A decade ago, when I was concluding a study of elderly people who lived in the small and isolat­ed towns of northern New Mexico, most of those men and women had never looked at television, or even gone to a movie. They did not read the news­papers. They were small farmers who eked out a subsistence living by working semi-arid soil, with the help of irrigation ditches that brought them water from the upper Rio Grande river. Their chil­dren and grandchildren had in large numbers de­serted them — for Espanola, Santa Fe, Albuquer­que, cities where they could find jobs and become the consumer-oriented Americans the overwhelm­ing majority of us are delighted to be. But the el­derly men and women I met usually refused such an exit for themselves. They were proud of their steadfast endurance, their willingness and capacity to take on a somewhat unfriendly, sometimes stingy terrain, and obtain from it enough food for survival. They were also proud of their indifference to, if not outright suspicion of, the urban Ameri­can world and its culture, its values and habits, of which they occasionally heard from their own sons and daughters.

But one of those elderly couples succumbed to illness and rather than stay put in the expecta­tion of a fairly imminent death, they chose to go south and seek their son’s help — in Albuquerque. In fact, their decision was a wise one. At the Uni­versity of New Mexico Medical School teaching hospital they received excellent care, and within a couple of months the man and woman were much better. They hadn’t been cured, but they’d been given, with any luck, a substantial lease on life. I was making frequent trips to the state (having lived there for several years) and I had occasion to learn, through repeated interviews, how those two people in their late 70s, whom I had come to know well, began to see this country, now that they had be­come so much more a part of it, as viewers of tele­vision, as occasional visitors to the movies, as lis­teners to the radio, as travelers in cars that took them all over a fairly large and fast growing Ameri­can city, and as people who heard their children talk about what they had read in the paper and heard at work. (The two old ones were, I suppose it can be said, “functionally illiterate,” and so ig­nored the Albuquerque Journal.)

Here are some remarks of the woman which I tape recorded over a span of days, condensed and edited, of course: “Since we’ve been here in the city it’s like having a new life. We are old, my hus­band and I, and soon the good Lord will be taking us from here; but before He does, we’ve visited our country for the first time — that’s what we’ve be­gun to realize: that until we left our little farm up there in the hills we weren’t living in America. Now we are really Americans, like others; and I’ll tell you, it’s been hard for us — suddenly to see what it’s like for our children and grandchildren, since they’ve left the world we knew, and we are living in this world of theirs.

“Not a day passes that I don’t wonder how people survive! There seems to be trouble every­where, around every corner. The television is al­ways going, and the pictures are scary. People are being killed, and people are setting fires, and peo­ple are robbing banks, and women are being raped — every day, on television and in the papers. My grandson starts reading me the newspaper stories, and I’ll tell him that the stories are as bad as the ones on television and on the radio of my daugh­ter’s car — all the bad things people can think to do to each other. My husband said to me the other day that there is nothing selfish and mean that the human mind had imagined that doesn’t happen right here in this city, every day, and in other cit­ies! All the time you watch and hear the reports or you read them if you can read: murders, so many, and throwing bombs, and children, people hurting them. I walked with my grandson to the drugstore, and then we went to the supermarket, and in both places there were magazines with pictures I’ve nev­er seen before: naked bodies, and strange things told about sex — and my grandson explained it all to me, because I kept asking. How do you stand it all? I asked him that. He said, ‘Oh, I just do!’

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