Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Sports analysts love to rank athletes and eras, creating Top 10 lists and Mount Rushmore monuments comprised of the best or worst of all time. These lists are fascinating because no matter how pointless, depraved and dishonest the listing the author cannot be wrong. Several days into 2021 there will be dozens of shows on every platform proclaiming 2020 as the worst year in human history. Only time will tell if it was really all that bad.
It depends on who is doing the ranking. If you asked my wife to rank 2020, she would say something like, “They heard gunshots coming from 60th and Callowhill. My 93-year-old mother is afraid to leave her house. She’s a pandemic hostage. We’re under siege!” Years earlier a drunk drove down her mother’s street hitting every car on the block, but now she thinks they’re under siege. 2020 can really mess with your mind.
My parents lived through Jim Crow segregation, the Great Depression, and various wars, hot and cold. Some people call the 30s and 40s the good old days, but their stories were filled with characters like Sammy Snare, a shoe manufacturer who reduced my father’s pay from $10 bucks a week to $8 after learning that my mother was pregnant. It was 1938 and he figured that Pop couldn’t afford to quit. I wonder where my father would rank 2020.
I wonder how survivors of 1941’s Battle of Britain react to our longing to “get back to normal” because we have to wear a flimsy mask and cannot attend family gatherings. How does that compare to having to carry a cumbersome gas mask while your city was being pounded to ashes, night after night.
More Jews died in Nazi extermination camps in 1942 than any other year. Slavery started in North America in 1619, and Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 - but these are more like historical turning points than singularly bad years. Scientists say that 536 AD was the worst year in history. Global cooling caused by a volcanic eruption plunged the planet into winter-like cold and darkness for a year. Health experts say that we are in a dark winter now, but that was ridiculous.
Some people contract the corona virus, and it lingers in their system for month after month, resistant to treatment. Doctors call such people long haulers. We are all long haulers on a march through time filled with thrilling victories and dramatic setbacks. The journey is long and as writers of Black spirituals say “tedious” but somehow, we carry on, even through the worst of times.
During the early Fifties my mother got the idea that she should help a young neighbor learn her version of how to properly decorate for Christmas. Their house was dark and unadorned, looking like a missing tooth in a line of brightly polished molars. She encouraged the young woman to buy a live Christmas tree and helped her purchase decorative ornaments. The woman was reluctant because her husband was a Jehovah's Witness who didn’t go in for symbols. But my mother persisted, telling her neighbor, “Baby, when your husband sees how happy his kids are with that tree, he’ll let it stay. You’ll see.”
The young mom decorated the tree with the help of my two brothers who were dispatched to serve as technical experts. Just before the working folks arrived home our street blossomed with individual displays of outdoor lighting. We lived on a street of Philadelphia row houses where everything was uniform: colored lights around the picture window, lights climbing up the railing and along the front porch banister. The street looked brilliant and my mother sat on the porch glider enjoying the glow while watching and waiting.
Soon the young woman’s husband arrived home. My mother smiled knowing that soon that black hole of the block would be replaced by a festive tree, blazing in the picture window. “Victory,” she thought, “thy name is Juanita.” Suddenly the front door flew open and a tree, colorfully adorned and still aglow with large Christmas lights, came flying into the late Fall sky, paying homage to the Northern Lights, until it landed on the black asphalt and skidded to the opposite curb.
My Mother recalled thinking, “That fool is crazy.” Then, her depression-era instincts kicked in and she sent my brothers out to salvage whatever they could from the debased tree. I don’t recall asking her if she felt shame at having been an accomplice to an act of domestic violence. I already know her answer, “What? And let good decorations lay there in the street. Are you crazy?
2020 was in many ways awful. But history may shrug the whole year off its mighty shoulders. After all, it could have been worse, and probably once was. Salvage what you can.
Eric Johnson 12/20/2020