Mom Dad Grandchildren

Mom, Dad, and grandchildren

Last night the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre launched opening night of their annual European Union Film Showcase by screening the Polish film Walesa: Man of Hope.  I was less than enthusiastic about going.  First, I wasn’t an admirer of Walesa, who, like a lot of the great leaders of his generation, wasn’t particularly enlightened about woman’s place in the world.  And I wouldn’t get home and into bed until almost midnight and would have to get up at 5:00 a.m.  (I’m also not a fan of foreign films because I’m too lazy to read subtitles.  It took my husband weeks to convince me that Life is Beautiful was a film worth seeing despite the subtitles.)

But I can’t begin to count the times my husband has cheerfully accompanied me to events he has no interest in, including the first prom ever at a new school where I was on the opening year staff.  And it isn’t often that my Polish husband has the opportunity to attend an event that honors a heritage that is more often the butt of offensive jokes.

So I resisted my urge to bow out because I’d had a long day—a legitimate objection—and accompanied him to the event.  And ten minutes into the film, I was hooked.  Instead of focusing on the abuses Lech Wolesa suffered in his quest for Solidarity, the film characterizes a very human man who loved his family and his faith.  But in spite of adoring his wife and his six children, he felt that standing in Solidarity against an oppressive regime was something he had to do.  And so each time he placed himself in harm’s way, he took off his wedding ring and his watch and told his wife that if he didn’t come back, she should sell them.

Most of the audience was mesmerized by this charismatic hero—a man who admitted with a laugh that he might be a bit cocky.  But I was drawn to his wife.  Each time she steeled herself for his job losses and absences, I fought back tears.  Why am I so emotional about this?  I thought.  I knew enough about their history to know that he would come back to her and that she would accept a Nobel Peace Prize in his name.

I answered my own question easily.  At dinner before the film, I had looked up at the flat screen television over the bar in the restaurant to see that Nelson Mandela had died.  And when the AFI staff and the European Union representatives introduced the film, all of them had mentioned Mandela and compared him to Walesa, a very different type of hero, though both had stood up against great odds to seek freedom from oppression.

But in the scene near the end of the film where Walesa is torn from his family by Russian authorities who try desperately to break his resolve, I watched his wife’s face, full of strength, and had a moment of insight.  My father, too, had marched with the union despite my mother’s pleas for him to think of his family and his own safety.  I think it’s safe to say that I was probably the only coal miner’s daughter in last night’s audience—and perhaps the only one who had seen in her own mother’s eyes the fear his wife Danuta felt each time her husband insisted on marching on a picket line.

My parents were not leaders.  Had they been in last night’s film, they would have been part of the nameless crowd who did what they had to do—the anonymous ones who suffered and bled and sometimes sacrificed their pride and accepted bread from charitable people who had more to offer.  Like those anonymous masses, my parents did their best to maintain their dignity and character in the face of sometimes desperate need because they hoped for their children and grandchildren to have a better life.

I have thought a lot today about Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa and my father—and most of all, about the mother I have so recently lost.  She accepted my father’s march out to the picket lines only when she knew that the wages and health insurance that protected her children were at stake.

Coincidentally, at work today, I was creating a lesson on the quest for the American Dream.  In my search for resources, I ran across a recent Associated Press article that says that the gap between rich and poor is the greatest it has been since the months leading up to the stock market crash in 1929.

I was reminded in that moment that history does, indeed, repeat itself.  The oppressed eventually rise up in revolt against those who insist on hoarding wealth.  Perhaps not for themselves.  But when their children are threatened, ordinary people, in spite of their weaknesses and flaws, rise to greatness.

This is a lesson that we who are blessed with comfort and wealth would do well to remember.  We are only secure when the least among us is free from the fear of oppression and poverty and hopelessness.

Where are you in the gap?  How safe do you feel?