In December 2005, a group of women met to form Grandmothers Against the War, planning their first action—a Valentine’s Day 2006 rally and attempt to enlist at the Oakland Induction Center.
While at a planning meeting for other independent street actions and joint actions with other groups, someone looked around and suddenly tossed out, “The women in this room must represent more than half a century of activism in almost every good cause anyone could name.”
Another woman quickly caught her message and tossed back, “Our experience is worth something. We have stories to tell, experiences to pass forward.”
From that exchange came the question, “How about letters to our grandchildren, biological or virtual?”
On June 9, 2006, the Grandmothers’ Letters Project put out a call to other grandmother groups across the nation, asking for letters of 200 to 1,000 words, telling stories of real experiences, addressed to actual or imagined young people of any age.
Letters Project coordinators agreed that the writer need not be actually a grandmother or even a woman, just a concerned person with a “grandmotherly attitude” toward the person addressed.
Letters could be e-mailed or mailed to a Berkeley address. A page for “Love, Grandma” letters was added to the Grandmothers Against the War website www.gawba.org
Soon letters were arriving from all over the country, narrating a wide variety of experiences. Some writers had led safe lives in America and knew war only as a distant disaster. Some had lost friends or relatives on some battlefield or in some besieged city. A few had themselves lived through horrendous experiences, like losing most of their family in the Holocaust or surviving the literal pulverizing of their small village between opposing armies.
Wouldn’t such stories only frighten and depress young people? One Grandma letter might be reassuring. A German-American woman recalled learning from her parents and all other adults that Nazis were evil people who must be killed. Then, one day, at a Midwest ice cream social, a man called her “kind of pretty for a Nazi kid.” At this sudden revelation of her evil identity, the girl became haunted by fear, wondering when her parents would discover she was a Nazi, and would they then have to kill her?
That story should remind us that as children we seldom found honest accounts of reality too much to bear; it was usually a misunderstanding that led to unspeakable, imagined horrors and gave us nightmares; honest stories of the ordeals of survivors and/or activists inspired us more than our favorite fairy tales of imaginary heroes.
Now over 50 of the letters are available in a print edition. Some letters are from people whose life-long commitment is rooted in and strengthened by religious tradition, while others take a staunchly secular or rationalist stance against all religious faith.
One writer credited her father for repeatedly telling her the story of his father taking him to witness a lynching, a sight that awakened a thirst for justice he was determined to pass on down the generations. Some recalled a childhood incident in which they discovered, on their own, that adults in authority were misinformed or lying.
Some letters were poems; some were full of advice and analysis; some began with questions from their real grandchildren: “You asked why you’re always seeing me in the newspaper wearing a crazy hat and carrying a big sign ...” Some admit to doubts that never cease: “I asked myself what am I doing camped out here? What good is it? But then I thought, how could I tell you I’d given up trying to pass on a better world to you?”
Implicit in all the letters collected in Love, Grandma is a sense of community, even joy, that reminds me of my marching buddy back in the days of the Vietnam War. I would call him and say, “Hey, Al, there’s a demonstration in San Francisco tomorrow. Shall we go?” And Al would answer, “Hell, yes, it’s been a while since our last religious experience!”
Love, Grandma is available for a donation of $7.50 plus shipping. Go to www.lulu.com and put “Love, Grandma” in the search box. Then click on “add to cart” and follow lulu instructions on ordering and payment. The print edition of Love, Grandma is also available at Cody’s Books in Berkeley and at Walden Pond Books in Oakland.
(Disclaimer: this article is adapted from the introduction to Love, Grandma, which I wrote, in a shameless effort to lure the susceptible into this conspiracy of troublesome old [and some young] ladies [and some men]—Grandmothers Against The War.)