Mother’s Day: Observations From The Greatest Generation by Gregg Hilton

The late Mary Moynihan Hilton was a classic homemaker. She found lots of what people now call quality time for my sisters and me.

My mother was part of the Greatest Generation and was truly from another era. The change was explained by Margaret Thatcher who was born in 1925: “A woman born 20 years before me could never imagine my career, while a woman born 20 years after me took it for granted.” My mother grew up without TV, the Internet or cell phones, and her generation had to endure the Great Depression, WW II and Korea. Boys from her high school died in both conflicts.
Only 12% of her contemporaries were college graduates, while 96% of my classmates went on to college. She would not have wanted it any other way. Mom thought she was lucky, and the truly tough times are today.
Many of mother’s closest friends were married in the 1940s after brief courtships. What is surprising is that so many of these marriages withstood the test of time. Her generation was the last one in which divorce was not considered an option. Her contemporaries considered it a scandal.
It was difficult to get a divorce and society was not tolerant of those who were divorced. Of all the new marriages in 1940, one in six ended in divorce. Today it is one in two. Her glory days were in post WW II America which had abundant opportunities. Her generation believed in hard work, not entitlement; self-reliance, not self-indulgence. It was a time when good jobs with good wages were available to those who with a strong work ethic.
College graduates did not come back home to live with their parents in her day. Practically all of her NYC friends headed for suburbia, and through the efforts of these taxpayers America achieved the world’s highest standard of living. If they returned to the old neighborhoods, they would be surprised to see that small one bedroom apartments are now worth well over $1 million. My mother was only 21 when she married my 23 year old father in 1944. Dad dated my Aunt Eileen before he married my mother, and I still cannot explain how he made the transition between them!
Aunt Eileen, my mother’s older sister is still alive, but her younger brother Donald died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 76. He was a heavy smoker. I always knew my mother was popular but I was stunned by the size of the crowd at St. Patrick’s Church in Armonk, NY for her funeral.
Many of mothers activities were devoted to community service and she definitely had a significant impact on my future career. One of her favorite bible verses was Luke 12:48 “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and she conducted her life with this in mind.
My mother was instrumental to the happiness of the first half of my life, but she will not know the second half. Her message was to find happiness by looking around you. She would tell you to look for opportunities to give with joy, because this is the best chance to find happiness at midlife.
The priest at her funeral noted her dedication to helping those in need, giving hope to those in despair, and spreading understanding. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, we all want to make this world a better place. My mother is gone but many of the projects implemented by her garden club are thriving today. Her portrait is on display in our local library, and the annual art show she helped to establish in 1965 is now the biggest event in the history of our town.
Nevertheless, she was just a housewife and a community leader in a small town, but her generation built America into a superpower. As Tom Brokaw wrote in his 1998 book The Greatest Generation, “it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”


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