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Bombs, Bunkers, and Parents We Never Knew 3 min read

Bombs, Bunkers, and Parents We Never Knew

By Cary Littlejohn

I was recently blown away by Mike Mills’ film C’mon, C’mon for so many reasons, but one was the wisdom of this line placed in the mouth of a 9-year-old, speaking of his mother:

“She says even though we love each other, she’ll never know everything about me, and I’ll never know everything about her. It’s just the way it is.”

It struck me as so profound yet so simple, as many profound thing often do, and I immediately conceptualized it as a reference to people’s rich inner lives. Of course there were bits we’d never know about our parents nor parents of their kids.

But I came across a more tangible example of not knowing everything in an essay in The Atlantic by Mary Laura Philpott, the author of Bomb Shelter.

The Most Haunting Truth of Parenthood | The Atlantic

In it, she told the story of her dad wanting a book by Garrett M. Graff called “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die.

To her complete surprise, her dad had worked at Raven Rock, the site where medical aid was to be administered to those running the country in the event of a nuclear attack.

“Well, the plan was, George and I would get over there fast to open up the hospital and hope the rest of the team would get there soon,” Philpott quoted her father as saying. “I suppose we were there to keep people alive—the people who would run the country and the military in the event of a disaster.”

What a thought. To be spending your work day preparing for this terrible eventuality knowing that if it ever came to pass, you’d be called on to do those tasks for real and, in essence, forsake your family to do so.

“Every now and then … off he would go into the cave, and there we would sit at home,” Philpott’s mother said. “I didn’t feel like we were in any real danger of having a nuclear attack—it was just drills. But every now and then I would look at you and think, Well, what are we? Lunch meat?

It’s impossible for me to hear that story and not think of The West Wing. When Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is given a card that identifies him as one of the select few who’ll be looked after in the event of a nuclear attack.

It must be an uncomfortable feeling, to face those around you, knowing what you know yet saying so little.

Philpott remembered the care packages that her dad would send her in college, the ones packed with canned goods, and how she thought it was simply a quirk. She never knew what he worried about when he sent those packages, these small, ultimately insignificant gestures, until she knew what he’d prepared for in his work.

She reckoned with her own desire, as a parent, to keep her kids safe from harm. She sympathized with the plight of the Ukrainians, especially the parents who are being forced to contemplate and carry out unthinkable acts of sacrifice to keep their kids safe.

It’s not a direct response to the question that’s bothered me since the war started — What do we owe to Ukraine? — but it makes a case for the everyday acts that bring joy and show our love to those around us.

“We carry on with ordinary acts of everyday caretaking. I cannot shield my beloveds forever, but I can make them lunch today. I can teach a teenager to drive. I can take someone to a doctor appointment, fix the big crack in the ceiling when it begins to leak, and tuck everyone in at night until I can’t anymore. I can do small acts of nurturing that stand in for big, impossible acts of permanent protection, because the closest thing to lasting shelter we can offer one another is love, as deep and wide and in as many forms as we can give it.”