A couple of months ago, a student walked into my office to ask me a question. I instantly recognized the medallion on a necklace she was wearing and blurted out, “Where did you get that?” “My mother,” she said. Of course, I thought, not because I knew the history of the symbol, but because my mother had given me one too, albeit some 40 years ago.
Although I lost my necklace long ago, the phrase never left my memory. It was stamped on my brain just as it was stamped on key chains and posters and bumper stickers. A phrase that allowed thousands of women their own little protest, without marching or burning flags, uttered under breath as they swept the floor and did the dishes. Some, like my mother, put them around the necks of their kids and sent them off to school, little messengers of peace. You can read all about its history here.
I don’t know when in the muddled chronology of my 1960s youth my mother gave me the necklace. It was after 1967, certainly, since that’s when it was turned into notecards that mothers sent to the White House. But the period 1967-1970 is particularly blurry in my mind, filled with choppy, frenetic, and unfocused images like the footage from Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. In my mind, little good happened during that time.
Tom Brokaw is hosting a two-hour documentary special called 1968 on the History channel. I’ve seen so many documentaries on the 60s I’ve become anesthetized to most of it. But I’ve never been able to erase the after-images, those quietly reeling shadows of war, violence, and the tumult in our own home. At some point, either New Year’s Eve of 1967 or 1968, my mother tried to commit suicide. It was either the start or the end to a very bad year. How traumatized were those children in Vietnam, or the children of Martin Luther King or RFK? Even with the knowledge that I was safe and sound, I still can’t shake myself free of it. Maybe, in truth, I don’t want to forget everything.
When I stepped down from my job recently and the staff had a farewell party for me, among the gifts was this necklace. A little phrase stamped on a gold metal plate that said what mothers all over the country wanted desperately to say out loud.