This is the house that my kids will always refer to as “Len and Joanna’s house”. For the first six years we lived in our current home, Len and Joanna were a constant presence--offering a friendly word or an afternoon spent picking crabapples from a tree full of fruit. I didn’t really know Joanna--who died last week--because her Alzheimer’s had already taken much of her memory and personality by the time we met. But she was a person whose story has a life of its own.
When their kids were little, Len and Joanna were members in our local Unitarian Congregation--and Joanna was a tireless activist for nuclear disarmament. Ann tells a story of asking Joanna, once, how she kept going with such vigour in the face of such strong threats.
“Well,” Joanna said, “even if the chance of a global nuclear war is 95%, there’s a 5% chance that we will avoid it. I must dedicate my life to that 5% chance.”
An article in our local paper, from 1985, reads:
“When Joanna Miller’s children were babies, she began thinking about the many other mothers in the world who had nothing to offer their infants when they cried in the night.”
I remember that feeling from when my babies were small. How each time one of them cried and I was able to soothe him, a certainty grew in me that every mother should have that simple right--to be able to give their child what they need to be comforted. Not thirty feet from where I sit right now, half a century ago, Joanna would tuck her kids in at night with the exact same feeling.
Her convictions led her to join UNICEF, of which she became President the year that I was born. She became a pillar in the activist community, working tirelessly for nuclear disarmament. She was sought after nationally as a powerful and well informed speaker. Her porch was a local organizing site, where educational materials would be dropped off and picked up, and one woman said that her kids affectionately referred to Joanna as “the bomb lady”. She inspired people from all walks of life to keep going in a fight that they had every reason to think would end disastrously--with their worst nightmares being realized.
It didn’t end that way. They won.
You could say that they only sort of won. You could say that there’s still chance of a rogue weapon being used, and there are new threats, and there’s so much to be done. And that’s all true--but it doesn’t change the fact that the fight Joanna was a part of ended in the way she hoped against hope that it would.
Fifty years ago, a young mother looked out over the same back yard I can see through my window, bouncing a baby in one arm, and cradling a phone in the other--maybe planning an upcoming peace rally or arranging to go speak somewhere. She had the same vision I have--of future generations of kids able to play in trees and grow up in as peaceful a world as possible.
Those kids she was picturing? They’re my kids. They have no idea that their are other worlds they could be growing up in--what possibilities have been averted. I tried to explain to them about the incredible things that their neighbour did--but I failed.
“What’s a nuclear weapon?” they said, and I didn’t have the heart to explain. I couldn’t find a kid friendly way to do it.
Maybe I’m being too easy on them, and letting them be naive. Maybe. The point is, I got to make that choice--when to explain, and how much--because the Cold War ended without a single nuclear weapon being fired. I got to fail at explaining the feeling of the threat of imminent nuclear war to my boys because I’ve never had that feeling. I am betting that the young mother on the phone fifty years ago would count that as success.
Which is not the same as being done. There is no permanence to this--we have to keep winning. This might make each success look small. Maybe it is, from the perspective of the historian, but from the perspective of the mom watching her boys play in the puddles behind the apple tree, it’s unimaginably huge. The world I get to raise my boys in is one that was imagined, fought for against all odds, and won.
And the world of the family who lives here fifty years from now? That will be whatever we imagine, fight for, and win. But we have a head start. Because we know something--something that Joanna only suspected. We know that you can bet on the unlikely 5%. And you can win.