A eulogy for Grandma Nancy, and the era of consequence-free growth

Nancy & Jack Katz

I’ve heard it’s better to be lucky then smart. My grandma Nancy didn’t have to choose.

Family lore has it she tested at ‘genius levels’ in high school. That fateful test led Nanette Stearns to set off — “trembling” (she wrote in a letter to me, decades later) — to Northwestern University. She was the first in her family to attend college. Her parents, poor jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, were by all accounts similarly smart and resourceful, but were not quite so lucky.

Grandma Nancy was lucky in other ways, too. In fact, her life story was defined by the good fortune of living in a historically anomalous place & time: the United States, during an unprecedented period of political stability and economic growth . That growth was fueled by millions of years of stored solar energy, in the form of fossil fuels. Hence, my grandma’s story is in many ways the story of that energy. So, too, must be her eulogy.

Every life story is unique, but those of Nancy and her generation are truly inimitable; for they lived through the only period in human history in which we’ll be able to access such a burst of seemingly consequence-free energy. Nancy also lived in one of the few moments in history in which the children of poor immigrants were buoyed by economic growth apace with the wealthy. Coincidence? That may just be the most important question of our time: Can the peace, prosperity, and equal opportunity that Nancy enjoyed be replicated, or can it be sustained only by an ongoing torrent of fossil energy? (which would almost certainly doom our planet…)

Nancy met Jack Katz in his hospital bed. Another child of poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, he’d returned from World War II a hero, with a silver star for bravery and a purple heart for inuries sustained when a torpedo struck his ship in the Pacific Ocean. When Nancy and Jack met, he already had a small metal plate in his forehead, and he was missing a pinky finger. It was months before Nancy realized, when Jack finally stood up from his hospital bed, that he was six feet, three inches tall. Nancy stood just a few inches above five feet. She fell in love regardless, and soon became Nancy Katz.

They found themselves in a world in which their country, the United States, was the sole non-depleted industrial power capable of truly harnessing all of that deceptively cheap fossil energy — and all of the other deceptively cheap natural resources which that fossil energy helped unearth.

They were lucky and smart, and grew with the economy — Jack as a banker, and Nancy as a mother. First came Bob (supposedly almost 9 months, to the day, after their wedding), then David, then Judy (my mom), then Marcia (whom they called “Mouse”). They lived in the Northern suburbs of Chicago, near one of our country’s great natural treasures: Lake Michigan. Many years later, Nancy would spend some of her final hours watching the lake outside her window. Jack’s ashes are floating in it.

Nancy took to family life. She thrived as a mother, a friend, and eventually the best literary recommendation engine on the North Shore (working as a clerk at her local bookstore). Many years later, towards the end, she would confide in one of her wonderful caregivers that her happiest memories were from this period as a young mother, “before Jack and I had money”.

Nancy’s greatest delights were always inexpensive: novels; movies; poems; root beer; worrying about her children; and eventually, adoring her nine grandchildren. Still, she and Jack accumulated wealth. With the economy surging beneath them, and the cultural inheritance of depression-era frugality in their bones, their financial assets grew with their nation. Once, Grandma sent me a generous birthday check, with a card that read simply “Jesus saves. Grandpa invested.”

Her whole generation invested. Nancy & Jack’s bank account is emblematic of our entire civilization’s bank account — socked away over the course of a single lifespan, yet containing the yield from a millenia of stored sunlight.

Most of our great buildings, our infrastructure, our scientific knowledge, our technology and our art — even our democratic institutions—these are the assets into which Nancy & Jack’s generation invested our one-time bounty of fossil fuel. They didn’t realize the bounty would be quite so limited until late in their lives; but we, their descendants, certainly realize that fact now. Nancy’s children and grandchildren know that we’re inheriting a world on the brink. The era of consequence-free growth is over, and we’re going to need all of the assets Nancy’s generation bequeathed to us to progress peacefully into an era of much tighter natural resource constraints.

Nancy, what a wonderful Grandma you were. So much love & intellect packed into such a small frame…but also such a long and full life! Thank you for taking me to see Jurassic Park when I was too young; for pointing me towards Stephen King novels (also, probably too young); and for being a role model for seeking pleasure in all forms of art, from the highest to the lowest brow. And, for your clarity of purpose — learning, and loving your family — right up until the end.

We promise to make the most of the gifts that your generation passed on to us, in order to save the next one.

(Nancy’s ashes are now floating in Lake Michigan alongside Jack’s.)