Monday, August 8, 2011

Mom Made the World a Better Place

Dad had many notions and, in my opinion, delusions. He listened to Rush Limbaugh in the last years of his life, believing all the muck raked by such men. Dad often held forth on the economy, programs for the poor and hungry, and race. I usually offered counter opinions to which he once said, “Where do you get your information? I don’t hear that.”

I snapped, “Of course, you don’t. Are you listening to BBC World News, NPR, PBS? Are you reading a wide range of sources, or are you just swallowing the lies that Limbaugh feeds you?” I regretted my tone: sarcastic, harsh, critical. I did not regret the conviction: listen, read, and learn; being a ditto-head is un-American and dangerous and has hurt this nation.

Dad inherited his right-wing zealotry. His father, my Grandpa Oak, hissed at everyone in the entire house to be absolutely silent as the stock report zipped by on the nightly news or during a radio broadcast. At the end, he never failed to shake his head and declare that Democrats were going to ruin the nation. He also taught me to come in the house when the man came to mow the lawn. Grandma pulled down the shades, and we sat still as mice, trying not to draw attention to ourselves until he left. I found this utterly baffling until I read--much later in life--about the white man’s need to protect his women from black men. The man mowing the lawn was an African-American, only allowed to knock at the back door for his wages.

How then did I escape the bigotry that could have been my inheritance? Mother. She had other lessons to teach me, and she did--without ever actually revealing that lessons were underway.

Recently I found boxes full of speeches and essays I had written through public school. Year after year, my subjects were equality for all races and genders or tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. or other Civil Rights leaders. I marveled at the frequency and conviction because I was not a well-read kid. I did not tune in to the evening’s broadcast and follow the thread of current events. I read Life magazine cover to cover, but only for the voyeuristic thrill that comes from studying lurid crime scene photos. Thanks to Life, I have a keen interest in thrillers and murder mysteries; I also have an unhealthy imagination about what can happen to good people when serial killers find an open door.

So Mother sent me off to college with a nascent social conscience. The girl who joined the Young Republicans, as Grandpa and Dad brainwashed me to do, thought better of it and registered Democratic. The girl who shook Richard Nixon’s hand during one of his campaign stops in Iowa would believe that justice had been served when he resigned.

My husband and I had many different ideas about raising a child, but we held in common one strong determination to raise a color-blind child, and we succeeded. When our daughter met her future husband, she was completely unaware that his heritage appeared to include African-American. Her friends told her after she had enjoyed several dates with him. She still had not recognized his bi-racial heritage.

Dad never stopped recognizing differences. He teased me about buying a home down the street from an interracial couple, something I had not noticed until he brought it to my attention. Mother did not object nor did she voice her own opinions while Dad held forth, repeating Limbaugh’s nonsense, and she asked me not to hold his prejudices against him. Still, she made her point of view known in spite of Dad.

For example, Mother recalled working in Washington, D. C. with African-Americans one summer. She countered ugly stereotypes without ever repeating or refuting them; she simply said that she found every person she worked with to be kind and hard-working. Mother also pointed me in the direction of tolerance by encouraging me to become friends with two neighborhood girls my age, two neighbors who happened to be of the Jewish faith. Because of their friendship, I experienced Shabbat, Bar Mitzvahs, and Hanukah. Mother also urged me to take part in a course, Religions of the World, offered at our church. She said, in her opinion, all religions have similar moral codes and world-views, then let me make up my own mind.

When I whined about a topic for another speech or researched essay, Mother suggested that I learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, segregation, the fight for equal rights, and civil rights. She helped me think and see beyond the confines of my neighborhood and my father’s side of the family. In doing so, she planted the seeds of doubt about Dad’s point of view, about his parents’ lessons, and about the doomsday scenarios painted for integration.

Mother was ahead of her time, an independent thinker, and woman of conscience. I think perhaps these are her greatest strengths and gifts to me.