A hand-me-down book from my childhood
Fair warning, this is going to be another backwoods PA story from my childhood. Escape while you can:-)
I was born in 1960 and grew-up in a small village in the Pocono Mountains. Our end of the county was and still is called the West End (which is synonymous with hicks). Most of our neighbors were of PA German ancestry, although even in the 1960s, the urban exodus to the Poconos had begun. The Poconos had been a vacation spot for city dwellers since the Civil War era, but during my childhood many of these urban visitors began building homes in the Poconos and staying year-round. Many of the locals hold the urban dwellers moving into their peaceful country neighborhood as loud, boorish, pushy, stupid and very rude.
Back in the 90s, a phone conversation with my mother railing about some “stupid New Yorker” about sums up the sentiment and the disconnect. My mother was complaining about some woman from New York who wanted the township to pay for street lights in her little residential area in the Poconos. The woman also apparently had thought sidewalks would be a good idea. My mother, like most locals, ended her complaints with a statement that went pretty much like, “I wish these damned city people would go back to the city and leave us alone!”
However, that unknown woman from New York got a very different reaction than my mother dealing with our pastor’s wife, who was not only New York City born and bred, but also Jewish. The parsonage was right across the road from our home, so our pastor’s wife was also our neighbor. My mother adored our pastor’s wife, my mother adored her elderly mother too, who would come and visit for several weeks at a time when I was a child.
It’s often interesting how many people will prejudge an entire group of people, but when they are in a situation where they are dealing with an individual from that group and getting to know him or her, all of sudden common ground can be found and friendships blossom.
Spending my adult life around Army communities, I’ve always been very grateful for the experience of being able to meet so many people from so many different countries, backgrounds, and experiences. The thing that binds Army communities is soldiers with a common mission. Their wives, no matter if they are foreign-born or American invariably become friends, share recipes, share in the worries when their spouses deploy, and share in a sense of community.
Finding that common ground in America is an existential crisis, not media hysteria about “fake news” or “Russian influence”.
The partisan political divides, listening to political pundits, reading news from various political stripes and observing comments on Twitter, facebook, etc., make me feel like these groups live on different planets, not in the same country.
So, back to my childhood, in a family with six kids, with widely different opinions. For instance, conservative me, has a far-left brother, who was really into zero population growth as a cause. When he lectured me when I was pregnant with my third child, asking if my husband and I thought our genes were so good that we had to spread them around with so many children, well, I didn’t get angry. I smiled at him and replied, “Well, now that you mention it, yes, we do.” I also told him I wanted 5 or 7 kids, because I like odd numbers (although we stopped “spreading our genes around”, overpopulating the world, at 4 kids).
No matter how angry we were at each other or how vehemently we disagreed, when it was dinner time, we all had to sit at the table and behave civilly. My parents didn’t want to hear how mad we were or how much we disagreed or whether we had been fighting all day about something – we had to sit at the table and eat our dinner. There was no taking your plate to another room or screaming at each other at the table allowed.
Especially with the advent of the internet, the splintering of America has escalated, where there’s really very little discussion in online political discussion forums, only hyper-charged partisan attacks. Each side generates talking points, which the political combatants hurl back and forth non-stop. Poll numbers get tossed in to validate positions, although really polls are meaningless – they’re the opinions of a few people extrapolated to represent the opinions of very large groups of people.
I’ve met many wonderful people from New York City and other urban areas. I’ve also met some total assholes right where I grew up, who were locals. And it shouldn’t even have to be said in America, but we’ve got to start talking to each other and move beyond our own little cocoon of people who think just like we do or hold the same political views.
We need to start embracing getting to know people as individuals.
The same goes for considering political viewpoints and here again, my mother taught me that you can’t make anyone believe anything. My oldest sister is 8 years older than me and she had friends in high school, who like her, read a lot. Along with wearing hand-me-down clothes, I became a proud collector of hand-me-down books. Anything my sister or her friends were ready to discard, I was ready to add it to my “collection” of books. I read the entire Warren Commission Report in paperback, I got a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. I still have the Watchwords of Liberty, filled with great American quotes. I also ended up with paperback histories like:
Then somehow I ended up with:
So, while you might expect my conservative, staunch Republican mother to want this book out of her house, you’d be wrong. She told me she didn’t believe in Marxism, but to decide for myself. She gave me a copy of a little booklet (which I gave to someone), called, Good Citizen and she told me this booklet had a lot of interesting information on America. So, I read Marx’s Concept of Man and then I read her Good Citizen booklet and many other books too.
In 1976, the American Bicentennial fueled a bunch of books on the American Revolution and my American love affair with The Constitution and our republic bloomed like cherry blossoms in Washington springtime. I was hooked on American ideals. I had started adding to my hand-me-down book “collection” with books I bought with babysitting money – books like:
I also got enthralled by The Kent Family Chronicles, that John Jakes series commemorating the 200 year anniversary of America. By that point, I was sold on The Constitution, sold on American ideals and Marx sounded like depressing whining about “unfairness”, where there’s never any hope for individuals to aspire to anything… just endless reliance on imposition of command economy enforcers to decide on what’s fair and relentless fueling class warfare. The American Bicentennial fueled a life-long love of reading American history. My short time in the Army expanded that to loving to read military history too.
In life, we all have some really dumb ideas and beliefs. That’s the truth! No one gets through life being perfect and all-knowing. For instance, I abhor violence and had this idea that all behavior is learned, so when I had kids, I didn’t want my kids to be violent. I didn’t want my sons to have any toy guns, because I believed that would encourage violence. I believed this despite the fact that I got into plenty of fistfights as a kid fighting bullies.
My mother and sisters laughed at me and told me I was stupid. My husband just rolled his eyes. My toddler sons, well, they turned everything into a weapon, to include their older sister’s Barbie dolls. They were very destructive and liked to clobber each other, while there I was telling them in this prissy voice, “you’ve got to be nice!” My daughter didn’t take to them wrecking her stuff and she smacked them when they touched her stuff. So much for my toy guns make boys violent belief.
When I told my mother about my sons throwing everything and turning everything into a weapon, which my daughter had never done, my mother said, “welcome to the world of boys.”
Here’s another story on “boys” from a few years later. We were living in Germany and I was throwing a birthday party for one of my sons. My next-door neighbor had a lot of very colorful finches in a cage and she decided to let them fly loose that day. They were getting ready to PCS back to the states. My daughter came running in the house to tell me that all these little boys had sticks and were trying to kill these little finches that were sitting in the bushes around the house. So, I walked outside and there was this group of little boys, bloodlust in their eyes, gleefully trying to kill these tiny birds with big sticks. They were barbarians! In that moment I realized that there is something about males and violence that is probably hard-wired. And I realized that my “be nice” idea had been idiotic all along.
What people believe can’t be forced, so it’s best to try to find that common ground, I keep blabbing on about. Here again, I think my mother had the right idea there too – get people to sit at the same table and share a meal, insisting that everyone be polite.
Simple as it may be, perhaps just getting people to share a meal and talk might work miracles, where all the social programs have failed. Here’s an old LB blog post from 2014:
“I’m always amazed at how when people sit down to share a meal, the petty squabbles subside, conversations almost invariably turn to family and home. A friendly dinner table is the world’s most under-tapped peacemaking tool. The simple act of breaking bread together at a table of brotherhood doesn’t seem all that hard and once people can come together and peacefully share a meal and conversation, then all the other politicized barriers fall to the wayside. Community potlucks could rebuild communities and not cost taxpayers a dime. Believe it, because it’s true and with so much animosity and hatred in America, at the very least neighbors might make new friends, so there’s no downside to the endeavor.”
I also quoted my mother’s least favorite poet, Maya Angelou in that post. I’m not a fan of Angelou’s poetry either, but she sure nailed a home truth with this quote:
“Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” –
Again, finding ways to heal the divides in America is an existential necessity.