Children learn many things from their mothers. They learn some good things and some not so good things and sometimes, some very detrimental, bad things. I do believe I learned some good things from my mostly deranged mother that have served me well in life. She was an excellent writer and poet, and well, I try to work on that, forever striving to improve. She was creative and artsy and could decorate a home (or in our case, an apartment) in the most interesting and unique way. In the 50’s and 60’s unique decorating was not de rigueur, but rather avant garde. Since the essence of her personality was primarily perverse, this worked well for her. She forever strived to do “the opposite.” I too, enjoy making my home fun and warm and creative. She liked to shop and put clothes together well. I attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, thus following suit. My mother bought fresh foods and produce when frozen foods were the rage. She cooked creatively and healthfully. I have never been a fan of processed foods. She exposed my sister, Alice and me to the wonders of New York City and thus, I am a life long New Yorkophile.
I will not belabor the bad things I learned as my self esteem has suffered for a lifetime. I am the result of being told how “despised” I was, that I was the “bad sister”, that I was the “epitome of evil,” “to be feared” and that I deserved all the very worst things that have ever happened to me, and then some. That all came from my mother’s sickness, and though is it mostly forever tattooed on my heart, a thousand years of therapy have helped to fade those tats. In reverse order, I would say my mother learned nothing from me. She was way too busy being angry to be learning anything, least of all from me. She tried hard to teach me, “hating someone rather than loving them is better,” and always, that of course, there is “no God.”
I often wonder what it is I have taught my sons and I suppose I could ask them, but I am not sure how they would respond. They typically write me the most beautiful letters of gratitude on my birthday and Christmas and for those, I am forever grateful and honored. But, they don’t really dwell on what I have taught them. I would hope I have taught honesty and the ability to express themselves emotionally. Having all sons, this was a particular mission of mine, as I would not tolerate shut-down-males who simply grunted in response. They learned early on that I would ask a million questions when they came home from anywhere. “What did their house look like?” “What did you do there?” “Where do his parents work?” “Did you have a good time or a bad time?” “Did you feel comfortable there?” “What was served for dinner?” I wanted details and descriptions and they learned that they would need to be observant so that they could provide these details to me or be hounded. I hope it made them observant people.
I tried hard to provide them with a community of faith and to know that God was always there for them, no matter what they felt or believed or didn’t believe. Our former church saw our family through a most difficult time, and I know they appreciated that, but nevertheless, they are all mostly without faith. I believe that is okay though, because I also believe that God will always be there to hold their hands through the darkest tunnels, and of course, loves them more than is humanly understood.
I taught them responsibility and I tried really hard to give them the work ethic I learned from my father. They work hard when they do, but they mostly seem to prefer to not work. And yet, they tend to be completely fabulous at what they do and at least one of them arrives for work hours earlier than needed, just like my father did. I’ve also taught them to spend wisely and shop well. No one wastes his money in this family. Check.
I hope that I have taught them to respect and honor women in their lives, whether girlfriends, wives, co-workers or elders. They are all tender-hearted young men, so this seems to be alive and well. They love children and nurture and teach them, so this too has rubbed off on them.
Most importantly, I believe I gave them some of my insatiable quality of curiosity. I want to know and then, I want to know more and still more. They do too and one in particular has this peculiar addiction to documentaries, so there you go, information gathering at its best.
The travel bug was transferred to one son in particular, but, they all love to travel to new places as I always have as well. And, they know how to travel with a sense of adventure, keen observations, and frugality.
I taught them grace, manners and gratitude, all of which are so important. If given the worst gift in the world, they still always act deeply grateful and excited to receive it. They offer thanks freely and compliment easily.
I imagine there is more, but off the top of my head, these are some qualities I hope I have taught my sons. But, that is not what this essay is about. This is about what THEY have taught ME. I write this really, as a thank you note to my three eldest.
Along with my mentally ill mother, I was raised by a father who was the quintessential, WWII veteran, Right Wing Republican, blue collar, city worker, NYC subway commuter, “boiler-maker” drinking—Irishman. He loved me and was proud of me and that, in contrast to my mother, was God’s gift to me and saved my tattered soul. For some reason, I had a real interest in politics, early on in life and my father being well informed and well read, was my go-to guy for what to think about whom. He read the New York Daily News every evening after work and talked about various items he’d read. He was a Dwight Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan devotee and I followed suit. I can remember the awkward silence in my house when Kennedy was shot. I think my father felt some shame about the bad things he’d said about our president, once he was brutally murdered. Watching the funeral and the subsequent murders, my father kept saying he had a terrible headache and felt sick.
My dad was very passionate and political. I think he felt that since he rode the subway back and forth each day, rubbing elbows with a most diverse population, this made him a quasi-expert on good guys and bad guys, based on race. As he aged, he became a more angry man, always trying to defend his virility and prowess, so he would pick fights on the subway and get into physical altercations to show just how strong he still was. “Oh yeah,” he’d brag, “I knocked that young, Puerto Rican punk to the ground.” As a child, this terrified me, because I was sure he would be beaten and killed someday, yet, he seemed to thrive on the excitement. I begged him to stopped fighting but he would laugh in response. When we would visit my very pure, suburban Long Island relatives on weekends, my father would always get into a loud argument with my aunt and uncle. They actually had a picture of Jackie and John Kennedy made into a carpet that hung on their wall. It was the kind that typically depicted The Last Supper, but this was a testament to the Kennedys instead. This always enraged my dad and gave him an entry point into the arguments. He so enjoyed the debates and was articulate and informed, though his biases trumped all. He really felt that because they lived in suburbia and drove to work with other white engineers earning impressive salaries, that they were clueless. His was hands-on-proof of the disdain he had, for those of colors other than white. Again, I was scared during these arguments as he got redder and redder and my demure aunt and uncle got more and more quiet.
And so I was a sponge absorbing my father’s love for all that was patriotic at the forefront of which, was his beloved American Legion, Boys State, defending the Vietnam War “against the Commies,” the Conservative party, William F. Buckley and selling poppies on Memorial Day. I marched in the parades with him, carrying my little flag from the time I was about 10 years old. To be hated were most “isms” including Socialism, Marxism, and Communism (yet, Patriotism was the goal). The personal targets were Fidel Castro, Nikita Khrushchev, Angela Davis, The Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Bobbie Seale, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Bella Abzug, The New York Times, Berlin, and anything associated with “The Reds.” This was a commonality and a belief system that ran through the majority of blue collar Americans at the time. In drawing these common enemy lines, we were part of a majority, that was far from “silent.” However, as the Vietnam war raged on and thoughtful minds began to come to, the tides changed. And I, was now a young woman of the Sixties, totally out of sync with most of my peers. Joining the Young Republicans really didn’t help and as I attended a most liberal college involved in the fashion industry, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Protests against the war erupted on my NYC campus as well, and at graduation, I believe I was one of only a small handful who did not have a white fist stenciled on the back of my black cap and gown. I was also shoved against a wall during one protest when I arrived for classes and announced my vocal support of the war. I remember this curly headed boy saying to me, “What the hell are you thinking?” Thinking? Perhaps, I wasn’t thinking at all, just following along family tradition. And oddly, simultaneously, I had joined a “Women’s Lib” group which was the early name for feminism. I adored Gloria Steinem and I was still one of the earliest tree huggers and protestors of pesticides and other toxins in plants and animals. I refused to allow men to hold doors open for me and hissed at construction workers who whistled when I walked by in my mini skirts.
So, to my sons I say this. You are right in shaming me about my past political allegiances. I carried Barry Goldwater campaign signs in a parade in New York City in 1963 and I cried when he lost the election to Johnson. I was only in junior high school and so whatever my father said and felt, I simply went along with. I campaigned for Nixon in front of Lincoln Center in 1967 and rode the Nixon Campaign bus. I cried when he, Pat, Tricia and Julie left the White House in shame. For some reason, I always identified with Julie Nixon, especially since she seemed to love her father as much as I loved mine. I lost interest in politics for a while over the next decade or so, but still remained allied with my father on all issues, though race was not one of them. His racism had softened quite a bit over the years, which was a good thing, but mine was basically non-existent. I am not sure why, but racism was one thing I never did get. I just didn’t understand why this issue was an issue at all. I went to public schools, lived in city projects in Brooklyn, and never felt particularly isolated from the multitude of nationalities and races in my life. This is not to say that I was all pure and unbiased, but by and large it was not something I focused on much.
And yes, my sons have never let me forget that I voted for both Bushes. The first one, was one thing, but the second, well, that was unforgiveable. In 2004, it was a bit of a struggle for me. I really didn’t like George Bush by then, but I could not get past John Kerry having John Edwards as his running mate. We knew the Edwards personally and John did not strike me as the man I wanted to have the honor of being one heartbeat away from presidency. As it turned out, what a prophet I was, or rather, so was everyone! And so, Bush stepped into his second term, which unraveled quickly and became some of the worst years for our country. My father had died in 1997 and as a victim of Parkinson’s disease, was really not communicating since around 1992. I still followed in his political footsteps, simply as a matter of habit and perhaps, a way to honor him. And yet, my sons were a rising force in a liberal, conscious way fighting against the death penalty by protesting in front of Central Prison, creating an organization to fight for gay rights in schools called, “All Means All,” and reading and studying as much as they could about civil rights leaders of the past and social activists of the present. I started listening. Little by little it started to make sense to me, more so when they weren’t yelling at me, than when they were. And often, one or more of my sons would say, “How can a “breastfeeding, green earth, hippie” mama like you be a Republican? It made no sense.
It was 2007 when Barack Obama opted onto the scene and I was quite swept away by who he was and all he stood for. My deeply ingrained, registered Republican self began veering back to what I knew best and John McCain was the classic politician I had grown up with. BUT, when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, I could no longer remain faithful. So, I listened to my boys who had now become men, and I listened more and more. Around this time, my husband, Shep also developed a sudden interest in politics that had not existed up until then. The debates and campaigns captivated him and he was hooked. So, I listened some more. When I waited on line to vote in 2007, there was a tiny voice, a vestige of my past, still whispering to stick with the old guard and vote as my father always had. I didn’t. And I, along with everyone else, cried with joy and pride watching that freezing cold inauguration of 2008, witnessing our first African American president take office. Hallelujah!
And so, in these last few years, I have attended Moral Monday protests against the Tea Party and Republican guard with new rules for our state of North Carolina that appear to have come right out of the 1950’s. They are laced with prejudice and racism and more money for the rich with less for the poor, and have placed us as the lowest paying state in the union for teacher salaries. I have vehemently opposed the awful right wing governor in office now and cannot wait to do everything in my power to vote him out of office asap. I educate myself and soothe my curiosity by attending forums and discussions and seminars on everything from Pro-choice to environmentalism (of which I have been an advocate since Rachel Carson hit the stands in my elementary school years), to gay rights, racism, and feminism.
I have learned so much from my elder sons who opened my eyes over the last few years and I am deeply grateful to them for this. I might have just stayed in my political rut that had no rhyme other than routine, if they had not kept at me and pointed out my right direction that was wrong…. Thank you to my sons, for this and for all that they teach me.
Walter Joseph Conlon – My dad in WWII