'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

2 or 3 Things About My Mother 

After just over a month in hospice, my mother died last Wednesday. She never reconsidered her decision to enter hospice after she was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. Unlike many of the other patients, she watched very little television. Television, it seems, permits patients to seek solace in a routine that distracts them for their predicament. She also declined the spiritual support of the hospice champlain, not because she isn't Christian, but, rather, because she didn't require any special attention. She struggled to die peaceably as her body traveled through the agonizing stages of death.

There are many things that I could say about my mother, but I will merely focus upon two or three of them that have special relevance here. First, and most importantly, she was independent minded, and didn't allow others to intellectually intimidate here because she only had a high school education. She drew her own conclusions, regardless of whether they were popular or not. She often observed that people are funny, meaning that she thought that they frequently failed to recognize things that were pretty obvious and took actions contrary to their self-interest. She rightly believed that Reagan was a transparent phony, and, despite the residue of racist attitudes consistent with her upbringing in north Georgia, voted for Jesse Jackson over Michael Dukakis in 1988, although she retained a soft spot for the Clintons.

My mother was also hostile to undocumented immigrants, but understood the primacy of class, I don't ever recall her telling me that she voted for a Republican. We may live in a duopoly today, but, for her generation, the dividing line between Democrat and Republican had real meaning, it defined one's sense of class identity. Her Christianity was inclusive. While talking to one of the hospice attendants, she said that God loves everyone, and maintained communication with a gay man when others severed their relationship with him after he was outed during her childhood. Though straight, sexual orientation wasn't a big deal for her. While working in the composing room of an Atlanta newspaper, the Atlanta Journal, during the 1960s, she encountered other female employees who returned from weddings performed during their Hawaiian vacations. If I remember correctly, she said that they would even bring a cake to work for their fellow employees, which would be served on break as a wedding cake.

Beyond this, she was no American exceptionalist, she couldn't understand why many Americans consider themselves and their culture superior to others. Like her twin sister, she opposed the invasion of Iraq, and remarked upon the sophistication of Iraqi society in comparison to our own, emphasizing, probably based upon her biblical education as a child, that they have been around for thousands of years, while we have only been around for a few hundred. How could we presume to know more than them? In March or April of 2003, I decided, while standing nearby a pay phone on Durant Street and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, that I should call her. One of the first things that I told her was that I had been arrested for participating in the civil disobedience that erupted in San Francisco after the launching of the Iraqi invasion. She was pleasantly surprised, gently exclaiming you were there? By her standards, that was a shout, I can't remember her being so startled by something that I had done. But, then, remembering that she was my mother, she proceeded to tell me that I needed to be careful about that sort of thing in the future.

Second, although my mother was raised in Georgia, and worked at newspapers in Georgia and Tennessee, she brought me to California in my early teens, which was, as I have noted here elsewhere, a defining event in my life. Of course, it was, to a great degree, mere chance. My mother could have remarried and ended up in Minnesota or Massachusetts. But, even so, it was serendipitous. In the early 1970s, midtown Sacramento was ethnically diverse, with a fair share of radicals and cultural ties to the Bay Area. Members of the Symbionese Liberation Army successfully concealed themselves in midtown, with one of their safe houses near my dentist. In high school, I had some English teachers that enthusiastically assigned books by Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, and bluntly expressed their opinions. One of them told my class that he thought it was absurd that people cheered returning POWs like John McCain in 1973. All they did, he said, was drop bombs on peasants from 30,000 feet. At Sacramento High School in the late 1970s, it was just another day in class when your teacher channeled Tariq Ali.

Looking back, the alternative, staying in Georgia, is pretty chilling. I probably would have graduated from an all-white high school and then attended either the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech. Tech would have been the worst. Tech turns out a fair number of nimrods, with blue slacks, white shirts, tan blazers and matching ties, that advise the neoliberal institutions of the New South, institutions like Georgia Power, Suntrust Bank, Coca-Cola and Delta (CNN came later). About 10 or 11 years ago, when I served on the board of the Yolo County Housing Authority one of them came out to advise us. As I watched him deliver his presentation, I shuddered and thought, that could have been me. UGA might have been a little better, at that time, there was a counterculture in Athens, which was subsequently mass marketed into the popular culture by REM and the B-52s. When I talked to my mother about this while she was still sufficiently alert to engage in conversation, she said, with characteristic understatement, that she had understood at the time that California was more suitable for me. Perhaps, her as well. She always spoke favorably about living in Sacramento, and only left because my stepfather's emphysema necessitated a move to a drier, desert climate.

Finally, within the family, my mother was a living manifestation of an independent, self-reliant woman. In both her work and personal life, she refused to act deferentially towards men. Working in the hot type composing room in newspapers in the late 1950s and 1960s, she encountered a lot of sexism, and fought through it to get her union card. Back then, a union card was like a cab medallion, or perhaps, more accurately, a working class equivalent of a seat on the trading floor of a stock exchange, once obtained, she could work at almost any newspaper in the US, as they were nearly all unionized, the big city ones, anyway. For her, that card was her passport out of the insular world of north Georgia and the emotional conflict embedded within her fundamentalist family, as much as she loved the beautiful hill country and her relatives. She would never have described herself as a feminist, as most feminists lacked the experience and language to reach someone like her, and yet, she worked, as did my stepfather, and participated as a co-equal in all decisions. In high school, I sometimes discovered that some of my male friends professed support for gender equality while acting very differently, which was, I concluded, explainable by the fact that their parents set a disturbingly patriarchal example for them. As you might have guessed, I have consistently found myself attracted to similarly independent, blunt spoken, opinionated women, with my wife being the most delightful of them all.

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