I'm Telling

My 85-year-old mother was traumatized by the American 2010 interim elections. If you recall, those were when racist, ridiculous non-sequiturs were thrown around over “Obamacare,” and Congress got infected with people whose goal was to obstruct the government our Constitution set up. Throughout the campaign, the tea partiers flashed around their disdain for the role the Constitution established for Congress: to create and perfect laws. Instead, they had their own irrevocable agenda. About Obama, my mom agonized, “But he’s a good man, Michelle. Why are they doing this to him?”

After the election, in January 2011, while she lay on her deathbed in a Texas hospice, her surviving children huddled around her, my mom snatched my wrist, “Tell them,” she commanded, “Tell them they don’t have to do what those people tell them to do. Tell them they have to do what they themselves have to do.” My siblings and I looked at each. She squeezed my wrist and glared at me: did I understand? I did. “Tell them,” she said. “Tell them!”

My mother, June Tidball Boisseau, was a Cincinnati, Ohio Republican when that meant Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and W. H. Taft, meant shutting down graft, meant the bank robbers were on the other side of the counter, not hired by the banks. She started voting Democrat in 1984 when she voted for Geraldine Ferraro, on the Mondale ticket against Reagan-Bush’s bid for reelection. Their first term began the undermining of public education and unions, then the fiddling with tax codes that have so beset us. My mother saw this as her first opportunity to vote for a woman in a national election, and she took it.

My mother was raised by Irene Larson Tidball, who had marched in Washington for the vote in 1918. When her fiancé, Carl Tidball, shipped to France in WWI, Irene got herself a job in Washington at the War Department. Irene wanted to do something to help, and being a secretary was a new job that women—at least white women—could do to make money and lend a hand. In a letter written in 1919, Irene rebuked her future husband for speaking ill of “The Hun” and wanting vengeance.

Irene’s mother, Emma, was a Swedish immigrant, who’d come to America at 15 with her 16-year-old brother when primogeniture kicked them off the farm. Emma was set up by the Lutheran church to sell candy outside a school. By the time my grandmother was born, Emma owned a confectionary shop.

Emma lived with Irene and Carl and cared for my mother so my grandmother could work. My mother called her grandmother “Othe,” for “Other Mother.” “Other” became her nickname.” What did Emma mean by having herself called “Other”? Don’t worry, no lectures here on “otherness.”

I think it’s because Emma refused to be a “grand” anything. She was a simple, Lutheran woman who worked hard, acted as my mother’s other mother, and cracked jokes. When my mom would ask her to do something Othe didn’t want to do, Othe would say, “I can’t. I have a bone in my foot.” Irene made jokes like “Any woman who learns to cook is betraying the cause.” Once when my mom was nine and playing dolls with friends, Irene, passing by, asked, “What are you girls going to be when you grow up?” When each responded, “I want to be a mommy,” Irene said, “That’s stupid. Boys don’t say they want to be daddies. What else are you going to be?”

Coming home from a VFW meeting one night, Carl was killed when his car ran into a train parked across the road without running its lights. Negligence. June was 11. When the train company came with a check and tried to give it to Irene to compensate for Carl’s death, she turned them out in contempt.

Irene made sure June went to college, and my mother worked her way through the University of Cincinnati as an art and design major. She took jobs in marketing and at a greeting card company. She converted to Roman Catholicism, then made the mistake of marrying a fascinating, talented, but deeply troubled man, my father.

They’d known each other in school and college. Pat Boisseau came to June with the marriage proposal after the Department of State offered him a job as a communications officer, first assignment: Thailand. The Cold War was heating up. Mom told me later she thought he was just scared to go to Asia by himself. She agreed to marry Pat because she thought it would be a swell life, moving around the globe, meeting intriguing people, having her kids in Swiss schools. For a few months it was embassy parties and the exotic world of Siam. But my dad broke down in Thailand, and they sent him home.

By that time, 1952, she was pregnant with my oldest brother. Dad started as a journalist and newscaster in Cincinnati; soon another baby was on the way. Within 11 and a half years, she was saddled with nine kids (I’m the third, the oldest daughter). When I was eight, and she was pregnant with the last child, he fell apart on camera while reporting on the murder of JFK. Dad had been on probation from the WKRC for his previous antics on the air. This was the last straw. For a while he was in a state mental hospital.

Mom went back to work and raised us pretty much alone. Some friends helped; others scurried off. Irene was eking along on Social Security and ailing. As a married woman, June was not deemed a good enough risk to have her own bank account, without a husband’s name on it. She put her paycheck in the bank; Dad cleaned it out. She hunted around until she found a woman bank vice-president who let her open her own account. As long as she lived in Cincinnati, that was June’s bank.

She worked three jobs. She sold Avon. She’d stay up through the night, drawing illustrations for catalogues, or helping us with schoolwork. Once through the wee hours, together we made paper cement, then constructed and painted a 3-D map of America. We smoothed out the Plains, pushed the Rocky Mountains into sharp peaks.

Still, we all suffered heavy neglect. We lost the house. We lost the car.

When I was a junior in high school, fall 1971, my dad pleaded with Mom to take him back again. She wouldn’t, so he decided to marry his girlfriend and began to push at Mom to go to the parish priest for a divorce. She came home weeping from that exchange. And so began my disgust with the Church.

Some of the nuns at school identified me as a trouble maker. Some bullied, some inspired me. To be clear, they weren’t caricatures. These sisters had thrown off veils and robes and were flying with truth, beauty, and justice. They made us work like demons. They poured their hard-fought learning into us. The nuns said to me and my classmates at the now defunct Regina High School, “You girls are the lucky ones. You’re getting educated; therefore, you have the sacred duty to do good with your lives.” I haven’t always been successful, but I have tried to do as instructed.

Since I was the oldest girl, I was often set to tasks: find out why someone was crying, locate missing shoes, forge her name on permission slips; that is, to deliver my mother’s messages. It took some doing, but I got away to college. As I’ve been mulling over what my mother would say about this election, what all the brave women and honorable men who made this nation would make of where we have come and what we have brought on ourselves, I have come to this:

Enough with the Pleasing

Abbastanza. Halt. Slutta. Quit with turning yourselves into status puppies and hoping someone will pat you on the head. Be grown ups. Stop believing devils are costumed instead of people in suits living in gaudy towers. And why have you enslaved yourselves to money? What’s enough for you? Do you really need that tricked up car, that marble bathroom, when you could use the money to heal the sick, comfort the weakened, and teach the children?

And cut out the contempt for the uneducated and ignorant. Educate them. Go in and find them. Instruct them in why it’s important to know that this country wasn’t founded to dominate other countries, but to liberate those inside it so that they could go on to help others, everywhere. At its founding was it flawed, and is still flawed now? You betcha. That’s life on Earth.

Yes, words mean things, and words and sentences are what we used to write that Constitution in order that that the words would mean what they said. We don’t need a wall. We need a new world-wide Marshall Plan. An Emancipation Proclamation for the whole planet. Stop being stupid. Enough with distracting yourselves with the frivolous. Quit hiring puppets to run things. Hire expertise, not players and gamers. Acquire skills. Hone them. Seek out the better angels of your nature and fill yourself with that.

What do you think FDR meant by “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”? Since when is being scared a good reason for hurting others? It’s scary you let fear dictate you. Do you want to doom your children? And enough with shaming those who suffer. Why are you stepping on the heads of the drowning and not diving in to rescue them? Wriggle out from underneath that thumb you put yourself under. Disinfect yourself of the slime that grows inside you whenever you cultivate hatred. Hating doesn’t help. Righteous indignation does.

And, for heaven’s sake, stop that preening with selfies. Quit licking yourself. Are you cats? There’s a reason they’re called the deadly sins. And first and worst among them is pride. And the second is envy.

Besides sins, there are virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Faith isn’t something you parade around like a show horse with red, white, and blue ribbons braided into its mane. Faith is what you steady yourself with: it’s what you do and how you live your life and how you treat others.

But let us not despair. We don’t want to end up with a broken heart like Mark Twain, the man who invented the phrase “Robber Barons.” Sure, their places were baronial, and they still are. Don’t gawk.

Haven’t we been bedazzled long enough by screens? Let’s turn those things off. Let’s take a walk around the block, befriend our neighbors, and encourage one another. We will take heart once we stand silent, look long into the trees, and listen to the crickets. Whitman knew what he was talking about. So did Thoreau. Let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s do it again. Things are trying to talk to us. Let’s turn off the news and listen.