Growing Up White: Communication & Liberal Roots

I previously discussed what it was like growing up in the White household, principally what it was like with our mother.  I decided it was a good idea to return to that theme for a whole host of reasons, some of which might become evident below.

When I talked about mom in the past, I often received comments about how nice she was, how much she cared about people, how easy she was to talk to.  All of this was true, and much more.  Of course, my mother being a complete person, she was also complex, with many layers, most of which were rarely shown to people outside the family.  She could get very angry, and she detested hypocrites and felt sorry for people who could not or would not express themselves and be honest about who they were.

One incident that occurred while we were growing up related to another family in our church.  They were having troubles, as many families do, and the husband was found by our pastor in the cemetery above Kellogg, threatening to kill himself.  Our pastor was able to get the man to calm down, to listen to reason, and to work on making things better. For this, the family came to hate our pastor and not hide it very well…because he knew their dark secrets.  This infuriated my mother.  How could they not realize what our pastor had done to help them?

Another incident happened when my sister died.  I will remember the rest of my life how we were woken up in the middle of the night and told.  It was actually our uncle Bob who woke up David and me, telling us there had been an accident and Debbie was gone.  The family was wracked with grief, Dad most of all.  He’d just gone through cancer treatments a few months before. Mom was the one who held things together, as best she could, as she had already been battling lupus for nearly nine years.  What stuck in her mind most, though, was how people from the church were, one man in particular.  He had come up to mom, with obvious grief on his face, wanting to console her.  All he could do was shake her hand.  He tried but could not bring himself to give her a hug.  She was filled with sorrow for the man, how he was unable to express his feelings and give the comfort he wanted to in his heart.  Mom used it with us, wanting us never to have such limitations, to never be able to show how we feel or be unable to comfort those in pain.

Marie was probably this way, at least in part, due to her upbringing.  Communication was not something practiced in her family.  She and her sister, Fern, were the children of a German father who was an alcoholic and woman-chaser whom their English mother divorced when they were still fairly young.  Growing up in an English household, primarily with her mother and grandmother, was not conducive to much communicating about anything, let alone feelings or openly showing much affection.

Mom was committed to NOT raising her children in the same way.  Anything and everything was open to discussion, from politics and religion to sex and relationships.  We grew up knowing we could talk to her about anything, a trait others also learned, and one I inherited as I’ve listened to and tried to help countless friends growing up, being told things in deepest confidence that would likely shock and surprise many of my lifelong friends who had no idea what others were dealing with as we grew up.

Marie was insistent that we all learn and practice empathy, to put ourselves in others’ place, to understand that life was complex and that our experiences were not the experiences of others.  Her view of the world was that we were placed here to help others, to uplift those around us, to make society a better place for all. She was at her core a liberal.  This was a fusion of two different foundations.  She had grown up in a liberal working class family that bordered on socialist.  While many things were not discussed, there was an identity, a recognition that as working people they had to fight for their rights to be heard, not to be taken advantage of, to be treated like people.  And I have the honor of keeping one of the family heirlooms that serves as proof: a photo from the July 1914 Western Federation of Miners convention in Denver.  The picture shows a group of about one hundred people, most of the hardscrabble men in the photo obviously led lives of hard, manual labor.  Peppered in the group were a few women – the miners’ wives.  Off to one side is a family…the miner husband, his tiny wife, and their two children, a boy of about eight and a little girl of about four or five.  The wife is my great-grandmother, who lived to be nearly 97, and the little girl is my grandmother. My great-grandmother had escaped an England where she’d worked as a chimney sweep, a common “occupation” for children as young as ten because they could be lowered into chimneys to do the dirtiest work. My great-grandfather had served as a carpenter in the Royal Navy before coming to America and finally ended up mining in northern Idaho.  Both were Cornish, from Cornwall in the southwest of England, a fairly impoverished area.  Both knew from hard experience how companies treat their workers, and fought the rest of their lives to be treated like people.

The other source of my mother’s liberalism was her faith.  Her family had not been religious in any way.  The one experience she relayed about any religiosity in her family growing up was when her grandfather dragged her grandmother out of a “holy roller” revival – the literal holy rollers, who resorted to rolling around on the ground as the holy spirit “possessed” them.  He would have none of that nonsense.  My mother came to her faith in her later twenties, when her family was growing with three and then four children.  She took comfort in the social gospel, firmly believing that we were called to love everyone, to support everyone, to see that no one went hungry or without clothes…to live as Jesus had called his followers to live, creating the kingdom of heaven on earth by accepting others for who they are and helping them as much as possible.

Religion and politics mixed for my mother as a means to be all-encompassing, accepting others and helping them.  She often said, “the only institution large enough to help people is the government.”  And she was right.  The depth of many problems requires a coordinated, national effort.  She also knew that the effectiveness of that government lay in having honest, intelligent, caring people serving in it.  She detested politicians who used their office for personal gain, to help companies over people, who played on fears.

Mom was the valedictorian of her class from Wallace, yet she was never able to go to college.  Her family lacked any ability to help her, and there were no government programs in the 1950s that would have helped her.  She felt some regret about this, but it was easily not her biggest regret.  While she loved her family with all her heart, there is one thing she did wish she had been able to do that raising a family in remote northern Idaho prevented.  She wished she could have participated in protests in the 1960s.  She hated the Vietnam War, she hated racism and bigotry, she hated how companies use people for the benefit of a few.  I think this would surprise more people than any other aspect of my mother, and yet it is completely consistent with everything about her.  She treated everyone equally, regardless of race, sexual preference, past or current conditions.  She wanted the best for everyone, even the hypocrites she fully recognized in our church. They frustrated and angered her to no end, but she still wanted good things for them (just maybe not always).

To answer a question I received in the past, that is how I came out different from many of those I grew up with in our remote mining region.  What I learned from my mother growing up was to seek solutions that helped the most people, to detest bigotry in any form and hypocrisy, to see the inherent value in every person and see them as individuals.  I am most hard on members of my own socio-economic class because they do not see just how good they have it, how many others are much worse off, and how those at the very top manipulate the culture to convince others they are “just like us” so they can accrue ever greater wealth and power to themselves.  Mom was the foundation.  What I have learned from history, economics, politics, working in business, and my life experiences have only added to and built upon that foundation.

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