Thursday, December 30, 2010
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO MRS. WEATHERS
In 2004, I wrote a longer version of the following column. It's about my mother, who died in 2009 at the age of 93. More specifically, it's about her politics. As we face a new year with the Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, it is worth remembering what the world was like before the New Deal. Many Republicans, as Nobel economist Paul Krugman, among others, has pointed out, wish to return us to the Gilded Age. My mother remembered that time.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO MRS. WEATHERS
Don’t tell my mother that “liberal” is a dirty word
I recently spent a week with my 89-year-old mother, Elsie Weathers. After a week with Mom, I worry for the future of the United States. What will happen to our politics when those who remember life before 1932 are dead?
My mother is not a swing voter. She is not undecided. She is not an independent. Elsie Weathers is a Democrat. Let me amend that: Elsie Weathers is a DEMOCRAT! The first president my mother ever voted for was FDR. So was the second. And the third. She would like to vote for FDR this year.
Politics for my mother is simple: The Republicans are the party of the greedy, the Democrats are the party of the needy, and the most important role of government is to protect the needy poor from the greedy rich. My mother has never voted for a Republican.
My mother grew up on a hardscrabble farm in upstate New York. She was the daughter of Finnish immigrants who never learned to speak English. Her family was poor. She tells many stories of how poor. My favorite is this: My mother has always loved animals. When she was a little girl, she desperately wanted a lamb for Christmas. She begged and begged her parents for a lamb. On Christmas Day she ran downstairs expecting to find her lamb under the Christmas tree. What she got instead was woolen underwear.
For my mother, all politics is personal. It is all about stories like the lamb and the underwear.
Socialized medicine? My mother is all for it. After all, she spent four years in a state-subsidized tuberculosis sanitorium in the 1940s. Despite the fact that she nearly died of the disease, my mother remembers that period almost fondly. The doctors and nurses were, in her mind, angels. The government paid for it all. That, my mother believes, is what a government should do.
Worker protection laws? OSHA? My mother is all for them. She tells of her brother-in-law, Eino, who contracted silicosis in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He died of it—slowly, agonizingly. The coal mine company never considered protecting him when he worked or helping him after he got sick. They threw him aside and hired someone else they could exploit and sicken.
Unions? My late sainted father was a union man. My mother still believes it was the reason the phone company never promoted him. She still remembers what the world was like before unions were strong. She repeats the story my father used to tell, of when he was a teenager working for a coal company in Kentucky. His job was to serve food to the workers, who were largely “paid” in food and company-owned housing. (Feeding and housing them was, Mom points out, a way for the coal company to keep the workers under its control. Actual wages the workers could have saved, so they could have improved themselves and maybe moved on to other jobs. The company didn’t like that possibility.) My father told of how the hungry workers would ask him, as he dished out their food, “Just one mo’ poke chop, young mister? Just one?” But he would have been fired if he gave them one.
Laissez-faire capitalism? My mother tells the story of the January day my father (still a boy working for the coal company) saw one of the workers pick up a piece of coal by the railroad tracks leading out of the coal plant and put it in his pocket, to take home to warm his family. Another worker also witnessed the incident and reported the worker who pocketed the coal. My father was forced to testify against the coal-taker, who was fired. My father felt horrible about it to the day he died. In my mother’s mind, a capitalist is a person who, if not restrained by law, will kill his workers slowly and refuse a lump of coal to a sick and freezing man in order to make an extra buck.
Abortion? A relation of my mother’s got his girlfriend pregnant in the 1930s. The girl decided to have an abortion, illegal at the time. The abortion was botched. The man watched his girlfriend slowly bleed to death on the backroom bed of an abortion house. My mother also tells of all the girls she knew who kept their babies and were forced by (presumably Republican) social pressure into marriages they hated for a lifetime. My mother believes in clean, safe, legal abortions.
“Preventive” wars? My mother and my father would have drugged me, put me in the trunk of the car, and driven me across the border into Canada themselves to keep me out of the Vietnam War. The war was about me. She bleeds for every soldier and every child killed in Iraq, one at a time. She lingers over every newspaper story about the boy who enlists against his mother’s wishes and then dies in action. War, like politics, is personal for my mother.
Liberals? My mother plays bridge with a group of women who rarely discuss politics, but occasionally one of them, usually a generation younger, will begin to rail against liberals. My mother is a shy little stooped-over woman. She never initiates talk about politics. But she will not countenance criticism of liberals, especially in her liberated old age. “I’m a liberal,” she’ll declare, her voice trembling with anger. “And I’m proud of it. In fact, if you want to call me a bleeding-heart liberal, you go right ahead. Because that’s what I am.” Then, if you put her to the test, she will tell you how it was the “liberals” who came up with social security, worker-protection laws, consumer-protection laws, environmental-protection laws, and Medicare, and how it was the Republicans who, consistently and repeatedly, opposed them.
Protect the needy from the greedy.
My mother does not trust the rich. In his capacity as president of the New York State School Boards Association (a voluntary job), my father had some school-aid dealings with Nelson Rockefeller when Rockefeller, a Republican, was governor of New York. My father respected Rockefeller, who, by current standards, was something of a liberal himself. (The current Rockefeller in the Senate is a Democrat.) But my mother never trusted Rockefeller, because he was rich. She felt vindicated when he reportedly died in a fancy Park Avenue penthouse while in the arms of a woman who was not his wife.
When my mother thinks of politicians, she rarely thinks in terms of their policies. (Why consider policies? Democratic policies are good. Republican policies are bad. Q.E.D.) Mrs. Weathers thinks instead in terms of personality. She began despising Richard Nixon in the 1940s, when he first used Red Scare tactics to win a seat in the Senate. His demise in the 1970s was almost an anti-climax for her, she had hated him for so long. She felt disdain, but not disgust, for Ronald Reagan, whom she dismissed as little more than a script-reader. She is even capable (though rarely) of disliking a Democrat; she abhorred Lyndon Johnson. My mother has a fine eye, almost a sixth sense, for spotting the morally corrupt.
The important question today is this: What will America be like after my mother’s generation dies off–the generation that knew first-hand the world as it was before government put the reins on capitalist greed? After my mother dies, who will replace her? Let’s hope that the world replaces her with others who study a bit of history so they can understand her point of view. But I worry that that won’t happen. I worry about that a lot.