Nothing Self-Made About Me
I disagreed with former President George W. Bush on many things. But on one issue, I admired him greatly: He was wise enough to marry a teacher and a librarian. I’m unabashedly biased about this, since my late mom was also a teacher and a librarian.
I have been thinking a good deal about her because she would have turned 100 on Friday. She died in 1995, and my sister and I have spoken often about the extraordinary social changes she came to terms with and was part of.
In talking about history, we break the story up into discrete chunks: the Depression, World War II, the 1960s and the like. But lives aren’t broken up; we live them continuously. Thinking now as a parent myself, I cannot imagine how I would have dealt with children of my own had I been a father in the 1960s. How strange those years must have seemed to adults like my mom. How spoiled did my generation look to those who had lived through depression and war? It was not illogical to ask, as many did: “What are these kids complaining about?”
In retrospect, I have been struck by how sensible my mom was through the social chaos, even though those were especially jarring times in our household. My dad, her husband of 29 years, passed away suddenly in the totemic year of 1968. Yet his death almost certainly made my sister and me less likely to rebel, and my mom cut us a bit of slack. The three of us were determined not to let the cultural hurricanes of the 1960s pull us apart.
My mother — her name, from her Quebec forebears, was Lucienne — was the sort of faithful Catholic who believed history was destined to leave us in a good place. So she was not the sort to close herself off to what she could learn from what was going on around her.
She was totally dedicated to being a parent because she fought so hard to become one. She lost four kids in childbirth or shortly thereafter. It took courage for her to keep trying so she could bring my sister and me into this world. (We never had the problem of feeling unwanted.) Family values defined her.
But as the first member of her family to go to college — and at a time when few women got the chance — she had an instinctive understanding of what feminism was about. She did not like the Vietnam War, so she sympathized with protests against it, though the movement’s most radical elements didn’t speak to her. She still honored my dad’s Army service in World War II. As I have written before, she was an early supporter of the gay rights cause, partly because her dear godson was gay and she could not abide bigotry against him, one of the most openhearted people she knew.
And she was squarely against government cutbacks when it came to schools or libraries. When federal funds were slashed in the early 1980s, she helped save the storefront branch library she presided over in my hometown of Fall River, Mass. She didn’t really need the job — she worked full time until she was 75 for very little, considering what she gave up in Social Security benefits. But she knew the literary haven she ran on Pleasant Street was the place where many low-income children first came in contact with books. One of the joys of her life was to foster love affairs between kids and reading.
My mom was no reflexive liberal. She started out a conservative and still held to most of her old-fashioned values even as her political views moved leftward. She was a public-employee union member but got impatient when the union blocked reforms she thought would improve services. (She complained to the union business agent about this.)
And she was very old school on matters of personal responsibility — in education, marriage, parenting, friendship and civic duty. When she died at age 82, she was serving on the board of our local community college. She loved the place for the opportunities it gave students from modest backgrounds who were willing to work hard.
Because of her and my dad, I always bridle when people declare themselves “self-made.” Such people may exist (socially if not biologically), but I’m skeptical, and would never make that claim for myself. We can never pretend that we were wise enough to have chosen great parents.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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