Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Family Values: Remembering the Grandmother's House

In a posting at Huffington Post this morning, Arianna Huffington makes points I made yesterday—our willingness to prescind from ethical analysis of our economic life, because the hidden hand of the unfettered free market will dispense its gifts accurately and wisely, and where that willingness to elide ethics has gotten us:

Over the past 30 years, Americans have been bombarded with sermons evangelizing for the free market religion of the Right, and the supposed correlation between unregulated markets and progress . . . . In the course of selling us on buying, the market-worshippers shredded the modern social contract, the hard-fought consensus that had emerged since the New Deal, which ordered our political priorities, and expressed both our communal concern for the most vulnerable members of society and our disapproval of huge inequalities. We were now supposed to believe that all could be left up to the soulless, self-correcting calculus of supply and demand. Government involvement was an anachronism, regulatory oversight an impediment.
The last few weeks have demolished that notion. In the battle over the proper role of government, the forces of the Right, the high priests of the church of the Free Market -- including Bush, Paulson, and the Masters of Wall Street -- have suffered a monumental defeat. So why are we allowing them to dictate the terms of their surrender? (www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/the-bailout-plan-welcome_b_128450.html).

My answer to Huffington’s question, Why are we allowing them to dictate the terms of their surrender? Because we have colluded. Because we’ve been willing to accept the “soulless, self-correcting calculus of supply and demand” and to ignore workplace ethics.

Because we let the lords who rule us, who have make-or-break power over us, posture as agents of the divine will when they are clearly anything but. Because we let them rake in huge salaries while driving us into penurious servitude. Because we bail them out and reward their malfeasance and greed with large severance deals when they run things into the ground.

My answer to Huffington’s question? We are as much part of the problem as Wall Street is. We have stood by and willingly permitted the religious right to dumb down religious and ethical discourse in this nation, to reduce that discourse to hateful slogans, to narrow the focus of what is moral to the pelvic area.

And we are now reaping the rewards for our ethical and intellectual laziness. Nothing will change unless we ourselves change. Nothing will change until we demand better from our political and religious leaders, and above all, from ourselves.

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Today would be my grandmother’s 120th birthday, if she were still living. My maternal grandmother, Hattie Paralee Batchelor Simpson. She would not be pleased that I am using her middle name in this posting. She hated it, regarded it as country and old-fashioned, sought to live it down.

When I try to find the origin of that unusual name, I hit a dead-end. The most I can find is that it seems to have appeared in the American South around 1830, and is perhaps related to the word “pearl.” My grandmother received the name from an aunt by marriage, the second wife of her uncle Edward Eli Batchelor, Mary Paralee Bagley.

I loved my grandmother to distraction. This is a small bone of contention now between my brother Philip and me. His memories of her are less rose-colored. Where I found her nurturing though certain in her demands, he found her overbearing. I have no memory of having ever been corrected by her. Philip remembers threats of spankings for jumping on her beds or roiling her nerves as she watched her daily “shows,” soaps she never missed—“Days of Our Lives,” “As the World Turns."

My grandmother watched her shows not only with avid interest: she watched interactively, punching the air and shaking her fist at the folly of the characters. She was especially perturbed by the willingness of the ever-fatuous male characters to fall for one old hussy (she pronounced the word to rhyme with "fuzzy") after another. Fallen women did not earn her pity. A spineless man was distasteful; but a spoiled woman was unthinkable, the worst force in the universe.

Our different memories no doubt have much to do with our place in the family ordering, and the different roles that place scripted for us. As the oldest son in my family and the first male grandson, I inherited Obligations and Privileges. In time-honored Southern fashion, I received the names of my grandfathers, William and Dennis. (Thankfully, my parents avoided the other possibility, Benjamin Zachariah).

Because I was the Bearer of Tradition, the grandson who was expected somehow to incarnate my grandfather William Z. Simpson, who had died no less than twenty years before I was born, I was the one my grandmother took under her wing. I was the one to be told family stories, to be permitted to “ramble,” as she put it, to pore over the old letters, diaries, quilt scraps (and false teeth and discarded eyeglasses and hanks of hair) in the old trunks in the attic. I was the one entrusted with my grandfather’s pocket watch when I turned 18.

I’ve now given it to my nephew Luke, also a William and the oldest son in his family. What else can the Bearer of Tradition do except cherish for a while and then hand on what has been entrusted?

No child can resist being made to feel special. And my grandmother was good at making children feel special—well, perhaps any that were not her own. I have a letter from a woman who grew up in my grandmother’s town, telling me how much she relished seeing my grandmother when she was a girl, because my grandmother always greeted her with a big smile and talked to her as if she were an adult, showing a keen interest in everything the little girl did and said.

It was that same interest that annoyed Philip, who, as the youngest boy and the hellion of the family, was fated to jump on beds and test boundaries. He did not welcome any hedge. When he first heard the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” it captivated his imagination and became his theme song. He acted it out for several years, miming open spaces and galloping horses. My grandmother often woke from dreams in which she said she had seen Philip covered in blood, in the penitentiary. She loved to repeat something a family friend once said—that if Philip did not land in prison by the time he grew up, he’d surely find himself in the White House, with all that drive and willingness to shove against rough fate.

As I think about my grandmother on her birthday, I realize it was not so much the special attention she showed me that meant so much to me in my childhood and adolescence. It was the fact that she was there. Always there. In a house that never altered, with her unmarried oldest daughter Kat and her unmarried son Dub (W.Z., or just plain Brother to his family).

Always there, as my family knocked about hither and yon, when my father’s fortunes would soar or crash as his propensity to drink (and gamble and wench) receded or reasserted itself. If I needed a place to get away, to sleep on cold nights on old, swaybacked feather ticks under quilts sewn by great-grandmothers, if I needed to walk in a rose garden or sit under a fig tree, if I needed to hear once again family stories I had memorized years ago, I could always go to her house.

I could go home. In the last analysis, that was the single, the definitive gift my grandmother provided all of her grandchildren: home. To be sure, it was home on her terms. There was to be no waste of food, no sassing of elders, no bed wallowing and no noonday napping, since idleness is the devil’s workshop. Lies or thieving were so much not allowed as to be unthinkable; they’d land us in hell or reform school or both faster than we could say pea turkey. We were please to remember we had Simpson blood and were as good as the best and better than the rest.

Everybody needs a home. Children need a sense of belonging, a place in which they can be made to feel special and have their talents (and obligations) pointed out to them. And those who provide home are, to my way of seeing things, growing fewer in our culture these days. And those who provide home deserve commendation for the hard work of just being there, day in and day out, in sickness and in health.

As my grandmother was.