A report on the death of Bernard Bailyn lead me to one of his early books The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Having only gotten through a piece of the preamble, I am motivated to tackle the full read. It will be work. Reading is always a challenge to my wandering mind and crooked eyes that fight to follow the text.
Anyway, not the point.
This limited journey was enough to get me thinking about the myriad of details that are my origins.
As with all humans, it begins with my parents. William was raised Quaker in southeastern Pennsylvania. His father may have been less than successful, the story is not clear and the man died young. Dad spent most of his teenage years living with his mother’s brother. Great Uncle Joe was the manager of a large dairy farm in New Jersey, thus putting Dad on a career path of a herdsman… a guy who milks the cows and generally tends to all things herd. His formal education ended at high school with a graduating classes of 20 or so.
Mary was raised by a German immigrant father and the mom whose origin I don’t know in the coal regions of northeastern Pennsylvania. Her father was a foreman for a coal mine. Mom went to Philadelphia General Hospital after high school to study nursing. A significant journey in 1932 for a teenage girl.
My folks met as a result of these geographic arrangements. They loved each other, not in the lovey-dovey kind of way, but in the way that two people share a life, share common goals, care for each other, quietly intimate. My joke has always been that when asked who does Mom live best? The answer is Dad. They had six children together; I am the fifth.
Mom was raised Presbyterian and they were married in Mom’s church. That’s a big deal for a practicing Quaker. I never asked them about that decision and the blow-back that likely came from my father’s mother — an intolerant woman, likely to have unkind things to say.
Regardless, Mom became a persuaded Quaker and I am a birthright Quaker of Buckingham Friends Meeting in Lahaska, PA.
The next thing to know about my parents and particularly my dad is that our family moved a lot. Before I was born, the gang of then four children lived in a small house situated on the hill above Valley Farm, the homestead of my father’s people.
In those days, my two great aunts Miriam and Ellen (sisters of Uncle Joe and my grandmother). In 1950 there was fire in the barn. For reasons unclear to most, this was the impetus to ask Dad to leave the farm and find work elsewhere.
Tricky business for a guy with four kids and no home.
Off the Beverly, MA where he found a position with housing at Hood Diary. That lasted two years… its end also unclear but sent us off to Daisy, MD to another dairy with housing that again ended after two years which sent us off to Dublin, PA to a farm called Green Hills owned by the author Pearl Buck. Our family is now six children.
These are the times that include bits of my own memories. The porch, the apple trees, the silos, the hay barn, the cows beyond the electric fence we grabbed on to see our hair stand on end, the bridge over the creek where we would sit on hot days, the first ride on a school bus to kindergarten, the hurricane that knocked down the big trees, the trips to Valley Farm still inhabited by the evicting great aunts where we grew produce to feed the mob.
There came a day in 1956 when Dad was called to Pearl Buck’s offices to learn she was selling the cows and Dad would have to find a new home and another new job.
Mom said, “no more cows”. Mom took a full time job as a nurse at Doylestown Hospital and Dad landed a job on second shift at Standard Pressed Steel in Jenkintown, PA. This farm boy went to work in a steel plant in the middle of the night to feed his family.
Dad used to say it was a small miracle that they found a house in Doylestown. The owner generously offered them a rent to own option. It was three-ish bedroom house with one bathroom on a street within walking distance of the train station that would get Dad to the Jenkintown station where he would then walk the many blocks to get to work.
Let me re-state; family of eight with one bathroom.
He also started taking classes to make it possible for him to advance in his newly found career. Long story short, he retired from SPS as a highly respected manager of the shop that manufactured test products which included the exploding bolts that were used to separate the stages of the Apollo missions.
Not bad for a guy who used to milk cows for a living.
All the while, Mom was getting up early enough to cobble together hot cereal in a double-boiler, make her own breakfast and lunch and walk a half-mile to the hospital in time for her shift that started at 7am and ending (hopefully, with no emergencies) at 3pm when she walked back home to take care of the needs of her six children.
On top of all that, she knitted our sweaters and mittens, sewed most of the girls clothes, read to us every night, had a book at the kitchen table and her night stand all the time, quilted with the ladies at Meeting one Wednesday a month, made aprons to selling at the hospital bazaar, made pies for the Meeting Fair… I’m worn out just thinking about it.
I don’t recall them complaining. They never raised a hand to us. They were a stone wall against frivolous requests. It was impossible to work one against the other. They had some weird secret pact. And they slept tightly in each others arms every night despite Dad’s snores rattling the roof.
These were the examples within the walls of our home. Next comes the community.
Starting with Buckingham Friends Meeting. For those who have never attended a Meeting for worship, it is an hour dedicated to self reflection and quietude. That’s pretty interesting if you were a willing adult. An hour of possible silence to a six-year-old is something entirely different.
An hour of possible silence to an adolescent is something else again. I don’t remember it as being all that difficult.
There wasn’t always silence. The nature of Meeting is anyone may speak if the Spirit moves thee. There were all sorts of spirits and characters at Buckingham Friends. Their names wander around in my head occasionally, I’m left with the soft impressions of the Smith brothers growing beards in opposition to the Vietnam War. The odd sharing of Ohwhatshername with the poorly dyed red hair. The quiet nodding of Aunt Nelly bent over with her Dowager hump.
My connection to BFM took me into the slums of Philadelphia to help repair a community center, to the county jail to sing carols to the inmates (yikes), to volunteer for every single task within the abilities of a child.
My whole family saw service to the community as natural as breathing.
The next bricks in my foundation come from the luck of Dad finding a house in Doylestown which meant I received the education made possible by the Central Buck School District from 1956 to 1968.
I can’t tell you much about the school experience of a K thru 12er in a public school today, but I know what I received.
Elementary school included recess outside regardless of the weather. There was singing everyday. We had a gymnasium and an auditorium. Most children participated in some sort of on stage activity each semester. We had art supplies. We learned to write in cursive in 3rd grade. We wrote essays. We went to the library and learned how to find books. We could recite the times tables by the end of 4th grade. We learned about the federal government, the names of the cabinet members, the names of all the states and the capitals. We could find every state on a map of the USA.
High school offered scholastics, industrial shops for woodworking, car repair, secretarial, cooking, sewing. Every junior high girls made an apron — yes, I know, sexist, and yet I learned how to mend my own clothes, use an iron, operate a sewing machine… sure I already knew all that stuff, because of my mom, but the other girls in school didn’t until they took these classes. As write this I suddenly remember that there was a classroom filled with sewing machines and a kitchen where we cooked something. Do schools still have these rooms?
Every student had a guidance counselor. Every school had a full time nurse. Every class had at least one field trip a year to a museum. Drivers ed was right outside the back door.
The dress code was strict. Misbehaving was not tolerated by teachers, parents, or the majority of the student body.
We had choirs, orchestra, marching band, swing band, annual spring play, annual fall musical, all staging done by students. Homecoming dance, Christmas dance, Prom all held on school property themed and decorated by the students , all the music performed by students or disc jockey…. the skills learned from these events…. planning, cooperation, budgeting, construction, arithmetic, painting, hammering, photography, set design, it goes on and on. I’m told that today’s Prom are held in hotel ballrooms.
The universe will never know the impact of my lack of decision or actual decision, but I did not go on to higher education. Fear? Disinterest? Pigheadness?
It certainly contributed to where I am today. The road not taken? The speculation has no merit.
What I do know is that countless times in my life I have been asked where I went to college? This question is not the same as the standard conversation openers like, where are you from, where do you live, what do you do for a living? The question of my education comes later in the conversation. It has the implied (and I don’t think this is my ego talking) interest in the source of my education.
In the days of my career teaching middle-aged women how to use those newfangled computers, there was the usual moment of “dear, where did you go to college?”
On the dare from a new acquaintance, I wrote a column for a tiny golf newspaper. This tumbled down through the following calendars into columns for a golf magazine, a be-weekly column in my town’s newspaper and connections made with other full-time professional golf writers from around the country.
Today I am asked, “where did you go to study writing?” I didn’t. My education began with those essays in third grade. How many children will never be writers because no teacher made them write?
I didn’t “go to school” to learn how to design a computer system. I didn’t “go to school” to learn to write. I didn’t “go to school” to learn to draw or sew or make pottery or knit or fix a toilet.
I went to school to learn how to learn. To learn the fundamentals of a well informed life. To read, to count, to make sums, to know how our government works, to know how to find things through research, to be brave enough to ask a question, to be brave enough to challenge the answer and ask for better understanding or to offer sound arguments against.
My other school was my home filled with dictionaries, encyclopedias, novels, field guides, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Readers Digest. My home was filled with projects involving baking and cooking and preserving vegetables. My home was filled with rules that were not broken no matter how grumbly we got. My home was filled with conversations.
The mantras of my upbringing….
In or outing.
Close the refrigerator door.
Good work is its own reward.
If you make like a rug, people will walk all over you.
You may not have gotten everything you sister got, but you got everything you needed.
Company, like fish, goes bad after three days… Mom softened on this in her later years. She liked my company.
So, this is me. Confident. Willing to take on a new idea. Willing to offer a suggestion without falling to pieces if the suggestion is rejected. Able to walk into a room and see what needs to be done and get busy.
This is also me. Stomach in knots when I see others who don’t take responsibility struggling to hold my tongue in the interest of world peace vs. calling them out. Short tempered when treated poorly.
It’s harder to put my finger on my parents foundation or their parents foundation, but given the shape my upbringing had on me, all of those humans who have long since turned to dust must have had come through the ages just as the DNA waxed and waned.
There is a pile of genealogy to be found on the Quaker side of fence. Quakers are powerful archivists.
I have some physical traits similar to my immediate family, they are more apparent now, but when I was a teenager I felt like an outlier. I was a bit shorter, my chin didn’t match, my nose definitely didn’t match. My mothers ear lobes could have held a dozen studs, I have almost no ear lobes.
Then one day, I received an envelop full of photographs dating back to the earliest available. There I was, circa 1823. A long forgotten cousin who looked so much like me that even my Aunt Molly made a note on the back of the picture.
Which brings me back to the beginning of this ramble… our country, as it is today, comes from the countless choices both documented and un that shape who we are now. Just as the choices we are now making will shape the future of our children, our country, and our planet.
Wikipedia says the age of enlightenment was: 1715 – 1789. There were certainly leaps made during those times but nothing in comparison to the encyclopedias filled in just the last 50 years.
The discoveries about our planet, our universe, our people, our fellow living creatures boggle my mind.
And yet, today…. there are still voices rising up telling us that facts aren’t facts. Of course the belching the of smoke and ash from oil and coal held under the soil and oceans for eons burned to give us engines and electricity has not troubled our atmosphere.
Of course rearranging the molecules of oil to produce plastics that will endure longer than granite will not trouble the land and seas.
Of course still believing that the tiny collections of genes that determine the color of our skin and the amount of curl in our hair is directly connected to our moral code and ability to think and learn and dream.
This jumble has to end somewhere so I will end with a quote from the book that started these days of typing:
This from the author:
“… The most vivid is the Americans’ obsession with Power. It was not one among many concerns; it was the central concern. Power and its ravages engrossed their minds; they wrote about it again and again; elaborately and imaginatively — in pamphlets, letters, newspapers, sermons — in any medium available.
They wrote about the specific agencies of power they feared — royal armies, crown prerogatives, Parliamentary mandates, arbitrary magistrates — and above all the usurpation of power that would be listed in the Declaration of Independence.”
John Adams put liberty this way; “skulking about in the corners… hunted and persecuted in all countries by cruel power.”
All of these ideas and concerns brought our nation to a Constitution drafted with every contingency they could muster in the times they lived to devise a government structure that in today’s shorthand is checks and balances.
It did not begin with Trump but it certainly has expanded like the virus that ravages our planet today. The undermining of democracy as imagined two centuries ago has been undermined by the failure of all three branches plus the press to do their jobs as our Founders intended.
The human race and our planet can not survive until will stand up to Power; until we accept the awesomeness of our own power to choose another destiny.
We are here for a very short time when compared to the ages that came before and the (hopefully) eons running out ahead of us long after we are gone.
Live for today is a lovely motto, but it cannot be done without a plan for tomorrow, else there will soon be no today in which to live.
Every adult American is facing a choice on or before November 3, 2020.