Managing Editor’s Note: Jill Johnson describes herself as a “third-culture-kid”, someone who grew up in developing countries. Her essay featured here, “Lewes, Delaware,” reflects how this way of life, combined with their Quaker heritage, affected her family’s political beliefs-and the conflict it often created. In one crucible of a moment, Jill yells her frustration at her mother, saying that “if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems, maybe our family would be happy”.
Truth as a Hammer: Managing the Politics of Family
Sorting through files in my parent’s office after they’d moved into assisted living, I found an old newspaper clipping¾an editorial Mom had written. I paused at her bio: activist, teacher, homemaker. The description evoked a woman with defined lines, neat and contained. Her teaching career had consisted of several years with fifth graders at Lincoln School in Kathmandu in the ‘60’s; a homemaker, yeah, she’d set up house wherever we’d landed for Dad’s job in developing countries. The activist part, well, I’d never thought to apply that term to my mother although she loosed her opinions with abandon and often without invitation.
When I was in high school, she’d been the one to march on Washington DC to protest the Vietnam War. I’d boasted about my Mom who stomped several positions left of most adults in those days. Protesting in my own way at boarding school¾ experimenting with pot and boys, skipping the mandatory Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, learning to swear¾I’d watched her from afar.
Later, married and living in New England, I’d enjoyed our political chats over the phone, a beer in hand hidden from eyes that narrowed at the sight of anyone drinking alcohol. The cushion of distance between us blunted the edge of her rising indignation at the world’s woes and misguided policy-makers, the societal inequalities. A little rant together on the same side for a change felt good. We’d both suffered through my cliff-hanger of an adolescence. Worse than hard-liners in a fracturing country, we couldn’t conceive of compromise. For me, and maybe for her, a residue of that acrimony lingered, an off smell that hadn’t dissipated.
I’d mention to my adult friends about Mom’s election as president of the Women League of Voters, or how she picketed at her state capitol of Dover against U.S. military spending, her speeches about the stalled Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution. Having lived in Jordan, our family personalized the Palestinians plight. Living overseas had fostered an immediacy to global issues.
I tried to think back to when my mother’s politicking and the delivery of her point of view began to make me clench my teeth.
When I was in my forties, visiting my parents with my third husband, Mom and Dad took us to visit Lewes, a Chesapeake Bay town near their home, the streets lined with painted buildings preserved in their slice of history. High-end clothing and gadget stores next to cafes and chocolatiers. A shoe store. My eye caught on a pair of Naots in the window.
“Those are great sandals,” I said to Mom. “I’m going in.”
The proprietor asked if she could help. I gushed about the comfort of the Naot’s I’d once owned. I picked up a pair. Before I could ask for my size, Mom interrupted.
“Where are they made?”
I turned towards her wondering why she cared about their provenance. I’d never known her to be much of a shopper. In fact, she hated shopping. Her clothes and shoes worked beyond a graceful retirement.
Smiling, the woman replied, “Israel.”
Mom turned away, snorting, “I’d never buy anything made there.” The bell clanged when she yanked the door open. Stammering an apology, I fled.
“Mom, I can’t believe, I…that was pretty rude.”
“Why? It’s what I think.” She shook her head at the idea of being polite about her politics.
“Yeah, but…” I stopped.
I let her go ahead to catch up with Dad. My husband waited for me and shrugged when I told him about the encounter in the store. “That’s your Mom.”
Later, I berated myself for not engaging my mother in a conversation about her approach. Or staying behind at the store to explain. How it was easier to walk away, just like she had.
She hadn’t used to be rude, not to strangers anyway. Strident yes, opinionated always. The frustration of years of protesting injustices combined with advancing age had turned her truth telling into a hammer. But we all had our own version of truth, a tack hammer or bludgeon perhaps the only difference in the delivery.
I wondered what the storeowner told her family about the incident. I envisioned her sitting at the dinner table that night, saying, “There was this rude woman who came into the store….” The dismissive nature of Mom’s tone and her words couldn’t have promoted world peace, Mom’s ostensible life-long mission. Wasn’t the point to pick apart each other’s truth to find commonality? After all, The Quaker way was about consensus.
I thought back to my teenaged years and realized that I could give myself a break about being a screaming, door-slamming teen; my mother had never been one to give an inch. I remember yelling at her during one of our fights that if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems maybe our family would get fixed.
After the visit to Lewes, I didn’t talk politics with her again. I’d dropped my hammer.