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Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Family Politic

This post was written for the 59th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy hosted by Jasia at Creative Gene.

I was fortunate enough to have been raised in an extended family that regularly shunned television in favor of discussing the issues of the day. This practice was most frequent when visiting my great-grandparents, John Ralph Austin and Therese McGinnis who lived about 15 miles away in Grahamsville, New York.

These two simple people raised in New York City during the turn of the 20th century somehow settled easily into the backcountry ways of the Catskill Mountains and came to be accepted by their neighbors as more than just “city folk.” In the late 1940s when Grandma and Grandpa purchased the house on Low Road, they made it clear that their intent was to stay full time and not to simply savor the weekend joys of the mountains.

The spot where they settled probably could not have been more remote in time and in location from the rest of the world but their means of staying connected was daily reading of one or more newspapers and listening to the local radio. Although I always found their views quite conservative, I think they appreciated the fact that someone was well informed as they were, and did not tolerate braggarts or windbags whose knowledge only skimmed the surface of what was going on in the world.

As a family member, if you had a seat at the adults’ table in the dining room, then you were expected to fully participate in the conversations which covered the latest political scandal, current or recent legislation, as well as old folk medicine remedies and the like recommended by a farmer friend just “down the way.” And to participate meant that even at age 13 you had better know what was going on, have the ability to listen to what others were saying, and respond even though your views may not be in agreement.

To that extent, my great-grandparents were dyed in the wool Republicans who could speak for hours about the evils of President and Mrs. Roosevelt. My great-grandmother reserved her best comments for Eleanor Roosevelt – that she was too involved in her husband’s career, that she was a busy body etc. Many women held this same view during the 1930s but those views seemed to change once we were at war and women were a vital source of labor for our country. In my mind, Mrs. Roosevelt was not afraid of that rough road of criticism especially if it made the road farther on down a bit smoother for other women when they were forced to trod it.

In my mind, my great-grandparents were Goldwater Republicans and held on to these ideals despite the turn of the party in later decades to one of “extreme conservatism bordering on lunacy” as they called it. I think they would be disappointed to see recent actions of the executive branch that eroded basic rights that their ancestors fought for when founding this country. I know they would be disappointed in a legislative branch with members of each party that could not reach across the aisle to each other and accomplish something for the greater good of the country.

While my personal politics lean more towards the progressive (not to be confused with liberal) – stressing personal responsibility, social welfare only as a means of improving circumstances not as a lifestyle, strong civil rights and freedoms, separation of church and state – my great-grandparents provided a safe place for me, and for anyone, to express their opinions. Sure, there would be intense arguments and debates. In fact, during the recent presidential debates I laughed as I watched them since to me they were “too tame.” In my family, a debate meant yelling, rapid-fire recitation of facts, someone running out of the room crying, someone else opening a bottle of scotch, etc. A debate was not a debate if it did not include tears and liquor.

Nevertheless, at the end of every evening, one could still stand up, go over and shake someone else’s hand despite having been in strong disagreement with them over the previous three hours. It is a damned shame that you hardly see that sentiment anymore.

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