When I was growing up family meant to me a strong sense of belonging. We were secured tightly in the certainty and pride of our town, our church and our country. That was during the Forties and Fifties when families could find comfort in the knowledge that they were surrounded by the shared values of the wider community.
I was the middle child and the first daughter among five children, and I felt safe going about my life and navigating around my town. When we returned home our mother was always there for us, and our father traveled to and from New York City. Our routines rarely changed: Mass on Sundays; three meals a day at the same time each day when we were all home; and holidays celebrated in the same way each year. There was very little lively debate on the current events of our country, and mealtime was usually spent listening to Mom who tried to keep the tone of the conversation positive and upbeat. She was also the one who took the time to point out to her children the wonderful gift that the natural world provided us. She would stop to point out and pass on knowledge about nature. Our own backyard provided plenty of lessons. Many trips were made to the county park and the lakes and beaches nearby. I’d enjoyed exploring the waters, woods and beaches searching for shells, crayfish, frogs, fish and turtles with my brother. There were lots of books in our home for learning about the natural world.
My first stirrings of political awareness showed up when we went to a campaign rally at the Teaneck Armory in New Jersey for John F. Kennedy, who was running for President against Richard M. Nixon. Standing outside in the massive crowd waiting for him to arrive, my sister and I came up with a chant: Jack be nimble. Jack be quick. Jack’s the one whose gonna beat Dick. Our family was proud of the Democratic Party that was going to work towards electing the first Catholic President.
Family togetherness was a lot more challenging when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. Although I did strive to maintain the routines of holidays and the continuity of tradition within my own family, our lives were affected by the outside social fabric that was unraveling. The certainty and safety that was the theme of the Fifties shifted through the unknowns and the upheavals of the Sixties. The swift changes within church and community, along with the questions raised by the horrors of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy, shook the foundations of our belief in an unshakable country. The sexual revolution swirled around the family unit and there was open debate on long-held beliefs about family, church and country. These were the headwinds that blew through my own life and that of my family.
I continued, in the true spirit of the middle child, to seek the middle ground as these outside forces played against the economic realities of the 70’s and the challenges of raising a large family. A sense of belonging was created with a flexible team spirit and with planning family events that brought us together. I was able to pass on the lessons my mother taught me to my own children, especially the wonder of our natural environment as a source of comfort and refreshment.
During those uncertain times many marriages ended in divorce. That trend has continued and increased. When my marriage joined the statistics, with no college education, I became the sole provider and nurturer of my five sons, aged 16 down to 5 years old. It was a time of hardship and heartache when we lost our home and a steady income, as well as the spouse and father we had thought was there for us. Though I didn’t actually feel it at the time, I promised my sons that we were going to make it through okay. In reality, our life was becoming a classic case for crisis intervention with no clear answers in sight.
My parents and siblings lived a distance away from my home in Upstate New York and, as the political scene continued to unfold through those turbulent years, what was once our family’s political party of the Democrats shifted to what they thought of at the time as the certainty of the conservative Republican Party. These shifters being dubbed Reagan Democrats.
My reality, and immediate focus, was on the urgency of meeting the basic needs of me and my family. What was happening in the political scene was not even on the fringes of my awareness or interest other than fleeting images on the news. In another new area for only a year, without any friends and family nearby, I continued to plod through the trenches of what was real for us. While I was seeking a means to house, feed and clothe my family, the political and social climate continued to wrestle with the opposing extremes of how family, church and country fit into the changing scheme of things.
This was a very lonely and isolating time for my sons and me. I found it very difficult to share the severity of my own situation with my parents and siblings. When I would try, I felt it was too disturbing for them to hear and that I was expected to deal with things on my own with strength and faith. When your burdens grow heavy, ask God for strength. And I did. Each had their own hardships and realities, and I found it less conflicting to not talk much about it with them and just do what I had to do. I was emotionally drained and overwhelmed with the upheaval that had become our lives.
At the time, I hadn’t even considered the political ideology playing out within my own family during the Reagan years, pitting welfare assistance and social issues against the re-building of America into the Shining City upon the Hill. I felt that my life had become an altered state of existence residing invisibly alongside the lives of people going about the normal daily routines. I felt invisible, like we didn’t matter.
Family has always meant to me the reassurance that people care about you and are there for you through good and bad times. It’s a complex mix of people and experiences that join us together in a strong circle of respect and love. Family is not limited to having identical beliefs. It’s more about sharing a belief and faith that we’ll all make it through together. Life is messy.
And yes, my sons and I did make it through to a safer place, a stronger place. I can embrace each one of them and truly say, I respect you for the man you’ve become. They are each living lives that have evolved from their own convictions.
Given the history of my experiences, I’m no longer able to adhere to any absolute position on family, church or country. I want to meet people where they are in life and accept that this is where their life has brought them. My love of family has brought me to a place where I can recognize the flaws as well as the strengths within this very human institution. I hope for unity but no longer expect it. True to my middle-child common-ground nature, I remain an undeclared moderate voter. I’ve formed my own faith as the years have gone by and respect the faith beliefs of others.
My family remains strongly political. Each of us seeks a better world for our children and grandchildren though we passionately disagree on how to achieve it and what that world will look like. All of us share a deep, abiding love of nature and the wonderful world God has given us. Though the levels of our role in preserving these gifts may differ, hopefully, we can escape the polarizing and hostile political climate of today and learn from each other’s experiences, hopes and visions. In families, as well as political systems, there’s always room for compromise. It means shared sacrifice, shared struggle, as well as shared plenty and shared joys. It’s not always easy to respect another’s personal boundaries and knowledge of what’s best for them while supporting them as they travel life’s path.
Family is where you arrive at the end of the road, literally and figuratively. It can be one person or many people, and not necessarily your birth family. It can be physical or spiritual. Sometimes family means putting aside what we want, and taking hold of what needs to be done in order to survive as a unit. It means asking others to share in the burdens of a common family need when crisis hits unexpectedly. Family provides the best cushion an individual can have as he or she travels through life’s complexities. All this needs nurturing, it needs educating, and it needs support and guidance.
While I have had doubts and questions along the way, I’ve continued to believe in a divine power at the core of it all who is nudging me forward with the messages This too shall pass and I am always with you, along with the hope that we’ll all make it through.
Are we, as individuals and families, affected by what is going on in the greater world? Yes and no! We always have a choice. Yet social and political movements can, and do, move us along and pull us into the mainstream of what’s happening around us. There’s no doubt that choices and decisions made can set us off down a new path, inspired by the times, and without clear outcomes in sight. What’s taking place in the public realm at a given period in time can affect and transform the private worlds of those living during that time. The trick is to know when to hold firm to a foundation and when to move forward and take that risk, weighing the possible effects of that risk on those around you.
The changes I’ve seen through my life. the people that have come into my life along the way, the bad times and the good times, have all convinced me that God is not a conservative or a liberal, not a republican or a democrat. God is the binding force of love and is always with us.
The past half-century has given our American society reality check after reality check and a growing-up experience that has been a roller coaster ride. The rapid changes and experimental ideologies brought many who sought the truth of things to take leaps into the unknown. Pioneers of roads not travelled before left the outcomes unknown. The search for enlightenment for many has brought a full-circle realization that some truths are eternal. What appeared to be reality in the Fifties was opened to scrutiny in the Sixties.
So, I write my story as an effort to show one woman’s attempt to sift through these decades in America. What I’ve learned and what I’ve gained or lost is life. Though each one of us has come from different social, ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds, one day we all find ourselves looking back and arriving at a place where we come to peacefully accept this life, a life that is full of hopes and dreams, as well as shams and broken promises. What takes place in the public realm at any given period in time affects and transforms the private worlds of those living during that time.
“May this candle be a light for You to enlighten me in my difficulties and decisions.
May it be a fire for You to burn out of me all pride, selfishness and impurity.
May it be a flame to bring warmth into my heart towards my family, my neighbors,
and all those in need.
I cannot stay for long, but I wish to give You something of myself.
Help me continue my prayer.”
From Wild Decembers
By Edna O’Brien