Monday, December 5, 2016

For Sarah Kendzior, Part 2: The Struggles Of My Ancestors


I spoke of my mother's struggle in my last post. I did not embellish it with much detail, but I owe it to her to say that she did her best to overcome her hardships and in some important respects, she succeeded. Neither my sister nor I would be the people we are today were it not for her sacrifices, and for her compassion that was always evident and passed on to us by example.

Mom always saw the good in people, but she often didn't allow that it might not have made them who they were. She didn't have the best judgment when it came to people who came into her life, and all too often, it resulted in her being taken advantage of. The details are incidental to the effect this had on me, but I'll say that I learned from this, too.  I just wish it didn't have to hurt so much. It left me bitter, and I have yet to overcome that.

I do try to see the good in people, and I try really hard to give the benefit of the doubt. My mother's troubles, however, have left me with a kind of radar that is sensitive to gimmicks and lies. I cannot deny that there may be some good in the gimmickers and liars, or that perhaps their own struggles have influenced their behavior in ways they might, on some level, be ashamed of. Knowing this, I will often give people a second chance, but there is a law of diminishing returns.

I'll have more to say about Mom when I get to my own biography. I'll bring up more about my colorful ancestry some other time.


My father had a great deal to overcome. He was one of four children born to a small-town couple in rural Indiana. He came of age at the time of the Great Depression. The Depression hit the rural Midwest especially hard. In the midst of this, his father, a grandfather I would never know, just picked up and left one day, never to return. The bitterness of this experience left him and his siblings literally speechless about their father. Dad never talked about him, save for one thing he told me that I will get to later. Neither did his brothers. My aunt on his side died when I was young, but I presume she never talked about it either.

A few years ago, one of my cousins did some research on him, and was able to piece together a history and some of the details of his life before and after he abandoned his family. Thanks to her efforts, I was finally able to understand a little about him. He was himself abandoned by his single mother, who left him in the care of his grandparents, to pursue a life with another man, and to have a family with him. She never came back for my grandfather. I cannot fathom the scars this must have left him with, but it does lend some understanding of why he left his own family - even if I cannot forgive him.

My grandmother was as tough and enduring as iron. She had enough of an education to work as a schoolteacher in the small Indiana town where she lived. Playing piano at a local church brought in a little more money. Dad and his brothers would do what they could to help out, working in the fields at harvest time, taking whatever odd jobs they could get. They were able to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads until WWII came along and the economy picked up. 

At the onset of the war, Dad and his older brother enlisted in the Navy. This brings me to the point where I can talk about the only conversation Dad ever had with his father that he shared with me. My grandfather told him, "Look, if there's ever a war, do whatever you can to stay out of it. You can make money in a war."

Dad used to tell me a story about how he joined the Navy because he didn't want to get drafted. I believed him, and I was OK with it, but I discovered after his death that the story was bunk. I obtained his service records from the VA, intending to see if I could get him some kind of memorial. The records included his enlistment date: January, 1942, a little less than 4 weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dad told me another story of how he was rejected at his first attempt at enlistment because of his asthma. A trainer at his gym helped him to get the rattle out of his chest long enough to pass the physical on his second try. This explains the brief delay between December 7 and his enlistment date. It was true that he didn't want to wait to get drafted. He wanted to get into the fight as soon as he could.

Dad met my mother while he was stationed at a Navy training center in Toledo. They married and conceived my sister before he shipped out to the Pacific. There, he participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a successful campaign that allowed the Americans to retake the Philippines. Dad was stationed there for the duration of the war. He would tell me stories of his war years over and over again, and I hung on every word, every time. At the war's end, he had attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer, which he retained through several years in the reserves after the war.

So much for my grandfather's advice. Like everyone who accepted the call of duty in that terrible war, Dad was a hero. I am immensely proud of his service to this country, and it is as much for his sake as for mine and my daughter's that I'm not about to let this country be destroyed from within.

Dad's hardships, the bitterness of his abandonment, and the terrors of war made him strong, but it also led him to seek refuge in a bottle of gin. This ultimately led to the unraveling of my family and my own abandonment after the divorce. Dad always paid his child support on time, but he didn't visit my sister and me more than 2 or 3 times in the 4 years until my mother's death. I was in my teens then, and very much in need of a father. His absence from my life left me with some scars of my own.

When Mom died midway through my senior year in high school, I moved in with him. He always saw to it that I had a good dinner, money for lunch, and that my other material needs were met, but he couldn't bring himself to stop drinking. Many evenings, he left me alone to go to the bar down the street. As a small businessman, he worked almost every day, so I still didn't get to see him very much in the short time I lived with him. The summer following my high school graduation, I went off to college on a small scholarship I'd been awarded. I would return home from time to time after that, but it was the end of my life with him. 

By and by, my own life became very tangled - more on that in a future post - and I had to hit him up for money once in a while, but I was living in another city then, and I only went home at Christmas and a few other times. I had failed at college and was living hand to mouth, taking a succession of shitty jobs just to get by. This would continue for several years. By my mid-20s, I came to realize that my life was going nowhere, so I enrolled in a local community college to pursue an associate degree in electronics. I worked in a small factory by day and attended classes at night. After 2 years of this, I was faced with a terrible dilemma. In order to keep my tuition support from the state, I had to take at least 3 classes per term, and I had run out of options for night school. I would have to quit my job or limit my classes. This was not really an option, as I would lose my tuition support and it would take me another 2½ years to graduate.

I went to my father, hat in hand, to ask him for help. By then, we were completely estranged, and he did not know what I had been doing the past two years. I brought him my transcripts - nearly all A's - and explained my situation to him. Years before, I had failed him by flunking out of college on his dime, so asking him for help was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

He did not hesitate. He asked me for an estimate of my living expenses, and he carried me through my final year of school, which allowed me to graduate and take a good job afterward. For all the disappointments, and despite his flaws, he had never given up on me. He was my father.

It was through adversity that I learned perseverance. But it was from Dad that I learned about giving second chances. The second chances we each gave to the other.

Friday, December 2, 2016

For Sarah Kendzior, Part I: My Values and My Dreams

This is my 13th blog entry in 4½ years. As the title says, I have nothing much to say. This is about to change.

A few days ago, I read an article by Sarah Kendzior, a writer and anthropologist who studies autocratic regimes in Central Asia. It's a short read; I invite you to read it in its entirety before moving on to the grumbles that comprise the remainder of this post. For more of her work, read her book and follow her on Twitter:

What are my values? What are my dreams?

It's hard to answer these questions without covering some of the other things Kendzior talks about in her article. I need to say a bit about myself, my family of origin, and my roots. I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, USA, in the heart of what is now known as the Rust Belt. Toledo had not yet rusted during my formative years, and I can talk about the way life was then.

I was born to a middle-class family. My father had a small business which supplied enough income for us to have a modest house, a good car, and even a small summer place in Michigan. I have a sister 5 years my senior who now lives in Florida. My mother stayed home with us until I was old enough to come home from school with a latchkey, then she took a job as a legal secretary.

Our house, our car, and our other chattels were very like those belonging to the other families in our neighborhood. Most of my neighbors worked in the auto plants, the glass factories, and other industrial workplaces that were the heart of Toledo's economy. Life was good. This was the 1950s, a period of relative calm and prosperity for most of the country. This was a time when you could take a job in an auto plant or a glass factory and bring home enough money to own a modest home, drive a good car, and have enough left over to save a little and take vacations with your family.

Like many Americans, I long for such times again. This is a common sentiment echoed throughout our country as a whole, and the Midwest in particular, among those of us old enough to remember them. We will never see these times again. Most of the factories are shuttered or just plain gone. Gone, too, are the social institutions and structures that made that idyllic life possible. We had strong unions then, giving common people the collective clout to bargain for a good life in the face of rising corporations that made enough profit to expand despite having to pay their workers a decent wage.

We had an equitable tax code that compelled the wealthy to pay for the privilege of living in a country with vast resources and an efficient infrastructure built by the common people. All work was valued and rewarded. Almost anyone who wanted to make a living was entitled to respect. Almost.

There was an ugly side to 50s America. Throughout the country, and particularly in the southern states, African Americans and other people of color were denied even the chance to make a living, to earn respect. As the decade came to a close, these people were fighting a pitched battle for the rights all of us white folk took for granted - a good school for our children, a chance at a good job, respect. Those Americans who preferred the status quo fought back hard. The struggle was turbulent, often violent, often bloody. The status quo was wrong, evil. It had to change, and change it did. I changed with it.

When I was a child, I would hear others talking about African Americans in ways that are now considered deplorable, yet were perfectly acceptable in conversation then. I don't want to repeat the slurs I heard, but I can tell you how I came to disbelieve them. Our comfortable middle-class income provided us enough money to hire an African American woman named Beulah - I never knew her last name - to help my mother with the housework a few days a month. Beulah was a sweet, kind person who always had a smile and something nice to say to me. She and my mother would work side by side cleaning the floors, vacuuming the drapes, putting out the laundry. They would speak to one another in pleasant conversational tones. Mom never talked down to her. Mom treated her with respect.

Mom and Beulah taught me that all of the things I was hearing about African Americans was bullshit. I believed it as a child, as I do now. Although I yearn for the American Dream I lived as a child, I cannot live in a society where people are denied the respect they deserve because of the color of their skin, their gender, where they came from, or who they love. This is a core value, and it is one I fear I will not realize in the years remaining to me.

My mother was taken from me far too soon. My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and in the mere four years that ensued until her death, I watched her struggle, carrying the impossible weight of supporting her children in a society where women were expected to stay home and cook, clean, shop, and otherwise stay out of the way. The memories of her struggle are indelible. At the end, it became too much for her. She died reaching for the love and respect she deserved, only to discover she had been used.

I never talk about the circumstances of my mother's death except to people who become very close to me, but I can tell you that her death did not shape me in the way her life did. My mother once took in a fledgling sparrow that had fallen from its nest. She loved animals. She adored children. She was kind to everyone who had any presence in her life. She hated no one. In these things, I aspire to be like Mom. And I do not want to live in a society where any woman must struggle the way she did. I strive to be kind. I hope that I can in some way inspire kindness in others as she did in me. This is a core value, but it is one that is attainable if I can reach even one other person. If I can leave this world having brought a little kindness into it, I will not have lived in vain. This is the only dream remaining to me for my own sake.

The future of the world, to the extent that I will matter in the years to come, is in the hands of my 11-year-old daughter. She came to me very late in life, at a time when I had given up hope of ever having children and continuing my line. She is a miracle, and she is my blessing. She is also a lot of work, more work than I ever had at any job I ever held, but every day she gives me the will to carry on for as long as I can. I must do this for her. My dream for the future is that she will carry on for me. If I can teach her anything she will remember in a time of decision, in a time of crisis, my dream will be fulfilled.

Kendzior warns us that dark times are looming. I have no doubt that she is right, and I fear that I will not live to see the end of them. My daughter must. She must grow up in a place where she can have dreams of her own. My job now is to see that she has the values she will need to see her through to that place.