The curse of the English major is that everything’s a metaphor. It seems to be catching. Bleak political prognosticators have been warning, “Winter’s coming!” apropos of, well, everything in the news. Fear and division hang like a chilling haze — but I’ve been kindling my spirits by digging into my family’s roots for lessons of diversity, warmth, and empathy. Deep down, our families — together — hold this wisdom for us to recall.
For example, my paternal grandmother, who would have been 100 this year, grew up in Chicago, among Czech-speaking immigrants who clung to their heritage while relishing the freedom of American culture. (In the 1920s my grandma achieved local fame for dancing “the black bottom”). By the time I was born in 1966, she’d relocated to Denver, where she taught the grandkids to make yeast-raised kolacky with gritty poppyseed filling and told stories of her childhood visit to South Bend, where she saw a cross burning on a lawn. She lived her final years in a Denver high rise mostly filled with Japanese immigrants, who shared very different stories of American prejudice and freedom. My short Czech grandma blended right in with those little Japanese elders. They teased each other about stinky food — sauerkraut versus pickled fish — and I learned how to count in Japanese, as well as how to pick up a foxy lady in Czech — a glorious tangle of ethnic roots.
My maternal grandfather’s ticket off the Kansas farm was his speed — he ran track for Emporia State College and sports became his point of contact for strangers all his long life. When he retired, he traveled all over the U.S. in a Karmann Ghia sports car pulling a tiny trailer, making friends from New England to New Mexico with his foolproof method of asking locals where to eat and wearing “one piece of remarkable clothing” — often sports-related — to spark a conversation with a newfound comrade.
My dad, a happy Colorado transplant, taught me to ski at age 2 and ride a bicycle in the public library parking lot at age 5 (thereby fusing my love of both bikes and books). He worked as a plumber, and taught me about labor unions and the power of strikes — and sometimes their disappointments. His work truck with a lanky ladder and clanking tools parked in front of our house reminded me of the network of pipes —for water and sewage— that connected the richest and poorest residents of the community. Embodiment is a leveler; no one knows that like a plumber.
My mom, proud of her Scots-English heritage, has an ancestor who nursed George Washington at Valley Forge, and is related to one of the few women to serve as a Scottish clan Chief — Madame Pauline Hunter of Hunterston. My mom left her small California hometown behind to be a glamorous stewardess for Continental in 1960. She learned French, visited Paris on an airline discount, and met my dad on a ski slope in Colorado, where she surmised the cute fellows were hanging out. (She was right.) They raised my sister and me to read widely, discuss politics, enjoy long hikes and terrifying ski slopes, and to respect human diversity. In their retirement, they learned Spanish and drove their modest truck camper into little villages in Mexico where they practiced the language with humility and shared meals and laughter with strangers.
Gloria Steinem, that second-wave feminist who still waxes revolutionary in her 82nd year, has said women are the only group that grows more radical with age — but my experience tells me otherwise. Being radical means getting down to the roots. Our roots, tangled and life-giving. Ours are stories of survivors, or we would not be here. Our country needs our expertise. On January 14, you can be part of this year’s Little Taste of Peace, a chance to share small bites and big ideas, as community members turn hope into action and consider how we can stand up for one another. On January 20, if you’re not bussing to Washington D.C. for — well, you know — consider joining in the diverse, community-building alternative inauguration event in South Bend that’s percolating now. Details to come!
Winter may be here, but this is no time to be frozen. Remember your roots; radical empathy courses through our bodies, and can again in the body politic. Back to metaphor: it’s time to force the spring.