Eli and Gloria, sans spectacles, circa 1956
My folks come in for a lot of teasing on this blog, but this is a post celebrating them for raising me right.
My father’s parents were not extensively educated. They’d emigrated from Russia as children. They ran a small, often failing grocery store in a rough part of Brooklyn. I never knew my paternal grandfather, but my dad’s mum was a sweet, daft woman. Once, legend has it, she bought coffee beans and forgot to — or didn’t know she should — have them ground. She put a few in the bottom of each cup, added boiling water, and urged guests to smoosh them with their dessert forks.
My mother’s parents were different. My grandfather was already successful when he emigrated from Austria, and ran his own printing and engraving company. My grandmother’s people originally came from the same Austrian village his had, but she alone of my forbears was born in the US. She attended Julia Richmond High School, in Brooklyn, but afterwards went to work, not university. She slogged alongside her husband, keeping his business thriving while also keeping their home.
My parents met at Queen’s College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Mom dropped out midway — against everyone’s advice — to get married. She later told me she’d have done anything to get out of her parents’ house. Dad finished, earned his masters, and went on to get a PhD from New York University. He spent the remainder of his life in academia. Mom returned to uni in the seventies, getting her sheepskin a year before I picked up my high school diploma.
I offer this background to show that I don’t come from a long line of progressive thinkers. If you’ll remember, when I was a kid I once repeated an anecdote that included the word lesbian and both my grannies burst into tears right there at the dinner table. Shouting, “I used the word, I didn’t say I was one,” didn’t have the emollient effect I’d hoped for. “You shouldn’t even know the word,” was their simultaneous response.
Somehow, despite their own upbringings, my parents were largely without prejudices. Or as my mother used to say, “I’m bigoted, all right — I hate people who are stupid.”
Mom had a lot of similar pronouncements, which I heard from the cradle. She told me that mankind invented religion to explain away its fears. She told me that everyone was born bisexual, but that society conditioned us to go one direction or the other. She told me Rock Hudson was gay (in the 1960s) and having it off with Gomer Pyle. There was no judgement in this, she merely wanted me square on the facts, just as she wanted me to know that Doris Day was not a virgin but was covered in freckles that make-up artists slaved to erase. (I never saw her read a gossip magazine, yet she always had scoop.)
She also told me that her best friend from high school was a lesbian. And that when, in 1957, she wanted this woman for her bridesmaid (my teenaged aunt was a kind of junior auxiliary), my granny had a hairy fit. After much unpleasant wrangling my mother asked someone else. That woman rang two days before the wedding in floods of tears, saying, “I can’t be your bridesmaid, I’m in love with Eli!”
Mom had her gay bridesmaid after all, and a chance to stick her tongue out at my gran. It was one of her favourite recreations and surely added to the joys of the day.
As well, during my childhood, the world was in turmoil. One of my earliest memories is JFK’s murder. In short (and likely incorrect) order Martin Luther King Jr, Robert Kennedy, and students at Kent State were gunned down. Cities caught fire with riots. Rock stars died in bathtubs. Another Kennedy left Mary Jo Kopechne to die at the bottom of a pond. There were Yippies and hippies and Black Panthers and SDS and other groups challenging the status quo, whose names tripped off my tongue when I was in primary school. The Vietnam war raged. Despite his youth, when the draft lottery was created, I feared for my wee brother, vowing I’d personally take him to Canada. I wore POW bracelets.
That’s a lot of violence for a child to take for granted as normal — which I did, until I was in my thirties and sat up blinking and astounded, scratching my head. While it’s not the same as living through the Blitz, and not a patch on what children in the Middle East and elsewhere are enduring right this minute, I’m sure it helped shape my personality.
Also in the background — talked about in school, at home, and rolling past on the news — was the Civil Rights movement. More than anything, then as now, I felt that the things being fought for should have gone without saying. You should not have to enact fundamental human rights by law. (See also: equal marriage.)
Let me not paint too rosy a picture. My brother and I didn’t have gender neutral toys. My parents were not political activists. They didn’t have scores of African American or other friends representing minority cultures, though I’d ascribe that more to opportunity than anything else. In my school there were only three black families that I can remember, a smattering of children with Korean or Chinese backgrounds, and no Indians. I am sure the demographics of suburban Long Island are very different now.
Nevertheless, Mom and Dad raised us to be colour-blind, sexuality blind, and gender blind. They assumed I’d get an education, have a career, and take full advantage of contraception and reproductive freedom. They made sure my brother knew how to clean a house.
They’d have been as appalled as I was when I moved to Scotland and heard people talk about “ordering a Chinky” or “going to the Paki shop”, not to mention uttering the word “coon.” These concepts were not only unspeakable, they were unthinkable.
They took people as they found them, weighing them up according to their personalities and actions rather than their skin, ethnicity, gender or sexual persuasion. I grew up doing the same. I grew up concerned about whether someone loved books and art, not whether their skin matched mine. I grew up presuming that anything sexual occurring between consenting adults was fine and dandy, even if I didn’t care to experience it myself.
I grew up thinking this was all blindingly obvious. In that respect, I grew up stupid. I didn’t appreciate how radical my parents were. I mean I knew they were cooler than most, but not how much that mattered, down the line.
Right now I feel gobsmacked and outraged at the rampant ignorance and unjustified hatred consuming our world. Humanity is going through a moronic phase of epic proportions. Orlando is just one horrific example. There are too many to name here, ranging from the farce that is “who can use the bathroom” to outright genocide. And that’s just the stuff we hear about. Every day, in small unrecorded ways, people are bashed about because of who they are. This is outrageous. It has to stop.
I don’t often wish my parents on anyone else — there are issues — but I really do wish all children had the opportunity to grow up believing that the world has room for everyone and that differences are to be ignored, absorbed, or celebrated, but not punished.
If you’re raising kids, you have the opportunity to make this so. Take it. Please.