Thursday, October 29, 2020

Genetics Ain't Politics: A little something about family meals, precious memories, and voting.

Written by  Rosa Caswell

Holy Moses, I am tired! I mean its understandable. One child will drain you, six will have you flat on the floor, gasping for breath, and begging for mercy as they joyously bound and carry on all over the place. Feeling tired always reminds me of my dad. He worked as a telephone installer in rural Pennsylvania. I remember him coming home from work every evening, sitting down to a perfectly timed and hot supper, and as we said grace he would begin with his hands folded and his head bowed. But his hands would inevitably, as if by pure force of gravity, take his glasses off with one side and rub his brow and then his eyes with the other. As a kid, this kind of exhaustion is a mystery. What was so heavy? Was he sad?

This painting was in our house growing up. I always thought it looked a lot like my dad. The painting is named “Grace”. Painted by Rhoda Nyberg, this famous portrait is from a photograph taken in 1918 by her father, Eric Enstrom.

I remember more of Dad's mysterious actions too. During Mass at the “Mea Culpa” – “My Fault”, he would put fist to chest and speak in a deep tone that was both sorrowful and strong; and just in a moment he managed to convey that he believed he was the lowest sinner on the planet. At the consecration he would again bow his head and in barely a whisper repeat: “My Lord and my God.” …again, putting fist to chest, and in that small action was expressed a burning desire to receive God, as if before your eyes his heart was tearing in two, one reaching for the eternal communion and the other dutifully planted in the welfare of his family.   

He was an Irish Catholic through and through, and I have since observed two rather contrasting traits myself and my siblings have inherited from him: On the one hand, many of us have an overzealous conscience. Our necks seem formed as if the constant weight of discernment and righteousness has slowly compacted the bones, as if the muscles in the shoulders pull down every care free musing, lest it escape to conciseness. We are an oh so very serious and somber people.

On the other hand, every one of us 13 children also have a flare for outward expression, especially expression of emotion. Whether it’s in a flick of annoyance sent rippling through the fingers or the grand bravado of a rant that leaves its hearers scathed, I have always loved the way my family can fill every moment with feeling. We laugh and joke till our cheeks are in pain and we have to bend over from lack of oxygen.  We cry in ways you have only seen in the movies, but never in front of dad, because our tears would break his heart and his tears would break our hearts… And of course, we argue with each other with the stubbornness of pit bulls. Never give in! 5 years later….

So, thank goodness we had Mom. She could smile and wave just like the Queen! No matter who she was mad at, or what somebody had done, or how sad so and so felt, she marched through every door with the sweetest demeanor you ever saw. And good luck getting her true feeling out in the open. She always had her smile, and she could whip that thing out in a micro-second. I have memories of her with loads of kitchen work, fighting off the stiff pain of rheumatoid arthritis, grappling with exhaustion, and then all of the sudden the phone would ring and her face and voice would just lift suddenly, like the sun finding a break in a cloud covered sky.  Her smile and light, sweet voice would sail through the receiver. One day, I unplugged the phone on her (several times) just to see if I could make her mad… ;) But naughty children aside, I suspect it was her un-dominatable smile that carried her through 13 births and 5 miscarriages. And to her credit, it was the ability to smile through pain that has kept me upright in many a storm.

Now why on earth am I writing about this? Well for the first time in my life I voted for the opposite party than my own parents. The opposite party that most of my family will be putting their names behind this year. It took a long time. Last election I didn’t vote at all because following your conscience when it directly opposes how you were raised is far more difficult than I ever expected it to be. You see, sometimes it feels like my political opinions define me, it feels as if I have denounced my own family by voting for the horrible ______. And so, my ever-searching mind starts weaving through memories, the fondest ones I have got. Memories that come from childhood, memories that are silent and still and pure.

Is it true, have I cut the ties, have I become someone else? Do I still belong?  

I think I do. My shoulders ache in the same way I knew my father’s did: from the effort of loving his children with every inch of energy he could muster. I can speak with passion and expression, tell stories all day, and probably should get a job acting. And, somehow, I also have a smile I can call up from nowhere whenever a visitor knocks or its time to answer the phone. My mom’s resilient sweetness is something I both love and struggle against within myself. And I wrestle my father’s thoughts and worries every day. The truth is, I am so much like them, and so much a part of them as well, and politics has nothing to do with it. Maybe I will even work up the courage to tell them who I voted for…. next election?


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