It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (2015)


Dad was born in 1923 and turned six years old two weeks before Black Tuesday in 1929. The youngest of six brothers, he watched his mother welcome the travelers who crowded the roads, looking for work far from their families. My dad’s own family was poor but they shared what they had. These early experiences of poverty, of seeing a nation unravel, of experiencing whole communities forced onto the open road, marked my father and informed his approach to life. I did not know my father as a priest. The old black-and-white photos of the handsome, well-dressed cleric do not fit neatly next to the grizzled housepainter and working man I knew as my father. But I did understand my dad as a person struggling to be faithful, as one whose deliberations were studded with Biblical insights.

My dad’s advice in every situation was drawn from his faith, which was a lived, applied, and practical discipline. His faith was never taken for granted. It was a tool he used, again and again, to carve hope out of despair, light out of darkness, community out of alienation.

In October of 1968 (six and a half years before I was born), my dad was on trial—along with eight others—for burning and pouring blood on the paperwork of war, the draft files that sent young men off to Vietnam. They were called the Catonsville Nine. He would be sentenced to three and a half years in jail.

This is what he told the judge:

From those in power we have met little understanding, much silence; much scorn and punishment. We have been accused of arrogance. But what of the fantastic arrogance of our leaders? What of their crimes against the people, the poor and powerless? Still no court will try them, no jail will receive them. They live in righteousness. They will die in honor. For them we have one message, for those in whose manicured hands the power of the land lies, we say to them: Lead us. Lead us in justice and there will be no need to break the law. Let the president do what his predecessors failed to do. Let him obey the rich less and the people more. Let him think less of the privileged and more of the poor. Less of America and more of the world. Let lawmakers, judges, and lawyers think less of the law, and more of justice; less of legal ritual, more of human rights. To our bishops and superiors we say: Learn something about the gospel and something about illegitimate power. When you do, you will liquidate your investments, take a house in the slums, or even join us in jail… .

Again and again, throughout his life, in courts all over the country, my father stood resolute and righteous before power. He would accept the consequences of his actions without flinching. My brother and sister and I watched him walk into prison fearless and full of joy more times than we can count.

He was a fearless activist, but he was also a father who made fearsome oatmeal—flavorless hot muck designed to “stick to your ribs.” When it came to this particular abuse of power, my siblings and I played the impassioned activists and he was the heartless and impassive judge.

But, rather than be late for school, we ate the oatmeal and pulled our stocking hats low over our ears as instructed before leaving the house. He would watch us for two blocks to make sure the hats stayed on. Try telling the man who does not blink at a five-year prison sentence that only geeks wear winter hats.

My mom is fearless too. For instance, she’s always touching things in museums, in defiance of the signs prohibiting this. Otherwise enjoyable afternoons at the National Gallery or the American Visionary Art Museum have been marred by me hissing at my mom and pointing out the “Do Not Touch” signs.

Unfortunately, the same person who cuts through a military fence emblazoned with “No Trespassing” signs and festooned with barbed wire in order to disarm nuclear weapons delivery systems, forcing a confrontation with young military personnel authorized to use deadly force, is unlikely to be intimidated by “Do Not Touch” signs at museums watched by security guards in ill-fitting uniforms.

When my brother and I were little, we got our bikes stolen a lot. We were easy marks: white, pudgy, and well-meaning, living in a tall crowded row house full of other well-meaning people.

“Hey shorty, lemme hold that bike.” We would “share,” then the bike would be gone. We were always afraid to go home without our bikes because it meant getting into the car with mom and searching the neighborhood. We begged her to just buy us new bikes, but it never worked.

No matter how big and intimidating the boys who “held” our bikes were to us, they seemed small as they handed our bikes back to our mom after mutely enduring her condemnation. They might have mumbled or glared as she stowed the rusty old bikes in the back of the car, but they did it quietly and behind her back.

It was not just neighborhood kids who faced our mom’s fearsomeness. Once, demonstrating against war and nuclear proliferation at the White House, Mom held onto the end of her banner with her teeth as the police twisted her arm behind her back and cuffed her.

She is tough, but as kids we also watched her joke with the Pentagon workers and the police. Handing out leaflets, she would address anyone in uniform as “General” or “Admiral.” Even the toughest patriot had to smile at this energetic sprite’s cheerful irreverence. It did not mean they took the dense, anti-militarist tract she was handing out, but sometimes just getting them to smile was more important. I leaned on that fierceness even as an adult. When I sunk a thousand dollars into a lemon of a car a few years after college graduation, she took me to the mechanic and convinced him to give me my money back and keep the car. I was floored that he actually agreed to it, and I was shaken by her power. I had been ready to walk away from the money the same way I had wanted to walk away from my bike all those times.

She’s just one of those people who makes things happen. Using plans that she copied out of a library book, she built loft beds in our rooms and a play loft above a sandbox in our miniature backyard when we were little. The sandbox quickly became the neighborhood cats’ favorite spot to poop, but the playscape was awesome and helped to anchor us and our neighborhood friends at home at a time when lots of kids were just wandering the streets.

Once, as we were just finishing cleaning up after dinner, she took the electric saw to the dining room table and buzzed eight inches from each end. I guess the table was too long, and she had finally had enough. Cockroaches came pouring out of the ends, their nests destroyed. She thought it was so funny, and we all stomped cockroaches with mad delight.

There were times when my mom did struggle. In the early 1980s, she spent two years in a West Virginia prison for a Plowshares action. My brother and I were tweens and our sister was just a toddler.

That was tough, but she made it seem like she was on a retreat. She quit smoking, did yoga, went for long walks, worked on the grounds crew, and built lasting friendships. All the while, she knew more about our daily activities, triumphs, and tribulations from the Alderson Federal Prison Camp than most moms do while living under the same roof as their kids.

But now that I am older, and I watch how she worries and struggles when my brother or sister or I are arrested for nonviolent peace actions, I have a better sense of how hard it was for her to be away from us when we were kids.

Mom struggled deeply when our dad got sick. After hip surgery in 2002, he healed very slowly and felt lousy for months. We took him to the doctor. The verdict came back harsh: aggressive Stage IV cancer. The doctors said they could treat it with chemotherapy, but the chances of a full recovery were slight. Dad was up for trying chemo and wanted to give the doctors—oncologists at the top of their game at Johns Hopkins—a chance. But after one round of chemo, he said, “No more.”

Mom gathered us all in—not just my brother and sister and I, but the whole community. Hundreds of people came to take care of him, of us, of one another. They came to help him die, and to help us grieve. And through all of this, she made it happen—laughter, tears, raucous memory sharing, meatballs, roses, and torches.

Friends from far and wide offered alternative cures, advice, great stories of teas and herbs that (against all odds) had allowed them to live cancer-free. But our dad sat us down and told us that he was seeking healing, not a cure, putting his faith in God and in us. He asked us to pray for healing and for our faith to be strong in the months to come. He asked us to start preparing for a life without him.

He was not afraid, he told us. He loved us and he was sad, but he would be ready. And then, with clear eyes and a lot of compassion, he got down to the hard work of dying with dignity.

The hallmark of the next few months was gratitude. I would sit and read with him. “Thanks, Freeds,” he’d say. My sister would bring him a drink. “Thanks, love,” he’d say. My brother would spend time with him. “Thanks for giving an old man a lift,” he’d say. My mom, the Jonah House community, the continuous stream of friends and relatives who came to say hello, spend some time, and say goodbye all experienced the same thing—thanksgiving. Dad allowed no gesture, however small, to go unappreciated.

When some of the day-to-day care became too much for us, we brought in hospice care. They were amazing. They respected what we were doing—loving our dad on his journey to death. Letting him die the way he lived: surrounded by people, surrounded by love, resisting the medical-industrial-complex.

Dad stopped eating and did not want to drink. His breath grew labored. Magnified by the baby monitor in his room, his breathing became the off-kilter metronome of our days, as we planned the funeral, shared stories and memories, prayed, cried, and laughed.

On December 6, 2002, sometime after dinner, he died. He died at Jonah House, and more than thirty of his friends, family, and community members were there. We had walked the last weeks with him.

Each of us wept, probing the hole that his absence would leave in our lives. We stood around him and prayed, cried, and said goodbye. There was gratitude too—that his long, painful journey was over. We were all confident that we gained a powerful advocate in heaven. The pine box that my brother and friends made was ready, beautifully painted by the iconographer Bill McNichols. We prepared the body and laid him in the coffin in dry ice.

The wake and funeral were at Saint Peter Claver, where Dad had served as a priest decades earlier. The night after the wake, we gathered around him one last time and then nailed the coffin closed. I remember my Uncle Jim, my dad’s oldest living brother at the time, driving nails deep with just two whacks of the hammer, in contrast to my own clumsy, off-center pings.

The next morning was cold, clear, and so beautiful. Dad was loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and my sister Kate, our sister-in-law Molly, and I rode in the truck with him. Other people carried signs and banners as we processed the mile or so to the church for the funeral Mass. I don’t remember that much of the service, but it was a strangely happy occasion. Dad was gone, but he was still so present in the room full of people who loved him. That presence was the theme of the eulogy that Kate and I wrote, which read in part:

He is here with us every time a hammer strikes on killing metal, transforming it from a tool of death to a productive, life-giving, life-affirming implement.

He is here with us every time a member of the church communicates the central message of the gospel (thou shalt not kill) and acts to oppose killing, rather than providing the church seal of approval on war.

He is here whenever joy and irreverent laughter and kindness and hard work are present.

He is here every time we reach across color and class lines and embrace each other as brother and sister.

We ended by saying, “Thanks, Dad, for lessons in freedom, inside and outside of prison. And thanks to all of you for struggling toward freedom and working to build a just and peaceful world. Our dad lives on in you.” I have only seen my mother cry a few times. She broke down at my dad’s grave—wept and sobbed as he was being lowered into it, with the torches and snow and music evoking some sort of timeless Viking ritual.

She broke, and then she began to remake herself. For the last twelve years, she has continued a life of community, labor, prayer, organizing, resistance, studying the Bible, and innovation. She devotes time and energy to her prodigious gift for art. Donkeys, goats, llamas, and guinea fowl have joined the Jonah House community and now quarrel and push one another at feeding time. Six incredible youngsters now call her Grandma, showering her with sloppy kisses and clumsy drawings and pawing her with sticky hands. She wears her “Grandmothers for Peace” sweatshirt like a banner—fiercely and with great love.

Now that I am a mom, I do more than rely on my parents’ fierceness. I shake my head in awe at what they were able to accomplish. Their basic competency, indomitable strength, spiritual consistency, and indefatigable spirits are guideposts for me as I try to find myself as a parent.

They leave me with big shoes to fill. Big shoes, but many gifts. My mom is quick to reassure me that I’m doing just fine as a mom. My dad always told us that we—his kids—were way ahead of him because he didn’t “wake up” until he was in his forties and we were—God bless us—born awake. I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace. So what can I offer my own children?

The great American poet Wendell Berry calls us to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” That seems to sum up my parents—unlike so many conscientious people, they were not burdened or haunted by the ills of the world. My dad was joyful. My mom still is; in spite of everything they knew and experienced. Why? Because they saw themselves as part of the dynamic that is trying to change the world. With that belief—and lived experience—they endowed us with a moral cheerfulness that is both sustaining and infectious.

My parents showed me that being part of building a new society in the shell of the old is fun, interesting, and refreshing. It brought my sister, brother and I into deep relationships with strange and fascinating people, freed us from the bounds of convention, consumption, and carelessness. It allowed us to be creative; it motivated us to build what you need and share it with neighbors. I see that moral cheerfulness in my husband’s upbringing as well. At our best, Patrick and I draw from that well of strength in our parenting and offer moral cheerfulness to our children.

From our parents, Patrick and I learned how to live well without a lot of money, to speak up for justice in big and small ways, to treasure the richness of diversity, and to value truth and love above pretty much everything else.

What does that look like in practice? Potluck dinners, composting, knowing our neighbors, belonging to the community garden and the food co-op, looking after other people’s children, joyfully embracing chores and family work, pitching in with food and time when a neighbor is in need, advocating for peace and justice, being enthusiastic members of our local Unitarian Universalist church, greeting people by name, cultivating curiosity in our children, having time for each other and for others, sharing what we have, and so much more.

Our life today isn’t a cookie-cutter version of my own childhood—thank goodness—but I am grateful for the many ways in which my unique upbringing informs, complicates, and supports my own parenting.