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


Ibadly needed to go to the bathroom. I ducked into Starbucks on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. As I stepped through the doors into the icy air conditioning, I heard a familiar song:

God of the poor man, this is how the day began

Eight codefendants, I Daniel Berrigan….

And all my country saw

Were priests who broke the law

First it was a question, then it was a mission

How to be American, how to be a Christian….

Yep, Starbucks was playing my song, the song about my Uncle Dan. Dar Williams’s song “I Had No Right” is a ballad to the Catonsville Nine, who were arrested in May 1968 after raiding a draft board office outside Baltimore and burning thousands of draft records with homemade napalm. That all happened more than forty five years ago, but people—Catholics mostly—still remember. I brace myself in situations where I am meeting a lot of new people. I want people to know my family history but, at the same time, I also want to live on my own terms. Most of the questions come from men of a certain age, who ask variations on “any relation?” when they hear that my last name is Berrigan.

Growing up, we would visit Uncle Dan at his apartment on 98th Street in New York City. Dad would park our little red Volvo (we called her Susie) on the street and every hour or so he would go check on it. Good thing too, because one time a guy tried to sell him a battery. Turns out it was Little Susie’s battery. We would bring all our belongings into the building, up eleven stories in the elevator, and we would fill Uncle Dan’s small apartment with all our bags. Otherwise they would be stolen.

We loved these times with our uncle, when Mom and Dad would relax and laugh and enjoy Dan’s amazing food and strong drinks. We would each wait expectantly for our personal audience with Dan. It was usually short, but it was always satisfying and often exhilarating. He was unlike any other adult we had ever met—puckish and serious at the same time, irreverent but reverential, and so creative. He would describe catfish pizza and other strange delicacies. He took us to the Big Apple Circus, to Central Park, to the zoo. He made us feel so special.

For my eighth birthday, my mom and dad gave me a fabric-covered book. Inside were a dozen poems Uncle Dan wrote for me when I was born. My mom had lettered them in her own careful, beautiful script and pasted in pictures of me. The rest of the pages were left blank for my own writing. On the inside cover, my parents wrote: “We don’t expect you to understand all of them yet, but you can begin to read and grow with them.” When Uncle Dan sent them to my parents in April 1974, he included a note that read in part: “I send these with trepidation. They are uneven; but then so is life, no?” I have no way of judging whether they are uneven or not. I was not an English major. They are heavy-duty poems, however, full of big words that no eight-year-old would know: “deprivations,” “beatific,” “quisling,” “hieroglyphics”…you get the idea. There are even some made-up words like “supramundane” and allusions to Blake, Dante, and the Bible. I have not delved deep into the Daniel Berrigan, SJ canon. It would take some time—there are dozens of books with great titles like Testimony: The Word Made Fresh, No Bars to Manhood, Steadfastness of the Saints, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, Love, Love at The End. But I marvel at his craft and his command of language, written and spoken. He is wry and principled, insightful and informal, but never one-dimensional. I don’t know all the pivotal dates and important moments in his long career as a poet, peace activist, and priest, but I love being his niece. I love the intimacy of the familial relationship with just a touch of formality that would not be present in a father-daughter bond. I have always had a close and special relationship with the man who gave me poetry for my very first birthday.

These days, Uncle Dan is staying at the Jesuit residence at Fordham University in the Bronx. He walks a little more slowly, speaks a little more quietly, but he is no less integrated into the work of peace and justice. It takes us three trains and three hours to get from Connecticut to the Bronx, but it is a trek I enjoy making every month or so. I love catching up with my uncle. I also love how happy Seamus makes all the elderly Jesuits. During lunch, Seamus usually wanders the dining hall holding two metal spoons, pausing to wave and giggle and chat. The men, Jesuit priests in their eighties and nineties, are frail. Some are in wheelchairs and some walk with canes or walkers. They have no children or grandchildren of their own, and there aren’t many kids who visit the place regularly. So everyone knows Seamus’s name.

There is something almost magical about watching your child fall in love with someone you loved and cherished as a child. It is as satisfying as adding to the circle of life by gracing your mother with a grandchild, but somehow more miraculous. You don’t choose who your child falls in love with. My son Seamus has fallen for his granduncle Dan hard. It is transporting: I remember my childhood delight at this man. Then I see it mirrored in my son’s eyes and I am a child again.

Dan delights in Seamus, who grabs his hands, trying to shove his gnarled old fingers into his gummy little mouth. They beam at each other and coo. I have little doubt that he will be introduced to the delights of catfish pizza in a few years.

In the meantime, when Seamus and I visit Uncle Dan at the Jesuit nursing home at Fordham, we try to make it in time for the daily Mass. There is nothing like going to Mass and being one of three or four non-priests in the room. Once, when it was almost time for communion, the room was warm and quiet, and a priest in a long robe and stole walked towards the back of the chapel, chalice in hand. He was followed by a woman carrying the host. Seamus was standing in the middle of the aisle, his hands behind his back, transfixed by the priest’s ornate garb. He was in the man’s way. I swooped in to pick him up and all eyes followed him as we tried to fade into the woodwork.

My toddler was well behaved throughout the rest of Mass. He sat on my lap and gazed at the stained glass windows, took in the unfamiliar surroundings, and played peek-a-boo with some of the people sitting near us. I put him down because he seemed calm and innately respectful of his surroundings. He did not run or scream; he moved slowly and touched things and people gently. In short, he was delighted to be in this place and the old men attending the Mass were delighted as well.

Can older people in assisted-living facilities or nursing homes be close to kids as they laugh and learn and play? Can those close to the end of their lives and those just starting out enjoy life together?

Toddlers and senior citizens at ONEgeneration Daycare outside of Los Angeles participate in activities like painting, gardening, and reading together. A New York Times article about the facility notes that “compared to their peers in traditional preschools, children in intergenerational daycare programs are more patient, express more empathy, exhibit more self-control, and have better manners.”

And while the older people are not actually changing diapers or feeding the babies, they do feel needed and useful, and are often more focused and happy when the little kids are around. In a society that has no place for older people and treats aging like a long and unpleasant illness instead of a natural part of life, that feeling of purpose is rare and life-affirming. There are three hundred similar facilities around the United States.

This intergenerational care model is not the only way that the young and old are converging in the United States. All over this country, grandparents are raising their children’s children. According to recent Census data, nearly five million children live with their grandparents, which is up from 4.5 million ten years ago. The tough economy, incarceration, unplanned pregnancies, social services intervention, military deployment, mental illness, and many other factors contribute to this phenomenon. It is definitely necessary in some instances, but it is a tough assignment to be one-on-one with a toddler in your fifties, sixties, or seventies.

Research shows that grandparents who are responsible for the care of grandchildren are more likely to be depressed or have health problems compared to peers who enjoy time with grandchildren but don’t have to get them to school every morning, chase them around every afternoon, and tuck them in every night. It is interesting to view that data against the backdrop of the positive impact for older people of programs like ONEgeneration, where they interact with and relate to young children but are not primarily responsible for their upbringing.

At ONEgeneration, the kids and seniors call each other “neighbor.” The little kids often greet elderly strangers at the mall or the library in the same fashion: “Hello neighbor.” I love that. It makes me think about how communities used to be smaller and more intimate places where you lived your whole life and knew everyone by sight or reputation.

As we go through our days together, at the grocery store, in the library, on the street, Seamus makes a point of greeting all the people we encounter. He waves, he makes eye contact, he reaches out, he says hi. He doesn’t have the language to say, “Hello neighbor” yet, but he’s got the spirit of it alright. Seamus encourages me—no, compels me—to slow down, to engage with people, to get out of my head and be in the world. He helps me live more in the kind of time my Uncle Dan has always inhabited, that of the artist, the contemplative, with an open and listening heart.