Monday, August 31, 2009

What My Grandmother Taught Me

"He convinced us that we could ace the next test, make the varsity team, win the next race--whether it was sailing or politics--and it was okay if we didn't, as long as we tried our best. He did it by letting us know that he believed in us, so we should believe in ourselves."
-- Caroline Kennedy on her Uncle Teddy (August 28, 2009)

On Friday, as friends, colleagues, and family members of Senator Edward M. Kennedy gathered at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, my grandmother was celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday. This particular convergence of events was no small coincidence in my life as it was my grandmother who first introduced me, a six-year-old kid, to Camelot.

In fact, August 28th is a date full of history. It was the 28th of August in 1955 when a young black boy, Emmett Louis Till, was murdered in Money, Mississippi, sparking what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Just two years later, Strom Thurmond would begin his historic, albeit misguided and racist, filibuster against civil rights legislation in the United States Senate. Thirteen years after Till's murder, amidst the March on Washington, a young black preacher gave his "I have a dream..." speech. Five years after King's speech, anti-war protesters would violently clash with police in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, the very convention Senator Kennedy's own brother may have very well been the nominee at had it not been for his assassination two months earlier in Los Angeles. And on Friday, many years and successes later, the country was invited to join a celebration taking place to honor of one of the greatest members to ever serve in the United States Senate.

When I wondered aloud on Friday how a man I never even met could have such an emotional impact on me in his death, I was told by someone very wise that I had met Ted Kennedy in every principle I hold dear. The truth in that statement is immeasurable. I was raised by conservative parents, in a conservative household. Yet, at a young age I was taught Democratic principles by a grandmother whose liberal leanings somehow never reached any of her four children. Of my grandmother's eleven grandchildren and four step-grandchildren, I am the only one who openly aligns with the Democratic party, is pro-choice, and (ironically, given that I am one of the few insured) supports health care reform. It was my grandmother who, while teaching me about history and the Kennedy legacy, taught me to appreciate Democratic principles.

The core values and principles that were instilled in me at a early age through stories about the Kennedy family record of public service have molded my political views as an adult. Through my grandmother's storytelling, I was taught about civil rights, public service, equal opportunity and the larger issue of human rights, charity, responsibility, and citizenship. I was taught that it didn't matter if a person was rich, poor, gay, straight, black, or white, there was a place in this world for every person and a path for each of us to pursue our dreams. I was taught these things through listening to the speeches of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy Kennedy.

My grandmother, who was born and raised in Idaho, married a man largely influenced by his family's southern roots. I grew up knowing that if any of the racist trash that exited my grandfather's mouth ever left mine, my grandmother would quickly put me in my place and I would forever regret whatever hateful thing I had uttered. I learned as a young kid that hatred could lead to a very dangerous place, to the dark places this country saw when a young president was assassinated, a man devoted to civil rights was shot and killed, and a young presidential hopeful was slain.

What my grandmother knew as the daughter of a blind man and the sister of a young developmentally disabled brother, is that this world could be a cruel place for those who were noticeably different. In a time when families of those born with developmental delays were told to lock them up and forget about them, institutionalize them at best, my grandmother took in her youngest brother and raised him almost as her own. As a young mother with four children of her own and a brother with Down Syndrome, my grandmother knew the realities of being mocked in public if not stared at always. This didn't stop my grandmother and she taught each of her children and grandchildren the value of the special people in our lives like her brother. We learned that not only are the disabled a joy, they are a blessing. She knew what the Kennedys knew because of their own sister Rosemary--even those facing the adversity of disability had something to offer.

I remember the small box my grandmother pulled out from underneath her bed the evening she introduced me to Camelot. In the box was a copy of a beautiful book, The Torch Is Passed, and a small thank you card from former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, one of the thousands Mrs. Kennedy's staff mailed to Americans who poured out their love and prayers to the Kennedy family following President Kennedy's assassination. The reverence of that moment is something that even at age six I realized the significance of. That book would one day become mine and the many memories that have been shared because of it, but there is something even greater that has come of the nearly twenty years of my grandmother sharing the Kennedy's with me--an unmatched friendship.

As Senator Chris Dodd was noting Friday evening that Senator Kennedy had been "granted the gift of time," I couldn't help but think of what a blessing it has been to have had my grandmother in my life for the past twenty-four years. Where Ted Kennedy made the most of his 17,ooo plus days in the United States Senate, my grandmother has made the most of her seventy-five years. The lives she has touched reach far beyond my own, though I have tired very hard to make the most of the time I have had with my grandmother. It is because of my grandmother that I am the person I am today. It is because of my grandmother that I saw every principle I hold dear in Ted Kennedy.

Both my grandmother and the Kennedys have taught me so much, influenced my life in so many ways, and like Caroline said of her Uncle Teddy, my grandmother has had a very special way of showing me that she believes in me, so that I can believe in myself. For all the mourning, the rituals, and the celebrations of Senator Kennedy's life, I am not quite ready to let go yet. Not ready to let go of the man who has had such a prominent role in American political life, has represented so much for me, and the man who has meant so much to my grandmother.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Very moving. It sounds like I would have liked your grandmother even though I like very few people.

I can only hope to last long enough to be a similar inspiration to my own grandchildren.

Thanks for sharing.