How does a woman, raised in the south by a father who was a new deal democrat, slowly become a conservative? I always believed that my father, an early neo-conservative, was a major influence on my mother, but as I spend more time with mom since my father’s passing, I think the answer is more complex.
From everything I know about my mother’s early life, she grew up in modest but comfortable circumstances. My grandparents had moved to Florida during the boom times of the 1920’s, and while there, my mother and aunt were born and my grandfather went to law school and became a lawyer.
My grandfather seemed to have a modestly successful law practice and from the homes and apartments my mother showed me on a trip to Miami when I was ten years old, they lived in nice but modest homes.
My mother was both beautiful and talented. She was voted homecoming queen in high school and played clarinet in the high school marching band. She was a music and English major in college and played multiple instruments, including the organ, piano, accordion and clarinet.
My father’s father had been a successful businessman. I heard that my grandfather had made his fortune before the great depression selling zippers, only to lose it all. My father was the older of two boys. My grandfather had very high expectations of both boys and pushed them hard.
As a young child I remember my grandfather, only in his mid 60s, stepping down as the CEO of a mid-sized company due to health issues. By the time I was ten years old, his health had declined further and he was mostly bed ridden. Grandfather was an angry and bitter man by the time he died. He passed away at 71 from a massive heart attack.
Both my uncle and my father were conservative, hard driving, successful men. Dad saw himself in the image of Ayn Rand’s hero’s like John Galt, the heroic entrepreneur fighting an entrenched bureaucracy.
Dad had been a conservative from a young age, and talked often about politics. My mother was schooled in conservative politics on a daily basis from my father. But more than that my parents were of a generation that did well, had increasing success, and like their friends, moved to nice homes in the suburbs and became isolated from how life is lived by people less fortunate.
As my mother began to raise her young family she was already walled off from poverty, from people of color, except for service people, and from the financial struggles of life. The more she looked out at the world, it was a dangerous and frightening place.
My son texted me last night, “We need to talk about grandma. She’s sending concerning emails to me and the cousins. Mostly right wing propaganda or dog whistle-y racist videos. And I want to have a conversation with her to understand what her point is in sending them and to make her understand they’re making us uncomfortable.” Wow!
I asked my son to send me the emails and he was right. They were mostly right wing propaganda. But what to do? Can you change a 91 year old woman set in her ways? Like most 24 year olds, my son’s perspective of world is mostly black and white. It is hard for him to simply let go of his grandmother’s emails.
My mother’s apartment in Philadelphia was not far from recent demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd. Her bank branch had the front windows smashed by protesters and we heard there had been fire damage to the bank. The bank has since been closed with no clear messaging about when it will reopen. My mother has been unable to get to her safe deposit box at the damaged bank.
As she sat in her apartment, alone because of the pandemic, mom watched the protests turn into looting, just two blocks away, unfolding on TV. She was frightened and talked about the ‘burning and looting’ that was going on. From everything I have read, the majority of protests have been peaceful. My mother saw burning and looting on TV that was magnified by conservative media to appear more prevalent and pervasive than it actually was.
While I can not defend my mother’s beliefs, which I do not agree with, I tried to explain to my son about my mother’s perspective of the world and to encourage him to give her some slack. But I also encouraged him to have an honest conversation with his grandmother. At a minimum, he wants his grandmother to stop emailing him with disturbing images and right wing stories.
My mother will not really understand. She believes she’s giving her grandchildren and education about what the world is really like. Unfortunately, her perspective of the world is colored by her upbringing in the south, sixty five years with my father, the dog whistle conservative media and her own fear and isolation.