I recently read a brisk discussion on Facebook about whether Democrats could be friends with Republicans. Many posters, liberals all, felt that Republicans are just too close-minded and cold-hearted to be friends with. Republicans are other.
Before I married John, I was inclined toward those posters’mindset. My parents were liberals. My mom boasted that her first election was Franklin Roosevelt’s first election, and she proudly voted for him in four presidential elections. My dad, nominally a Republican, had a liberal bent and turned solidly against the Vietnam War before it was even on my radar. So I come by my Democratic leanings honestly.
Coming of age in the late sixties as I did, my political identity is important to me. It caused me, when I was younger, self-righteously to condemn (at least in my head) people to the right of me – supporters of war and racism and police violence, unsympathetic to the poor, narrow in their social and religious attitudes. I’m still sometimes tempted toward these biases.
But I’ve been in recovery ever since 1978, when I married into the Ewing family. For over thirty years, I’ve had to break bread with Republicans, worship with them, swim with them, vacation with them, and open Christmas presents with them. Observing them at close hand, I couldn’t help but notice how nice they were. Nicer, I couldn’t help noticing, than me.
I’ve been thinking about these matters in connection with my father-in-law Stan, who died on Tuesday at the age of 90. One of the first things I heard about him, circa 1975, had to do with a political argument. He was telling John, during Sunday brunch, that Nixon wasn’t so bad. He had just gotten caught. My mild-mannered boyfriend, who’d already strayed from the Republican fold, had to leave the table to end the argument and compose himself.
But I don’t want to talk politics. I want to talk about kindness. I want to recount some of the stories that keep recurring in my mind – stories that illustrate his goodness and sometimes downright sweetness.
When Stan came to visit me in the hospital after I gave birth to our son, the first grandson in the family, his cheeks were wet with tears. The biggest Indians fan on earth had come bearing a little baseball-uniform onesie and a big stuffed baseball.
In January, 1983, I went on strike with other teachers in my district. The Ewings aren’t wild about unions in general and don’t approve of teachers striking. During that long, cold, harrowing strike, my mother-in-law watched my baby son while I picketed in the mornings, and my father-in-law Stan never breathed a word of criticism to me about striking. Through it all, my in-laws continued their habit of calling us on Friday nights to take us out to dinner.
My mother-in-law died suddenly right before Christmas in 1993. Christmas was her thing, and she always purchased a sweater (among many other gifts) for each member of the family. That sad Christmas, we gathered soberly at the Ewing home on Christmas morning, and the women of the family all got a package from Stan. Each contained a lovely sweater he had picked out himself.
Stan used to send me Mothers Day flowers and personalized cards, with certain words, like “love” and “special,” underlined.
My son reminds me that when my mom died in 1995, Stan, then a widower, came to her funeral and to the restaurant afterwards with my family. When my sisters and I asked the waitress for the check, she told us it had already been taken care of.
I suppose someone might say that anyone can be nice to family members and friends. What’s important instead is “systemic change” and the big picture and the huge problems of poverty and the environment and war and peace, and maybe they’re right. All I know is that Stan’s thoughtfulness, generosity, and simple love for his family have humbled and inspired me.