Truth as a Hammer: Managing the Politics of Family

Managing Editor’s Note: Jill Johnson describes herself as a “third-culture kid,” someone who grew up in developing countries. Her essay featured here, “Lewes, Delaware,” reflects how this way of life, combined with their Quaker heritage, affected her family’s political beliefs–and the conflict it often created. In one crucible of a moment, Jill yells her frustration at her mother, saying that “if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems, maybe our family would be happy.”

–Amy

Lewes, Delaware

by Jill Johnson

Sorting through files in my parent’s office after they’d moved into assisted living, I found an old newspaper clipping–an editorial Mom had written. I paused at her bio: activist, teacher, homemaker. The description evoked a woman with defined lines, neat and contained. Her teaching career had consisted of several years with fifth graders at Lincoln School in Kathmandu in the ‘60’s; a homemaker, yeah, she’d set up house wherever we’d landed for Dad’s job in developing countries. The activist part, well, I’d never thought to apply that term to my mother although she loosed her opinions with abandon and often without invitation.

When I was in high school, she’d been the one to march on Washington DC to protest the Vietnam War. I’d boasted about my Mom who stomped several positions left of most adults in those days. Protesting in my own way at boarding school–experimenting with pot and boys, skipping the mandatory Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, learning to swear–I’d watched her do her thing while I did mine.

Later, married and living in New England, I’d enjoyed our political chats over the phone, a beer in hand hidden from my mother’s eyes that narrowed at the sight of anyone drinking alcohol. The cushion of distance between us blunted the edge of her rising indignation at the world’s woes and misguided policy-makers, the societal inequalities. A little rant together on the same side for a change felt good. We’d both suffered through my cliff-hanger of an adolescence. Worse than hard-liners in a fracturing country, we couldn’t conceive of compromise. For me, and maybe for her, a residue of that acrimony lingered, an off-smell that hadn’t dissipated.

I’d mention to my adult friends about Mom’s election as president of the League of Women Voters, or how she picketed at her state capitol of Dover against U.S. military spending, her speeches about the stalled Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution. Having lived in Jordan, our family personalized the Palestinians’ plight. Living overseas had fostered an immediacy to global issues.

Now, sitting at the dusty desk in their vacated home, I tried to think back to when my mother’s politicking and the delivery of her point of view had begun to make my teeth clench.

My memory retrieved that day. In my forties, my third husband and I had visited my parents. Mom and Dad took us to Lewes, a Chesapeake Bay town near their home, the streets lined with painted buildings preserved in their slice of history. High-end clothing and gadget stores next to cafes and chocolatiers. A shoe store. My eye caught on a pair of Naots in the window.

“Those are great sandals,” I said to Mom. “I’m going in.”

The proprietor asked if she could help. I gushed about the comfort of the Naot’s I’d once owned. I picked up a pair. Before I could ask for my size, Mom interrupted.

“Where are they made?”

I turned towards her wondering why she cared about their provenance. I’d never known her to be much of a shopper. In fact, she hated shopping. Her clothes and shoes worked beyond a graceful retirement.

Smiling, the woman replied, “Israel.”

Mom turned away, snorting, “I’d never buy anything made there.” The bell clanged when she yanked the door open. Stammering an apology, I fled.

“Mom, I can’t believe, I…that was pretty rude.”

“Why? It’s what I think.” She shook her head at the idea of being polite about her politics.

“Yeah, but…”

I watched her go ahead to catch up with Dad. My husband waited for me and shrugged when I told him about the encounter in the store. “That’s your Mom.”

Later, I berated myself for not talking to Mom about her approach, about not staying behind at the store to explain. How it was easier for me to walk away, like she had.

She hadn’t used to be rude, not to strangers anyway. Strident yes, opinionated always. The frustration of years of protesting injustices combined with advancing age had turned her truth telling into a hammer. But we all had our own version of truth, a tack hammer or bludgeon the only difference in the delivery.

I wondered what the storeowner told her family about the incident. I envisioned her sitting at the dinner table that night, saying, “There was this rude woman who came into the store….” The dismissive nature of Mom’s tone and her words couldn’t have promoted world peace, Mom’s ostensible life-long mission. Wasn’t the point to glean through each other’s truth to find commonality? After all, The Quaker way was about consensus.

I thought back to my teenaged years and realized that I could give myself a break about being a screaming, door-slamming teen; my mother had never been one to give an inch. I remember yelling at her during one of our fights that if she spent as much time solving family problems as she did on world problems, maybe our family would be happy.

After the visit to Lewes, I had avoided political talk with Mom, keeping it short and superficial. I substituted silence for that hammer.

Photo Credits: Pete Prodoehl, .craig, and austincameraguy


JILL JOHNSON is a writer with a day job as an Admission Counselor at Smith College, where she earned her undergraduate degree in English in the Ada Comstock Scholars Program. She completed her MFA in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. Her current project, a memoir-in-progress, is about uncovering long-held family secrets after growing up in developing countries as a third-culture kid. Jill lives on a hill in Brattleboro, VT.