In praise of conservatives, specifically Carolyn Roth, my Mom

In this week of the GOP convention, it’s too easy to rail against Trumpublicans reflexively. They trample law, tacitly holding that might in its various forms makes right, while drawing power from patriotism without sacrifice. Such conservatism is a style, elevating red, white, and blue and public religiosity as Martha Steward elevated thread count and pumpkin spice.

This week I’m depositing my oldest daughter to college, as my Mom did me. Being adopted, she would say to me that she felt I was only on loan to her. And that someday she’d give me up to a life I’d build and inhabit. I was accepted to college a year early, and remember her lingering, not knowing when to say ‘good bye.’ She later described crying for the three-hour trip back home, thinking about my Indian birth mom, hoping she’d done right by her.

As an adopted kid, I had never seen anyone I was genetically related to until the birth of my first daughter. Over the years, I was amazed ways we were similar. I’d sometimes imagine my Indian mother’s eyes, as well as my own in her.

My Mom was a life-long conservative, which I suppose I thought of as a philosophy that lets those that have, keep. She had come from wealth, but ended up in a life of frustration, often working multiple jobs. She was a teacher’s aid, kitchen designer, and I’d think a lack-luster liquor store employee as she never drank personally.  Year after year, she’d say it was the hardest one of her life.

While liberals pursued justice using the collective power of government, she believed in individual action to create justice privately. Because her father had donated the town library in the village where she grew up, she joined the state’s library commission. She advocated for full state funding for libraries, so opportunity wouldn’t depend on community wealth.

She perplexingly believed in Jesus and reincarnation and that the heart didn’t have to reconcile its self to rationality.  She thought gay rights were private and hoped to judge no more than to be judged. In college, some thought her gay due to her friendships with strong women. In time, as some of them came out, her friendships with them endured, and she was never less than matter of fact about their identities.

When she died, she left ten times the value of her modest house to charities she cared about. She deposited part of her social security each month into a 529 account, which I’m proud to employ to help start my kid’s education. Her conservatism was from a modest decency that she desired to see in her world. It wasn’t a pose, she lived-up to her political ideals over years.

Since I was eleven, I’ve watched GOP conventions and cheered their candidates, even if not always voting for them.  Ford and Dole, Reagan, and Kemp before Bush, later a Romney, and McCain more than once. President Reagan was fond of saying that he never left the Democratic Party, but that they left him.

As I send my kid off to college in this time of complete uncertainty, I can’t help but think that the GOP has long since stopped being the party of adult realists.  The modesty that typified conservatives has been displaced by grievance and a national boastfulness that would have embarrassed my mom.

To my knowledge, she voted straight-ticket Republican ballots her full life. But as I take my kid to school, I find myself hoping that I’ve done right with her, as I find she’s only been on loan to me.  I admire my Mom’s strength to live modestly with purpose.  And to do good as decent people quietly do, believing that for the most part others share that impulse.

It’s a milestone when you recall knowing parents, now dead, back when they were your age. That means you know by feel how short a generation is. Admiring what they did, and wondering if you’ll meet their measure may be the ground-truth of respect. Someday my daughter will remember this week, and our times together. Perhaps she’ll take a measure of herself, reflect on her grandmother and me – thinking how her path corresponds or surpasses those that framed her growing-up.

That’s the American dream. It doesn’t belong to any political movement. The four-night exposition of lawlessness that passed as a GOP convention was indecent. But as always in our young country there is hope. Tuesday is primary election day in Massachusetts, and my daughter will start her life in Boston as poll worker in her new city.   My mom would be proud of her. Even among the chaos of this year, youth’s hope renews.

 

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