My father was a salesman, but he should have been a teacher. From the time I could read, I could not walk within arm’s length of the leather wing chair in his corner of the living room without being handed a news clipping, an article, or a book off his cluttered table, and being invited to sit down on his ottoman, read the section he’d pointed to, and offer an opinion on it. But simply offering an opinion did not get me off the hook: I had to think about how holding that particular opinion would play out in other situations. I still remember a difficult conversation (it felt more like an inquisition) from the late 1970s. After my father asked me, a developing feminist, whether I was “in favor” of abortion, I responded with a quick answer that I thought he, a devout Catholic, wanted to hear. He knew I was trying to get out the door, but he insisted on asking a series of questions aimed at getting at what I really believed: Are you against abortion in all instances? What if the mother’s life is in danger? What if she had been raped? Are you against it only for yourself, or do you believe it wrong for everyone? What about those who don’t have the support you have, those who are abandoned by the father, penniless and without loving parents? His questions made me look beyond him—and beyond myself—to consider those who held different beliefs.
He had a way of making every issue, even those far less controversial than abortion, complicated and of asking questions that would prevent simplistic declarations of belief. Dad knew that the world was becoming increasingly complicated and that his children would face ethical dilemmas that he had never had to, and he wanted us to be armed with values that would guide both our own actions and our attitudes toward others. He wanted us to have the courage of our convictions—the strength both to name our beliefs and to act upon them—which he thought we would have only if we had come to them through serious thought and deliberation.
My father not only expected his children to develop and express their beliefs, but he set an example by expressing his own in letters to his elected officials and to the editor of our local paper. Indeed, we joked that Dad’s frequent letter writing initiated the Dayton Daily News’ “one-letter-per-person-per-month” rule. Once, when I was an undergraduate in Washington, DC, I introduced myself to my congressman, who happened to be waiting at the same bus stop. He turned pale when he heard my last name and asked if I was related to the letter writer on Collingwood Avenue!
Conversations with my father were not always comfortable, and occasionally my brothers and I sneaked out the kitchen door to avoid passing his chair. But being raised to believe that naming my beliefs was my civic and moral duty more often than not helped me avoid acting in a way that would violate my own convictions. When my children were young, I told them to “use” me as an excuse anytime they wanted to avoid doing something that made them uncomfortable. “Simply tell your friends ‘My mom won’t let me do that,’” I would say. But I knew that as they got older, they would have to say “my beliefs won’t let me do that,” and I believe they will only be able to do that if the adults in their lives invite them to name those beliefs.
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