This I Believe
Dinner discussion at the house on Hendrick Street in Brooklyn where Mom grew up could get heated. Politics, religion, or sports – not polite dinner conversation? Ha! Not with this Irish family long involved in Kings County politics.
In one story, Grandma goes to close the window, lest the opinions or the volume disturb the neighbors. As grandma is pulling down the sash, Mrs. Greenberg, who is parked at her own window across the walk separating the houses, stops her, “Please, Mrs. Harrington, don’t close the window – such fun it is to listen.”
After those dinners, Grandma would go to the piano, Grandpa to his chair, and Mom, her two sisters, and three brothers would sing and clean up – kind of like the McGlaughlin Group turning into a Norman Rockwell painting.
My earliest extended family memories are visits to the grandparents’ modest apartment or to Uncle Jack’s big house, and these memories are filled with the sounds of ice clinking in heavy crystal glasses, second hand smoke, and first hand opinions. But it is the sound of argument and the laughter within the argument which dominates the memory. The argument, the laughter, and something never there – anger.
I believe in the power of argument. I believe that disagreement is a good thing, and that to argue differences serves the original meaning of the word argue, which comes from the Latin arguere, meaning ”to make clear.”
Grandparents passed, families grew, and the aunts and uncles convened to settle ‘the big issues’ less frequently. At my parents’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, in 1969, when I greeted Uncle Harry with, “Haven’t seen a good one for awhile –“ I had not finished the thought and he had a finger in my chest and an accusation in my ears, “You’re probably one of those….” The battle was joined, and it soon attracted family and non-family. When my (ahem)“typically unassailable logic” upset the husband of one of Mom’s friends and he roared out the door of our small house, causing every head in the room to turn, Uncle Harry smiled, “He’s not family, he doesn’t understand.”
I believe that we clarify our own thinking by engaging with, listening to, and responding calmly and thoughtfully to those who think differently from how we think. I believe volume, talking over people, and logical fallacy do not clarify anyone’s thinking.
In 1988, after a long ride from the funeral service for my father, I was in the men’s room at the cemetery. Uncle Harry and I were each at a urinal silently doing our business. Uncle Joe came in solemnly, took his place before a fixture, stared straight into the tiled wall and said with his typical sparkle of mischief, “Harry, I have just three words for you – Jay Danforth Quayle.”
“Here we go,” I smiled. Dad would love this.
Uncle Joe is the last of the Brooklyn Harringtons and at 86 years old he can still bring it when it comes to argument. Most of all I believe, and Uncle Joe is my constant reminder, in joy of argument.