After my parents divorced when I was three, I had the benefit (not burden) of having two very distinct family experiences. Each one powerfully influencing who I am today. Each of my maternal and paternal ancestors a couple of generations removed had unique surnames: The Bibles, and the Angels. And that’s how I look at it today. But it’s probably not what you think.
On the Bible side of the family, I as a little girl was nurtured and encouraged by the side of the family who believed in God first, then family, then country. I loved the Bibles. I felt with each visit and summer and school break extended stay, that I was good, smart, full of potential, and could some day go to college and make a difference in the world. I could learn to work hard and contribute at any age. The grandparents, and extended aunts, uncles, and cousins were families of the land. Farmers, ranchers, hands-on laborers. Up before dawn, making an honest living off the land, supplementing their families with second jobs or careers, applying their education, and giving back to their communities. They were leaders, teaching their children principles, grounding them with a religious foundation, leaders in the Methodist Church. Every day was a lesson. Every lesson was applicable now and in a solid future. I learned to be frugal, conserving, and careful. To cook homemade meals with modest means for hired hands, deliver meals to the field to support the menfolk, sustain a household with chores, sewing our own clothes, cleaning, repairing, doing a “man’s job,” and preparing for a hard winter, or drought. I learned to respect Mother Nature.
If not in the fields during “supper”, and with the luxury of all being in the house in the evening, it was not negotiable that we would all pull up chairs to the plastic tablecloth-covered oblong dinner table so that my uncle could lead the daily devotion. His large tan and aged, weathered hands would slowly open his years worn and thin-paged large bible laid out before his plate, and he would read a passage. Just a few scriptures read slowly from his deep and powerful voice, but ending with kind and loving, but stern, words providing (or reminding) a lesson of the day for us all. The children were to sit still, listen, learn, then bow heads for a prayer to be thankful for the food and the day’s many blessings.
Across that table, I matured each year, getting taller in the chair, where I learned discipline, a healthy fear of God, respect, determination, gratefulness, and purpose.
Across that table, I developed my armor. My shield to protect me from what could have been.
Angels. I now know they come in many different forms. The Angel side of the family…. was anything but, it appeared. Probably the first miracle I ever witnessed was that these two sides of the family were ever married, if only for a couple of years. While staying behind with the Angels wasn’t a choice at such a young age, it provided one hard lesson on diversity in American culture. They were from the hills of Eastern Oklahoma, where hard times and generational poverty didn’t promote or prioritize education or hard work, but the choice of survival and ultimately the abuses that can kill you.
I couldn’t tell you what the Angel side of the family was known for. I never knew of their jobs. Or education. I couldn’t tell you if my own mother ever graduated high school. But she was a survivor. She escaped that cycle of letting a small, mostly impoverished and uneducated population hold you down. She took her three teenage girls, clothes, one pot, one pan, one plate, fork, spoon, and knife, and got in the car and sped away. After I was born, we visited and drove down the hill where she and the girls raced the car away from the trailer house and the man firing a shotgun at them. They survived. I met the man who did it, and still remember the smell of him today.
Escaping to the big city provided my mother the opportunity she was seeking. A good job, which led to a simple but stable career in banking. And two future husbands who would better care for her than the last two. It allowed her to not ignore her parents and siblings, but to help provide for them. From the two of us visiting them weekly in low income housing to provide used clothes, more food, transportation, a bath, and unconditional love, to finally having the means to pay for each of their premature funerals. We never talked about the filth, the roaches, the gut wrenching smells, the drinking, the drugs, the fighting, depression, or the suicides. The system provided the basics, and we provided what was to them, luxury. We weren’t there to encourage them, or change things, other than their day’s contentment during that visit. We didn’t represent hope, or change, I don’t think. Just a snapshot of how things could be with making different choices and working hard.
Across those tracks, were the Angels. My Angels.
They weren’t a passage from a book; they were humans, who invited practical application on every lesson I learned from the Bibles. Empathy, compassion, unconditional love, no judgment, acceptance, helping others, and prayer. I don’t think my mother ever knew the word philanthropist, but she was its rawest form. However, it wasn’t always pure. While she escaped most of the abuses, she did believe in a Robin Hood approach when needed, or even tempted. She, too, was no angel. So while I learned the lessons I needed from her, I was also regularly slapped with a reality of what I want to grow up and represent. How was I to have such diverse exposures, and what would become of my future? What would be my reality?
The irony is, as a single working mom, how she chose to care differently for her last and much younger fourth daughter. While the others were out and off to make their own choices and mistakes, she chose to shelter me. In church. She never attended, but she dropped me off three times a week. She said she would never set foot in our neighborhood’s Southern Baptist Church because it was full of hypocrites. But she obviously knew it was safe and reliable childcare. The extremism from the two families, and now my third family in the church was head-spinning. Face to face exposure to right and wrong, good and bad, pure and evil, was my life weekly. The Bibles and Angels both tugging at me, influencing me, exposing me, and developing me. Often times, I just wanted to hide. In the middle.
When meeting or learning someone new, what do we really know? It takes time to get to know what makes up a person. We are blessed if our lives are long. But as such, we have more years and experiences to influence the person we are, or are meeting today.
As an adult, and a former broadcast journalist and political and philanthropy director, I am a generalist. I know a little about a lot of things. I love a human-interest story. I love to surround myself with diversity. If you gathered all of my life-long and growing circles of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and all of the folks who have been part of a chapter of my life, you would see a lot of extremes. I pride myself of each of these different types of people continuing to be an influence on me.
Politically, during this groundbreaking year, I don’t fit in a box. I don’t sit on one side or the other. I don’t throw torpedoes, and I don’t dodge them. I don’t campaign for a specific agenda. I’m asked regularly what I’m watching, and who I’m following. I guess my answer is that I’m watching it all. I’m listening. I’m learning as much as I can. I’m hungry for facts, not spin. And I know spin. I listen, lead, converse, and discuss with respect, understanding, compassion, empathy, hope, and optimism.
Across the aisle is where I reach. And where I learn most. I respect to a degree each one on the stage, even if I personally disagree with them. Our society is evolving. Each world, country, state, and community event shapes us. Develops us. In to what I hope is the best version. Of ourselves, and of people.