The same thing happens when I look at or talk to my sons. I can see a bit of me in each of their faces and hear the tone of my voice when they speak or sing, bless their hearts. Again, I did not choose to give them those traits. It just happened.
But most of the things my parents gave me, and most of the things that I gave to my sons, had little to do with DNA. There were choices. There were examples. There were sermons. There were tears and there was laughter. There were even a few spankings. It certainly was not all perfect or even good. But it was as effective and certain as genetics in shaping the next generation.
My mother could preach a sermon. More often than not she was inspired by one or more of her children making fun of someone, or getting the idea that we were somehow better than someone else. She was relentless. Like a good southern revival preacher (except for the gender) she would break us down until, convicted of our transgression, we came to the altar in repentant submission, almost wishing for a spanking instead.
As a very young child, my snickering at the awkward movements of a disabled person suffering from a crippling disease was met with an immediate shaming and explanation. Any hint of a racial slur or joke brought out Mom's A game. Making disparaging remarks about another kid in school who smelled bad or wore clothes that were dirty or didn't fit brought immediate, intense monologues pointing out how and why that was so wrong. Jesus was often mentioned.
But mom did not just preach with words. She preached with her life, and much of the time it was done while hauling a car load of kids. Going to and from school and other places she often picked up an elderly gentleman who walked along the highway. I remember him to this day. He smelled like the earth. He always had a few days growth of beard. His clothes were faded and baggy and his shoes were heavy brown leather, what my grandparents called brogans. It seems like he carried a walking stick, but that may just be my imagination filling in the blanks. He had a garden and would sometimes give us vegetables. After school we would sometimes find another kid in the car who did not have a ride home. Their houses did not look like ours. And sometimes I remember feeling ashamed, because the family name of the child had been adopted by the "in" crowd as a derogative term. You know, like, "where did you get that shirt, a hand me down from the ________'s?" In the early sixties in Alabama mother hired an African-American woman in town to do some work for her. She chose to pay her differently than most people were paying household workers at the time. A good wage. And mom paid Social Security taxes and made sure they were all filed properly. They became life long friends, long after the woman no longer worked for us. When that woman had health problems later in life, she was qualified for Social Security benefits. They both would have done anything for the other.
Several years ago, after I was a grown up, there was a woman who walked around town a lot. She was said to have a mental illness, but never harmed anyone. Sometimes she would be eating at a local eatery. She came over to me often, with Bible in hand, and tell me that my mother was a good, good woman, who really knew her Bible. I still don't know her name. I do remember picking her up and giving her a ride myself one Sunday morning . . . with a van load of youth from the church. They were just as wide eyed and perplexed as I had been as a youngster not knowing what to expect on car rides with my mom. But I guess I did learn something from her sermons after all.
My dad did not preach sermons. But his message was the same as mom's, and just as strong. We were to work to make a difference. We were no better than anyone else. We were given much, and much was expected. There were many people in the world who had it much harder than we did and we were supposed to help. We were supposed to stand up and speak up for those who had no voice and could not be seen, the mentally disabled, the immigrant, the poor, the children, the oppressed. The other. The different.
So I was blessed to learn the best lessons from my parents, who learned them from their parents.
Be kind. Don't be mean.
Giving is better than receiving. Share all you can.
Don't make fun of another's hardship.
Treat all folks with respect.
Every person on earth is created by God, and loved by God, no more or less than God loves me.
Everybody's got a story that needs to be heard. Take time to listen.
Help people all you can.
Tell the truth. But never simply to cause pain. Try not to lie, and never for personal gain.
Stand with the oppressed, the least, the last and the lost.
To those who much has been given, much is expected.
Knowledge is a good thing. Wisdom is a great thing. Learn all you can.
Violence is never a good response.
Count your trumps.
And so much more. None of us are perfect parents. But most of us know the good things we hope we can give to our children, things that will make them better people than we have been. We know that probably, even after we are gone, our children will hear our voices in their heads when it is time to make decisions. We know that because we hear our parents' voices in our heads, even after they are gone. Sometimes that requires counseling, but all in all it's a good thing. It is the way each generation gets better, building on the lessons of the past.
I like politics. Maybe that's because my parents did. We spent hours around the round kitchen table talking about religion and politics throughout the years. It was no place for the weak. There was always a connection between the two, religion and politics, in our discussions. And the lessons they taught were always woven into the conversation.
It is all connected in my way of thinking.
So, that is how I decide who to vote for. Which candidate seems to have learned and exhibits the lessons and values my parents gave to me, and my faith demands? And which candidate best exemplifies those lessons and values that I wanted to give to my sons?
If we all did that, we still wouldn't all vote the same way. Who would want that anyway? But our decisions would be influenced by the best of the hopes our parents had for us, and best of our hopes for our children.
Decisions based on our best hopes instead of our worst fears? Another good lesson to pass on to our children. Let's start showing them how now.
Sorry, this went on much longer than I expected. But I am my mother's child after all. And that's not a bad thing in my book.