America, Family History, Politics, Privilege, Racism

A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag

I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.

I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.

Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.

Lee and Jackson on a plate
Lee and Jackson on a plate

Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.

Is it defensible because we should not forget?

Can we remember without glorifying?

What to do with these things?

As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.

I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.

I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.  

Please, South Carolina, take down the flag.

Family History, Guns, Sabbatical, Suicide

A Fork and Knife (On Guns)

My father had a collection of duck decoys so numerous you might have reasonably assumed he hunted. And he did. Once. Oh, he didn’t have a gun. But my mother’s Cousin Jimmy coaxed him along to the duck blind once. Once. Daddy bought the right kind of jacket, and after he died in 1997, I found it hanging in the upstairs back closet with the hunting license still in the pocket, dated in the early 1950s, when he and my mother were newlyweds.

I was a grown-up before I thought of the decoys as tools. To me they were just pretty. We like ducks, I thought. (They’re all living at my brother’s house now, or I would include a picture.)

During the time we lived in Northern Virginia, we would go to church on Sundays at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, and often we would stop after church to visit one of Daddy’s law school classmates, known fondly to us as Uncle Willie. We would go into his rather fabulous den, decorated with animal heads and shiny firearms and lie on the rug and read the funny papers while the grown-ups drank a fabulous Bloody Mary, usually with the little celery leaves still on the stalk. The walls also featured prints of people on horses wearing scarlet jackets and jumping horses over fences. I knew about hunting from “Mary Poppins.” I felt sorry for the fox. Uncle Willie’s house seemed entirely exotic. It bore no resemblance to my reality.

Going Out at Epsom, Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) -- My dad bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII.
Going Out at Epsom,
Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959)

My father liked to go to the races. The prints at our house included this one. (#1 Son now has custody.) Daddy bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Of course he learned how to fire a weapon in basic training, but his job was behind the lines, installing radar systems in airplanes. And I’ll never know now whether it was his Methodist “Mumma” or his knowledge of the ways his friends were killed and maimed in the war, or his own fairly peaceful temperament, or even his lack of ease with technology of all sorts that made him not a gun person.

But he was not a gun person.

People use the resources available to them and for the most part embody the values and practices learned unconsciously in the homes where they are raised. Yes, some people are “raised right” and go in another direction, and yes, some people are raised terribly and turn out, by the grace of God, beautifully. But most of us spend a lifetime either unconsciously living out what we learned in childhood or trying hard to overturn the patterns of many generations.

If you grow up in a house with guns, you will think of them as a tool people use.

A person raised in a house where books and music and writing are the tools employed might write a scathing letter or a heart-wrenching poem or a grief-struck ballad or a piece of painful electronic music to  express anger at bullies. If guns aren’t as common in your life as a fork and knife, you’re less likely to consider them a tool for personal use when you’re beset by social rejection. I’ve been plenty hurt and plenty mad (or angry, as my father always told me to say instead), but I DID NOT GROW UP WITH GUNS and therefore no matter how oppressed I felt as a bullied grade school student or an unpopular teenager or an unhappy young wife or a depressed new mother, I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.

Read that sentence above again: “I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.” To be clear, I never thought of harming others, but I certainly thought of harming myself in one of those periods in particular. By the grace of God, I asked for help and got some.

When I thought of harming myself, I considered doing it with a tool in common use in my life. I’m writing this weeks after Newtown and a day after a young man walked into a classroom in California to shoot at kids who bullied him. There’s no question we need services for people who are troubled and support for parents raising kids with mental illness. But we also need guns to be categorized as something a little less ordinary, acceptable and available, as expected in everyday existence as a knife and fork.

Adoption, Family History, Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16, Lent 2B

Suppose God Named You

I’m not sure why God felt the need to give new names to Abram and Sarai. I sometimes wonder if it’s just that there were two sets of stories about them, with two sets of names, and someone clever made the difference in names a shift in names instead, and connected that difference to the change in circumstances that led to a new reality for Abraham and Sarah.

God remade their future. So I suppose it’s possible God named them for it.

This doesn’t begin to answer the question “What’s my excuse?” It’s almost comical how many names I’ve had. Marriage and divorce and return to my maiden name. Lather, rinse, repeat. But even before I had that “maiden” name, I had another one, the name given to me by my birth mother.

Martha is … Martha. Plain. Simple. Maybe she bakes, or is a competent needlewoman. You trust her with the silver, or to make sure the children stay out of trouble.

Surely she is neither dashing nor intriguing.

Read about her. Amazing.

Or she’s awful. I just read an article saying pastors shouldn’t make out-of-date cultural references, but honestly, growing up when and where I did, I couldn’t help hearing stories about Martha Mitchell, a “political prisoner” of Watergate. That voice, that hair, that name…yes, I was a Washingtonian political child, if not prisoner, and I hated sharing her name.


She was a Republican, to boot.

This isn’t really about me, of course, although it’s certainly true that in childhood I found my name dull. Someone once thought my name was Nancy, and that was probably the only time I preferred Martha over every other possibility in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called Nancy. (Please, no letters to the author.) It’s just that every now and then I identify with my name, and that’s a relief.

But other times I wonder what it would have been like to go through life with a different name. This is probably the fantasy of most adopted children. What was my “real” name? Who gave it to me? What were those people like?

I’ve written about this before, I think. The name on my first birth certificate is Elizabeth, and in a strange set of coincidences, my adoptive mother was a former social worker and had been friends with the social worker named Elizabeth for whom my birth mother named me.

Tasha Tudor’s take on Martha (l.), The Secret Garden

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go through life as Elizabeth instead of Martha. They’re both Biblical names, and both those ancient gals had important proclamations to make.

They’re both names you might hear in a British novel, although Martha is surely more likely to be the housemaid than the lady of the manor.

Elizabeth, Lizzie, Libby, Betsy, Beth — they all sound pretty, don’t they? Elizabeth is one of those women who can manage anything. Lizzie is fun and funny, with a wit that sometimes makes you want to take a step back. Libby attracts attention whenever she walks down the street. Betsy wears a ponytail and climbs trees. Beth is kind and quiet and plays the piano sweetly, and everyone who takes the trouble to listen loves her.

Some of those impressions come from literature, and some from the memories of girls I knew growing up. Some of them come from the fun of a name that has so many possibilities. (Eliza, Liz, Libba, I could keep going…)

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those girls.

I can flirt sarcastically like Elizabeth Bennet (and on those Jane Austen quizzes, I always come out as Lizzie), and I have moments of being as sweet as Beth March, sometimes, and I used to climb trees just like Betsy Ray.

But that’s not me.

I’m Martha.

That’s the name I was given, a family name, the middle name of a treasured grandmother who was a political and religious leader in my hometown.

And it affiliates me with the woman — hear that! the woman!!! — who made the Christological confession in John’s gospel, the woman who said out loud who Jesus really was.

It affiliates me, too, with her bluntness and bossiness and short temper. (See Luke’s version.)

That’s okay.

Suppose God named me?

Maybe it wasn’t family heritage that mattered, really.

Maybe that’s the name I needed to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Suppose God named you?

(It’s a bit of a walk around the block, but I did start somewhere in the neighborhood of Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.)