My mother, who turned 94 this year, was in some ways open to negotiation in how my two brothers and I were to be raised. For instance, it took a mere twelve years of sustained and passionate begging before she allowed a TV in the house. A black and white TV fully capable of pulling in one channel, and only one channel — a station twenty miles down the road.
To give her credit, her opposition to television was not based on a whim. She believed a TV might distract us from learning to read. Consequently, we did not get our TV until my youngest brother had finished his first novel. And mom really did compromise in a way. She had planned for us to go without a TV until he had finished his sixth novel.
Yet, despite her remarkable willingness to negotiate on such things as our learning to read, on one issue she was absolutely fixed and could not be moved: Mom was set against our deciding whether or not to believe in god.
You see, she believed the god issue was simply beyond the scope of a child’s intelligence, his emotions, and his wisdom. At the same time, she was just as opposed to making that decision for us. Hence, she insisted we were to decide the issue for ourselves — but not until we had “reached an age at which we could reason well enough about it.”
Naturally, I went through a period when I wanted her to tell me what to believe. But I never succeeded in getting her to do that. “Why won’t you tell me what you believe?”, I’d ask.
“Because you would ape me.”
“No I won’t, mom. I promise.”
“I’m glad to hear that”, she’d say, “All the same, my beliefs are my business and not yours.”
“But when can I know?” I’d whine.
“When you have reached an age of reason, and no sooner.”
I thought at times I would never live long enough, for even as a kid I sensed that for an American, the age of reason comes no sooner than 40 or so.
Like all parents, mom had her paradoxes. No matter how much she insisted on doing things her way when it came to certain things, her policies on other things were models of laissez-faire. For instance: We were free range kids. On weekends and during the months we were not in school, we could roam anywhere in the town or countryside so long as we pedaled back in time for supper. She guarded which programs we were allowed to watch on television, but I don’t recall her even once opposing my choice in books.
Mom was criticized in the community for her manner of raising us. People accused her of not being able to control her son when I grew my hair long. After she allowed me, at 16, to hitchhike for the summer around the United States, her decision became for a week or ten days the talk of the town. Yet, her most controversial decision was the god one. Plenty of folks objected to our being raised that way.
The criticisms often enough worried her, but they never altered her course. She refused to “take counsel of her fears”. For mom was — and still is — a conservative in the genuinely traditional sense of “conservative”. A sense that is all but gone out of fashion today. That is, she is set against her or anyone else messing in other people’s affairs. And few things are to her more a person’s own business than what he or she believes about god.