Tuesday, October 23, 2012

800 Words: Dreams from My Mother Part II

When my father would introduce his father-in-law he would invariably say “This is my father-in-law, Morris Witow. He killed millions.” Or so he claims…

For twenty-seven years, my grandfather was an engineer for the United States Department of Defense. During World War II, he was on the team that built the Smart Bomb, and apparently made a discovery that led to its successful invention. After spending World War II at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, my grandmother wanted to live nearer to her parents. As a result, my grandfather lived in Silver Spring during the week so he could work at the Pentagon, and would return to Baltimore on weekends to the house where my mother lived with her mother, younger brother, her Bubbie and Zaydie and her great aunt (Tante) Miriam.

It is said of Zaydie Witow that he was the perfect gentleman except when three issues came up: Richard Nixon, Chicken Chow Mein, and Liberals. I’ll deal with chicken chow mein in another post, but according to my father, the moment somebody said the L-word, this meek and mild man grew red with the beastliness of a wild animal, his fury unable to be assuaged until somebody reminded him that Richard Nixon was still president. My father also claims that when he first started dating my mother, there was a picture of President Nixon in every room of her parents' house, whereas in his parents’ house, there were pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

Zaydie’s father, Henry Witow, was a Socialist. He was an intellectual with red hair and a fiery temper in whose apartment you had to be careful not to trip over piles of books (sounds familiar…). When the factory he worked for offered him a job as a foreman, he turned it down on principle.  He apparently got into a long standing family feud with his Communist cousins about whether Stalin’s Soviet Union was the socialist utopia. He died in 1941 and did not live to see his two sons enlist in the army. My great-uncle Nathan served in the Navy for the war’s duration and apparently survived a sunken battleship, whereas Zaydie was called into the engineering corps after six months and never saw real action.

My Zaydie was always to the right of his father, but as a young man that meant that he was a New Deal Liberal. I don’t know precisely when or why it is that my grandfather decided to abandon New Deal Liberalism to become a member of neoconservatism’s charter generation. All I know is that it was sometime in the mid-50’s, and that during the McCarthy era, my grandmother was questioned because she was on a mailing list at a bookstore that was known to house Communist meetings, or employees, or something... My grandfather, hired by the federal government after he learned no private engineering firm would hire a Jew if they could help it, doubtless feared for his job’s security – perhaps doubly so in light of his father’s activities.

At the center of the story of my father’s family is money. At the center of the story of my mother’s family is politics. Both sides can accuse the other of rampant hypocrisy in their beliefs (and do). My father, like his father, has always voted resolutely Democrat, and for as long as I can remember has railed against a system of government that would allow the undeserving wealthy to claim rewards made possible by their hard-working employees. But as my mother likes to point out, he rails against the very system that allowed his businesses to prosper just as his father’s did before him. For years, his main source of income has been investments, on which there is a 14% capital gains tax, which means he pays half in taxes what he would pay if he made most of his money through income. For just as long in my memory, my mother and uncle, like their father before them, have always railed against the inefficiencies, corruption, and mendacity of government wastefulness at the expense of the taxpayer and the self-sufficient entrepreneur. And yet for seventy years, my mother’s family has made its career in government. My grandfather was defense department engineer, my mother used to be an economist for the State of Maryland, and my uncle is a State Department officer in the Foreign Service. For forty years, my Bubbie has lived like a queen on Zaydie’s pension – which has allowed her to take trips by the dozen to six of the world’s seven continents. Like my father, my mother’s family benefited enormously from the very system they claim to hate.

Is it simply hypocrisy in both cases? Or is there any deeper motive at play? I suppose that in both cases, the two sides of my family grew an understandable but unhappy contempt for the frustrations of their jobs – perhaps resentment at how undeserving colleagues benefited, or an exaggerated sense of the importance of the wrongs they saw every day at their jobs. The personal is always political, and like so many millions of people in America, both my parents seem to vote against their own interests. Every evil we see done will linger in our minds more than any five acts of good (that’s actually a statistic), and in the journey to self-improvement, it is very easy to get distracted by all of life’s impediments.

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