In 1964, my mother, Audrey, turned rabid on the subject of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was launching his doomed run for the presidency on the basis of what was considered at the time a far right wing agenda. Being 7 years old, I don't remember why Audrey was so adamant that Barry was the savior of this country, but I remember how deeply his failure to win the presidency affected her.
It was shortly thereafter that my mother began experiencing depression, the first hint of bipolar disorder which led to mood swings of astonishing intensity. I have to wonder if the loss of the campaign played into the many other losses in her life: her mother died when she was two years old; she lived in a foster home with distant relatives; was victimized by a child molester of the worst kind; between my oldest sister and me, she had six stillborn baby boys, each of which she carried to the 7th or 8th month before they died.
But Barry enchanted her that year, 1964. For Barry, she campaigned tirelessly, attended conventions, fundraisers, walked the streets. She was relentless in her advocacy. When he lost, she lost something too: the sparkle in her eyes, the note of excitement and anticipation that had sounded in her voice that year.
I am, of course, horrified by this because Goldwater was one of the most virulently conservative men to have ever seriously run for president to that point. I can't reconcile what I think of far right wing zealots with what I think of my mother. They are callous, indifferent to the plight of regular folks, religious crackpots, greedy, corrupt, conscienceless. My mother was kind, loving, accepting, open of heart and mind, religious in the best way, smart and capable.
How could Audrey be seduced by Barry? What did he say, stand for, believe in that enchanted her, that won her heart and her mind? Here in the south, even in the upper left hand corner of it, we generally plant our crazy people right on the front porch for all to see, but this, honestly, embarrasses me, my mother as this kind of conservative.
I am comforted somewhat in reading the Wikipedia entry on Goldwater. It seems there was a huge push in his campaign to vanquish communism, to protect from potential nuclear war. This was surely a response to the widespread fear in the '60s that the hateful commies were going to blow us to mist and the world would end in a horror of radiation poisoning and suffering. Audrey always urged me to take seriously the bomb drills we had weekly at First Lutheran. Those drills found us grade schoolers tucked up against each other like biscuits in a pan, hands clenched tightly over our necks, ready as we could ever be for the bombs to fall.
To say that it was a culture of fear is almost laughable; it was so much more than that. In that time, in that school, that religious community, the fear of communism was alive. We were constantly reminded by our teachers in morning devotions that they
were coming and we must be strong in our faith.
The worst fearmonger, Stanton Hoffmeier, the cadaverous and frightening music teacher, assured us that the communists were well on the way, lurking even now, perhaps, in the cloakroom. Upon arrival, they would quiz every child as to their religious leanings and then all
Christians would be killed. His sadism was evident in his gleeful assurance that we would have to face the bayonet and admit to our Lutheranism, else we'd burn in hell for eternity. Immediate gutting, death and glory, or life lived as a slave to the Russians, with the absolute promise of hell for denying our faith.
That decade was frightening in so many ways: Vietnam, riots, cities burning, the Cold War, assassinations, more assassinations, pollution out of control, the fear of nuclear war. There was death and mayhem at every turn and it was overwhelming, but 1964 was just the beginning. If I felt this, in my relative innocence, perhaps my mother, even in 1964 and standing at the threshold of mental illness, also felt overwhelmed and afraid. Maybe the strong voice of Barry Goldwater, assured and confident, as right wing zealots so often are, gave her comfort.
I wonder how she would have felt, had she stuck around, to know of my growing radicalism, my political activism in the '70s and '80s, of my Marxist leanings and the feminism that transformed me. Would she shudder in horror that I've become a socialist in response to the right wing madness that began with Goldwater? On some level, I think ~ I hope ~ she would have applauded, would have cheered me on, this brilliant, educated woman whose life was so tightly circumscribed by the expectations of women of her time, by her children, her traditional man, her place in society.
I wish I could have known her as an adult. I wish I could have given her what Barry gave her for those brief months, and that it would have been enough. I wish she were here so I could ask her these questions. I wish for so much, for my mother, even now.
Labels: barry goldwater, grief and loss, mental illness, mothers, socialism