John Freitag: With respect, a house divided can stand

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Freitag, who moved to Vermont in 1970 to do alternative military service as a conscientious objector. He is retired from the Strafford School District, and serves on the Strafford Selectboard and as moderator of the Universalist Society of Strafford.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a household with a Republican accountant father and Democrat schoolteacher mother, where politics was often the topic of dinner conversation. I learned at that table that people could have different views, be able to argue, and still love and respect each other. I also learned that no one has a corner on the truth and it was best to listen to both sides and consider all aspects of what was being said.

My mother Iris grew up in Greendale, Wisconsin, an experimental planned government community built during the Depression for people who had lost their homes. Her father was a postal worker and barber and her family were strong supporters of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. While raising five children she went back to school in the 1960s and became a history teacher.

My father Clarence, who grew up in a town nearby, was boarded out in high school to live and work on a farm to help bring in money to the family. At age 19, while in a unit probing German defenses in France, he was wounded in the head. He and my mother were married after the war and I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, where my father was going to school on the G.I. Bill. He worked his adult live for General Electric on government contracts for the reactors for nuclear submarines.

At the dinner table, my mother was a tireless advocate for addressing world, economic and social ills. She would talk about one problem or another and then make proposals for solutions. My father would listen and his standard reply was, “That’s nice Iris, how are we going to pay for it?” It was not so much that he was against doing something, but what was to be done had to be practicable. Talk would then turn to if and how this could be made to work. Discussions could get pretty strong at times and often there was no resolution other than agreeing to disagree.

As I grew older, I began to add my two cents. A time that I particularly remember is after coming home for Christmas from college in 1968 I got into a bit of an argument over Vietnam, including the cost of the war. My father felt the figures I was giving were wrong and suggested (rather strongly) that we go to the library the next day and spend some time with the federal budget. After a few hours of going through the books, I agreed that his were the better numbers. What he wanted me to learn, he said, was not so much who was right or wrong in this instance, but that when you are speaking of government money you have the responsibility to be as accurate as possible. “What you do with your own money is your business, but public money is a sacred trust and needs to be held to the highest standard,” he said.

The lessons from my childhood family dinner table may have some applicability for our trouble times. Both my parents were well aware of the opportunities that had been provided for them by the government as well as their responsibility to give back to the country. Both felt that reason and facts were extremely important. While they had different political views on what was best for our nation, they did not ignore challenges and were willing to discuss and seek solutions, even though they knew they might end up not agreeing and laughingly acknowledged that many times their votes would cancel each other’s out at election time. Finally, while arguments could get heated at times, they loved, respected and appreciated each other and they created a house and home that stood the test of time.

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