I went home to Louisville, Kentucky on Sunday, November 4th with the intent of having my Kentucky Kitchen Table meal with my four intermediate family members and my 17-year-old brother’s girlfriend. This assignment ended up turning into a surprise 19th birthday dinner for myself, and I was greeted by my paternal aunt, grandmother and grandfather whom I rarely dine with. In fact, I rarely dine with my immediate family either. Our family dinners around the dining table died out long ago, around the time that I picked up competitive swimming and my youngest brother graduated from Wilder Elementary and enrolled in Meyzeek Middle School. Things got busy, so we all filtered in and out of the kitchen at whatever time convenienced us, saying not much more than, “Hello!” when in passing. I’ve only been home once before this since starting school at Western Kentucky University, so I was excited to have a family gathering in the comforts of my home and have a home cooked meal instead of swiping into the Fresh Food Company. The surprise of finding my Aunt Sarah, Grandma Marge, and PopPop waiting for me in my doorway as I pulled up was something very special, as they all live in Las Vegas, Nevada, so I rarely see them.
Last minute, my brother’s girlfriend bailed due to having caught a stomach bug. I had been banking on her being the person around my dinner table whom I didn’t know very well, but my aunt, grandmother, and grandfather were great substitutes, as I have only seen them a handful of times in my life, due to the distance between us.
My parents lived very different lives until they met one another, and after that they built their current lives hand-in-hand. My mom, Gail, grew up wealthily in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is of Hispanic descent, which you’d never be able to see past her blonde hair dye. Nonetheless, her Western childhood allows her to bring unique perspectives to the table that my brothers and I, having grown up in Kentucky, would never dream of. At the age of 18 she chose the University of Texas to be her home for the following four years, a college where she knew not a single soul. She spent one of her summers working on an Alaskan oil rig as the lead mechanical engineer, and ended up settling down afterwards in Louisville, Kentucky, working for the General Electric Company (GE). My dad, Scott, grew up very differently. He was born and raised in a tiny town, home to 500 people, in rural New York state near the city of Buffalo. His family grew up without much money and he spent much of his time working. His perspectives are always unexpected to me. I tend to stereotype small-town residents as rather narrow-minded, but my father has the most open mind that I know. He went to school for mechanical engineering, same as my mom, and was also hired on at GE in Louisville at the same time that she was. This is where their story began.
A little later down the line, my parents had me, their first-born. Two years later, they had my 17-year-old brother, Clayton. Clayton is a quiet boy with a good head on his shoulders. People often dismiss him as shy, when he just reserves his words for times that he feels that are of value. Clayton has always been an athlete and played every sport under the sun growing up. Not only did he play them, but he was good at them. I’ve always been jealous of his athletic ability, and of the grace with which he receives praise for his abilities. He is a humble boy and takes after my dad in the way that he is open-minded.
Four years after Clayton, Curtis came along. Curtis is a 13-year-old geek who absolutely loves science, Rubik’s Cubes, magic tricks, swimming, and his trumpet. He is wise beyond his years, dedicated, and passionate. He spends his days in the math, science, and technology magnet program at his middle school, his afternoons at swim practice, and his evenings repeating over and over, “Want to see a magic trick?” At heart, he loves to learn.
My aunt and grandparents made the move from Eden, New York to Vegas a little after my dad made the move to Louisville. There, my aunt married and divorced an ex-sniper, recovered, and eventually settled down with a construction worker named Brandon. Over the years, she somehow managed to collect five dogs, which she refers to as her children. She works in a nursing home and has a unique outlook on life because rather than having experience with children, like most women her age do, she has extensive experience with older folks.
My PopPop and Grandma have been married since before my dad was born and have always been a symbol of a united front to me. No word does my PopPop justice, save for “goofball.” He is a graduate of Syracuse University, as is my grandmother, a retired insurance salesman, a part-time Home Depot employee, and a big trickster. He is a lover of flashlights in any form of fashion, whether they be ten mini-flashlights that strap onto every finger or color-changing toilet bowl lights for better bathroom vision in the nighttime. This passion of his probably makes him well suited for his job at Home Depot. My grandmother is quite the opposite and often comes across as strict. Their love is proof that opposites attract, and I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen them butt heads, despite their polar personality differences. They have a unique perspective, as they have had to raise three kids on an insufficient amount of money and were unable to escape that poverty even after their children graduated on to adulthood. They ended up declaring bankruptcy, which rocked their world and ours. Many things changed during that period of their lives, and they see things a lot differently now.
I began our discussion while peeling potatoes at the kitchen counter with my mom, aunt and grandmother while the boys prepared the meat. I was disappointed in the fact that my aunt and grandparents reserved themselves for most of the conversation, but they provoked and enabled my intermediate family to dive into a discussion deeper than one we’d ever had before. This depth could not have been reached without their facilitation. It ended up with the three of them asking some of the questions that I had prepared from the list of questions we were provided with in class, which I found to be interesting. It showed that concerns regarding citizenship are relatively universal: they span generations, genders, geographic differences, differences in financial status, and so many factors that could segregate populations, even ones small enough to fit in my kitchen. I thought it was cool that the conversation took the turns that I had anticipated, but that nobody else around the table knew were premeditated. I had been worried that conversation would seem unnatural with all the prompting I planned to do, but I should have saved my worry for something that deserved it more!
I already knew that my mother was registered Republican, my father was registered Independent, and my grandfather was a big Trump supporter. I was unaware of the political affiliations of everyone else around the table, including my own. I was a bit afraid that our conversation would be solely political, but it was the opposite. My mom’s Republican affiliation shown through her answers a bit as most of them involved leading a Christian life and acting as a light to others, while my dad’s answers were a bit more exploratory and varied in terms of religion and logic. My grandfather cracked a few Trump jokes, but nothing serious or overbearing. I expected this.
I was most surprised by my brothers’ answers. Of 13 and 17-year-old boys, I didn’t expect much. They’re still fooling around and growing up along the way and at times I wonder whether they really put much thought into things like citizenship, community, and their own obligations to the society as human beings. My brothers don’t have much experience in the real world, so I couldn’t fathom how they could formulate the real-world answers that I was looking for.
Despite this, Clayton ended up drawing a lot upon his lifeguarding job, saying that it taught him about fiscal responsibility which allowed him, in turn, to consider donating to causes that he had only supported morally until then. He said that his job helped him meet more people in the neighborhood which taught him about the importance of a united community. This also showed him something he had always had but always taken for granted: the fact that my parents had introduced him to every last one of our neighbors and that he knew there was always someone around to help him in times of emergency, spare him an egg, or shoot basketball with. He also learned about the importance of genuinely caring for the well-being of others. He mentioned that while it is difficult to attend to a few hundred people in a 50-meter long pool for hours in the hot sun, he learned how to pay attention even when it was difficult because not only did he not want to be in trouble with his boss if a drowning occurred on his watch, but he didn’t want that loss on his own conscience either.
Curtis also spouted out some impressive answers that I figured he was incapable of. He didn’t have a summer lifeguarding job to refer to for validation of his answers, so I knew that everything he was saying was something that he genuinely felt, not something that he had personally experienced, watched, or been taught. When asked whether his “job” served a greater purpose, he acknowledged that while he did not have a part-time or full-time job that was paying him checks bi-weekly, he was a student and his time in school was spent learning valuable skills that would one day enable him to earn a job that helps others. He aspires to be in the military, and I believe his hopes of that were the driving force behind the answer he provided. Later, Curtis made my favorite astounding comment of the night. When asked what advice he would give to someone running for office, he said, “I would tell them not to do things because of their political identity. I would tell them to make decisions and do things the way they know is right.” Politics and leadership are complicated in ways that Curtis’s innocent brain can’t comprehend, but sometimes it’s necessary to take the seriousness down a notch and remember that we simply need to upkeep the best version of our country to later pass on to Curtis’s generation. While he’s too young to register as a voter, I think that if he holds onto this simplistic piece of advice, our country will be in good hands when it comes his time. His comment reminded me of “If It Feels Right” by David Brooks. The article discussed morality in terms of it being in its decline, but Curtis reminded me that sometimes going by your gut feeling is for the best.
Through this discussion, I learned a lot of the same things that I’ve learned in class but never really seen played out in my household. It’s not necessarily that these themes haven’t been prioritized-citizenship, morality, religion, etc.-but we’ve never actually sat down and discussed the driving forces behind them all. Our discussion also reminded me of “The Energy Diet” by Andrew Postman. Postman noted that even just the tiniest intentional expenditures of energy could make a big difference. I realized that my family members, specifically my brothers, have been making these tiny intentional expenditures of energy all along, when I just thought they were stumbling through life, accidentally becoming good, respectable citizens and neighbors.
Pictured from left to right are Clayton, Curtis, myself, my mom Gail above me, my Aunt Sarah next to me, my PopPop, and my dad, Scott. My Grandma Marge insisted on taking the picture because she wasn’t “camera ready.”