It is often a wonder how we all came to be here, in this exact spot, at this exact moment. I could trace a whole family tree up to my great-great-great-grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, but that’s not imperative for the story. Somehow, Eyvonne and Edward met at church when they were just teenagers and married some years later. He chose to attend some big-wig school to study engineering, but the Vietnam War was raging, and Edward had almost no choice but to enlist in some branch of the military – so he chose the Air Force. They settled in couples housing at an Air Force base, and during the same year of the first Moon landing, Lynn, their first child, was born. Sixteen years and several more moves later, Edward was finally an engineer, Eyvonne was a school teacher, and Lynn was a high school student, and it was then that Lynn met Jim. They would be friends for a long time before they would look at each other romantically, but in Lynn’s last year of college, Jim and Lynn went on their first date. A year later, they would marry, and seven years later, I was born. And now, we are here: a Saturday night in October, in a cabin almost like Heaven, nestled in the rolling mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia.
The day was unusually hot, and to our dismay, the leaves had not yet begun to change for autumn, and were still a Summery, dry green. Nonetheless, this was Fall Break, and the family tradition was to drive four hours southeastward to stay in the rural town of Blue Ridge, and we would enjoy this vacation, even without the chill and color of autumn. Edward was manning the grill, being much more skilled at grilling steaks than the oft-impatient Jim, while Eyvonne, Lynn, and I were busy in the cabin kitchen, preparing baked potatoes, salad, and dinner rolls.
There seemed to be some nervousness at the prospect of tonight, for Eyvonne was quite under the impression that this was to be a performance, despite my reassurances that this was a relaxed chat not unlike any that the five of us had shared before. To assuage her, I provided some sample questions, so she could begin thinking of answers, which seemed to calm her nerves. Lynn, however, seemed to be excited. When I came to her months before and proposed that we do the Kentucky Kitchen Table while we were in Blue Ridge, she was supportive of the idea, if not even a little curious, for she found the BlogSpot and read through some of the entries with interest. Meanwhile, Jim and Edward didn’t know what to expect, nor did they seem to be worried, and were happily conversing on the deck as Edward watched the steaks with vigilance.
Finally, when the table was set and the steaks, potatoes, rolls, and salad were all done, the five of us took our places at the table. I didn’t want to force the conversation, so I waited for a while as we all heaped the food onto our plates. There was, however, a general sense of nervous feeling (or maybe, that was just me) as we built our baked potatoes, and after a little while of munching, I launched into the first question: “Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does ‘citizenship’ mean to you?” I was sure there’d be a few moments of silence while Edward, Eyvonne, Jim, and Lynn contemplated this question, but almost immediately, Edward cleared his throat, leaned a bit forward in engagement, and said very simply, “Contribution.”
The rest nodded in agreement, and he continued, “Being a United States citizen means being active in contributing to the nation’s society and its economy.” I wasn’t the least bit surprised by this answer, but I was somewhat puzzled as to how contribution didn’t necessarily mean voting or paying taxes. In seeing my puzzled look, Jim elaborated. Jim, a finance manager, said that he contributes by helping to sell cars, thus contributing to society. Lynn interjected. Lynn, a quality assurance specialist for a software company, said that she contributes by analyzing software that is distributed to many of the nation’s retail stores for bugs, thus contributing to society.
“But ‘contribution’ doesn’t have to mean employment,” Edward replied, with a genial smile. He and Eyvonne were long retired. Gesturing to himself and his wife, he said, “We contribute to society by assisting our grandchildren in their education.” I chuckled, and nodded my head, remembering the many nights I spent on the phone with him as he explained a difficult statistics problem, or even recently, when I went to him for advice on an astronomy lab. I couldn’t help but think at that moment of one of our three central questions: “How do we solve problems?” 1) The economy is in need of cars. Jim can help supply those cars. 2) The economy is in need of retail software. Lynn can help supply the software. 3) The economy is in need of well-educated adults. Edward often assists me in becoming well-educated adult. Where there is a need demanded, there always appears to be someone supplying. Problems are solved by contribution, making contribution key to citizenship.
However, as I sat at that table, I did not take the time examine what I thought was necessary to citizenship. What do I believe to be a key part of citizenship? The definition of “citizen” is more ambiguous than one might initially believe. I’ve pondered the meaning quite recently, questioning why some citizens born to the U.S. struggle to name the three branches of government, and yet have to privilege to be considered citizens. To me, knowledge of our history and government is vital to citizenship, because a knowledgeable citizen can be an active and deliberative citizen.
Moreover, I question now why it is so difficult, even in 2017, for some to see their fellow citizens as people rather than adversaries. Gender relations and, even more specifically, race relations continue to take a virulent forefront in our political discourse, as we see in Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. Rankine’s book highlights the many ways racial tensions still affect the lives of African Americans today through instances of microaggression, racial profiling, and so on. To me, there is much more to being a citizen than contributing time and resources. We can live well together contributing kindness and understanding, as well as time and resources. Yet I digress.
The subject of contribution seemed to be exhausted, so I moved on to a new topic of conversation; I asked, “Did you ever have meals around the table with your family or neighbors growing up?” There was a raucous response to this question, as all four of them burst into warm laughter.
Jim recalled that he and his family rarely ever went out to eat at restaurants when he was growing up. Every meal was home-cooked, prepared by his mother. But concerning our family, he said, “Sure, we eat out, but there was rarely a day where we did not eat together.” And I was reminded suddenly of another one of our central questions: “how do we live well together?” He explained further: because we spent that time around a table, talking and debriefing, a strong bond had formed between the three of us over eighteen years, just from having that time to talk and the freedom to confide in each other.
Eyvonne interjected, grinning, “Honey, we never ate out when I was growing up.” Certainly, Eyvonne and I grew up quite differently. When Eyvonne was ten, her father passed away, and so her mother became the primary provider, working several jobs. In fact, Eyvonne’s mother hired a help to watch over Eyvonne and her two sisters, as well as cook and clean, and the family never went to a restaurant – dinner was always around a kitchen table. “It was a different time,” Eyvonne said, and I couldn’t agree more.
Indeed, the city which we all called home up until the last decade or so had changed drastically from when Edward and Eyvonne were kids, or even when Jim and Lynn were kids. Throughout the years, the city had continually lost its luster and appeal, with high crime rates, unemployment, and corruption running rampant. Eyvonne and Edward were glad to have moved to my little town. Eyvonne said of their new abode, “Here people smile, and say, ‘hello,’” demonstrating another (very simple) way to live well together: common courtesy. This can be as easy as opening the door for others, being on time (or even early! As Jim would say, “There’s no downside to early!”), or paying attention to someone when they are speaking to you, rather than texting or checking Twitter (something that I am often guilty of). Common courtesy is somewhat of a lost art in this millennial age.
And indeed, the differences between generations seems much more evident than ever before. Despite, Edward and Eyvonne being my grandparents, and Jim and Lynn being my parents, I learned things that night that I had previously never knew before, especially concerning their younger days. And yet, every single day of their lives culminated in all of us being there that night, discussing what it means to be a citizen. Whether contribution means the donation of time and resources or kindness and understanding to our fellow citizens, we can all make steps toward living well together.