On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood

(Image: OR Books)(Image: OR Books)The daughter of two antiwar activists, Frida Berrigan was raised in a faith-based community with a mission of social justice advocacy. In her book, It Runs in the Family, Berrigan writes about being raised by radicals and gives advice on how to integrate child rearing into fighting for change. Order the book now by clicking here and donating to Truthout.

The following excerpt from It Runs in the Family is about the passing of Frida Berrigan’s father, Philip Berrigan, and the impact of her parents on her life:

On December 6, 2002, sometime after dinner, he died. He died at Jonah House, and more than thirty of his friends, family, and community members were there. We had walked the last weeks with him.

Each of us wept, probing the hole that his absence would leave in our lives. We stood around him and prayed, cried, and said goodbye. There was gratitude too—that his long, painful journey was over. We were all confident that we gained a powerful advocate in heaven. The pine box that my brother and friends made was ready, beautifully painted by the iconographer Bill McNichols. We prepared the body and laid him in the coffin in dry ice.

The wake and funeral were at Saint Peter Claver, where Dad had served as a priest decades earlier. The night after the wake, we gathered around him one last time and then nailed the coffin closed. I remember my Uncle Jim, my dad’s oldest living brother at the time, driving nails deep with just two whacks of the hammer, in contrast to my own clumsy, off-center pings.

The next morning was cold, clear, and so beautiful. Dad was loaded on to the back of a pickup truck and my sister Kate, our sister-in-law Molly, and I rode in the truck with him. Other people carried signs and banners as we processed the mile or so to the church for the funeral mass. I don’t remember that much of the service, but it was a strangely happy occasion. Dad was gone, but he was still so present in the room full of people who loved him. That presence was the theme of the eulogy that Kate and I wrote, which read in part:

He is here with us every time a hammer strikes on killing metal, transforming it from a tool of death to a productive, life-giving, life-affirming implement.

He is here with us every time a member of the church communicates the central message of the gospel (thou shalt not kill) and acts to oppose killing, rather than providing the church seal of approval on war.

He is here whenever joy and irreverent laughter and kindness and hard work are present. He is here every time we reach across color and class lines and embrace each other as brother and sister.

We ended by saying, “Thanks, Dad, for lessons in freedom, inside and outside of prison. And thanks to all of you for struggling toward freedom and working to build a just and peaceful world. Our dad lives on in you.” I have only seen my mother cry a few times. She broke down at my dad’s grave—wept and sobbed as he was being lowered into it, with the torches and snow and music evoking some sort of timeless Viking ritual.

She broke, and then she began to remake herself. For the last twelve years, she has continued a life of community, labor, prayer, organizing, resistance, studying the Bible, and innovation. She devotes time and energy to her prodigious gift for art. Donkeys, goats, llamas, and guinea fowl have joined the Jonah House community and now quarrel and push one another at feeding time. Six incredible youngsters now call her Grandma, showering her with sloppy kisses and clumsy drawings and pawing her with sticky hands. She wears her “Grandmothers for Peace” sweatshirt like a banner—fiercely and with great love.

Now that I am a mom, I do more than rely on my parents’ fierceness. I shake my head in awe at what they were able to accomplish. Their basic competency, indomitable strength, spiritual consistency, and indefatigable spirits are guideposts for me as I try to find myself as a parent. They leave me with big shoes to fill. Big shoes, but many gifts. My mom is quick to reassure me that I’m doing just fine as a mom. My dad always told us that we—his kids—were way ahead of him because he didn’t “wake up” until he was in his forties and we were—God bless us—born awake. I know I can’t match their intensity or their dogged pursuit of peace. So what can I offer my own children?

The great American poet Wendell Berry calls us to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” That seems to sum up my parents—unlike so many conscientious people, they were not burdened or haunted by the ills of the world. My dad was joyful. My mom still is; inspite of everything they knew and experienced. Why? Because they saw themselves as part of the dynamic that is trying to change the world. With that belief—and lived experience—they endowed us with a moral cheerfulness that is both sustaining and infectious.

My parents showed me that being part of building a new society in the shell of the old is fun, interesting, and refreshing. It brought my sister, brother and I into deep relationships with strange and fascinating people, freed us from the bounds of convention, consumption, and carelessness. It allowed us to be creative; it motivated us to build what you need and share it with neighbors. I see that moral cheerfulness in my husband’s upbringing as well. At our best, Patrick and I draw from that well of strength in our parenting and offer moral cheerfulness to our children.

From our parents, Patrick and I learned how to live well without a lot of money, to speak up for justice in big and small ways, to treasure the richness of diversity, and to value truth and love above pretty much everything else.

What does that look like in practice? Potluck dinners, composting, knowing our neighbors, belonging to the community garden and the food co-op, looking after other people’s children, joyfully embracing chores and family work, pitching in with food and time when a neighbor is in need, advocating for peace and justice, being enthusiastic members of our local Unitarian Universalist church, greeting people by name, cultivating curiosity in our children, having time for each other and for others, sharing what we have, and so much more.

Our life today isn’t a cookie-cutter version of my own childhood—thank goodness—but I am grateful for the many ways in which my unique upbringing informs, complicates, and supports my own parenting.

Copyright (2014) of Frida Berrigan. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, OR Books.