The following was originally intended to appear in the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal. But when my father died on April 28th, the timing for tributes changed. Since today is the birthday of Ellen Marie Hart (nee Jones), it seems a fitting day on which to run it.
Within thirty-six hours of my motherâ€™s death on March 26th, 2010, I was responsible for teaching a lesson in Sunday school on J. Gresham Machen. Since this was the second of a thirteen-week series, I needed to cover his upbringing, education, and church background. This meant that I was going to be talking about Machenâ€™s relationship to his mother, Mary Gresham Machen, aka Minnie. In turn this involved talking about her background as a native of Macon, Georgia, her fatherâ€™s business and political activities, the townhouse of the Greshams, now a four-star Bed and Breakfast â€“ the 1842 Inn â€“ that still features photographs of young J. Gresham Machen attired in a dress (the custom of the day), and Minnieâ€™s own literary pursuits; she wrote The Bible in Browning and was published by MacMillan â€“ the same company that published her sonâ€™s Christianity and Liberalism two decades later.
As I prepared and taught I became aware of a major problem in my own existence, namely, that I know more about Machenâ€™s mother and family than I actually do about mine. This reality became all the more glaring on the day of my motherâ€™s burial when one of her sisters and one sister-in-law traveled to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from Green County, North Carolina for the service. I had not seen these aunts for almost four decades. They seemed to revel in catching my brother, wife and me up on family news. And through it all they let us know, not in a didactic way, but simply as part of the ordinary quality of their lives, that all of my motherâ€™s siblings had remained in North Carolina, reared their families there, and that most of their grandchildren were still in the Tar Heel state. Not only was I jealous of this side of my humanity â€“ after all I am as much a Jones as a Hart. But the Jones and the Crawfords and the Murphys and the Sullivans and the Pridgeons â€“ the other families with whom they had bonded in marriage â€“ were practically the embodiment of the localism, agrarianism, and family ways that I have come to admire and be haunted by in the writings of Wendell Berry.
One of the most pressing questions I have had about my mother which bears directly on my growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia rather than in the land of Jesse Helmes, is why she decided after graduating from high school in 1941 to move to Washington, D.C. and work first as a telephone operator and then for the federal government in the accounting office. It made no sense that a woman, the oldest of ten children, would leave a farm and nine young siblings to work in the â€œbigâ€ city. Since she was a born-again Christian, it made even less sense, given the fears that evangelicals generally have of cities, combined with the unwritten code governing a young single womanâ€™s opportunities. My aunts, however, made some sense of the move by explaining that mother had moved to Washington with her oldest sister, and that they lived with one of their future aunts. So it was not a career move but a family connection that brought my mother to the nationâ€™s capital during wartime.
But that move was decisive for her and me because she met a man in a Marineâ€™s dress-blue uniform at a Baptist church (Mark Deverâ€™s, by the way) and fell in love. That man, my father, hailed from southeastern Pennsylvania and after he served in the Pacific and then attended college at Bob Jones University, thanks to the G.I. Bill, they bypassed North Carolina on the way to â€œgoâ€ in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the armpit of Bucks County and the horror of post-war suburban development. But much like my Jones relatives in the South, my parents didnâ€™t know any better. They hadnâ€™t read Jane Jacobs or Howard Kunstler or Wendell Berry or Russell Kirk. They simply did the best they could to rear a family. For the Harts that meant finding affordable housing near a good church and close to kin; for the Jones that meant rearing families and supporting them in the opportunities provided by ditch digging, tobacco farming, auto sales, and real estate brokering.
Unlike my kinfolk, I am a deracinated academic who knows how to find literature on family ties or who devoted a good portion of his life to the life and writings of one man and became so enamored of those ideas that he found out more about Machen than about either of his grandfathers, Robert Jones or Clyde Hart. I suspect that this is a problem that afflicts many aspiring intellectuals â€“ the lure of some author or thinker from the past whose writing has changed their outlook on the big questions. In turn object of intellectual desire directs and guides the student more than the pupilâ€™s own parents and family. Ideas do have consequences. They help to define our understanding of ourselves, and our situations, and become the motive for action. They even tempt us to discount the influence of parents and the legacy of families.
In my own case, I continue to regard Baltimore as more of a home than either Levittown or Greenville, North Carolina. Part of that owes to spending six years there while in graduate school. But a good chunk of it also stems from the subject of my studies during that time â€“ Machen, whose family residence was four blocks from our first apartment, not to mention the reading and writing I did on H. L. Mencken, the bard of Baltimore whose home was only two blocks away from our grad school dwelling. Some of us eggheads get so caught up in a historical figureâ€™s life that we actually place ourselves in their narrative. Meanwhile, the real story to which we belong lies strewn across the informal conversations and fading memories of aging aunts, uncles, cousins, and grand parents.
One way to try to justify this identity confusion is to portray myself as the victim of declining family ties. Whatever the legitimate reasons my parents may have had for moving to Levittown, they did not choose a place that would sustain links to kin (for starters). Again, they were not in the habit of considering pedestrian-friendly streets, interconnected street grid networks, mixed-use zoning, increased density, or â€œgreenâ€ transportation when looking for a place to live. They had experienced a depression and a war. Having survived Iwo Jima my father had freedom to buy a home where he darned well (humanly speaking) wanted. He and mother didnâ€™t need some guilt-ridden baby boomer historian of a son to come along and claim his rights as a victim of poor parental housing choices and the accompanying industrial military complex.
That said, as soon as I saw the city I knew I wanted to get out of Levittown as fast as I could because it had none of the interest or energy that people living together in one relatively self-sustaining polity had. And once that switch flicked on, gone were circumstances that would sustain identification at least with the Harts, not to mention the Jones.
Then again, maybe my loss of roots stems from my motherâ€™s own decision to leave the farm in Green County where her grandmother Jones (nee Crawford) was born and move to Washington. Is it too tidy to think that she passed on to me through her egg the appeal of urban life and the dislocation that cities yield? After all, when she moved to D.C. her life would not be the same as her siblings. (The one sister who moved with her married a soldier from North Carolina, thus making easier a return to her native state.)
And what of my motherâ€™s temperament and interests that might have predicted my interest in Machen? Motherâ€™s disposition was toward stubbornness and contrariness, attributes that many have attributed to the Presbyterian â€œbad boy of Baltimore.â€ Mother was also militant about the Christian faith in modest ways that resemble Machen. At the same time, she was generous to a fault, something that she also shared with Machen. As difficult as my relationship could be with her â€“ she was the bad cop always telling me to cut my hair, wear a tie to church, and hang around more with Christian friends while my dad was the good cop (except for the execution of corporal punishment, a decidedly male activity), always telling my mother to relax and not be overbearing â€“ she was always sending me back to college stocked with food, clean clothes, and a couple of extra ten dollar bills shoved in my coat pocket.
Of course, it is a stretch of cosmopolitan proportions to attribute my intellectual interests to my genetic inheritance. Too easy is it to let myself off the hook for following ideas more than family. But from the perspective of providence, the gap between ideas and genes is not terribly great. If God could take a privileged, smart, and indecisive son of an urbane and hospitable southern lady from Baltimore and turn him into one of the giants of American Presbyterianism, he can also take the shy, sports-absorbed and sometimes bookish son of a southern exile in the Philadelphia suburbs and turn his life around through studying the kid from Baltimore.
God works in mysterious ways, his wonders and horrors to perform.
P.S. Mother’s birthday is actually June 15th. Having been in Maine for an OPC affair, the sense of the heavenlies caused me to lose track of time on planet earth.