My parents and I always talked a lot when I was younger. We’d talk over dinner, then talk around the dinner table long after dinner was gone. Then — tired of sitting in straight-back chairs — we’d take the conversation into the den, which we called the caboose because it was a room added on to the back of the house. We disagreed a lot.
We disagreed about Vietnam and the meaning of long hair and beards. We disagreed about the Watergate hearings and what Nixon knew. We disagreed about racial issues and government programs and big business and the Alaskan pipeline and some stuff in my personal life that I’d rather not go into now. Of course, we found some common ground (more common ground as I’ve grown older), but the thing is, we never really stopped talking. We still talk.
I’ve never told my parents this, but I never stopped listening. Even when I argued and pretended to tune them out, scowled or stonewalled them (petulantly flipping through the channels with the remote), I was listening. Their words and meanings landed. And later, when I’d be alone in my room or pondering the complexities we’d been debating, their voices, their viewpoints and their convictions echoed inside of me. I was still listening. Still do.
My parents are devout “old school” Catholics. My father fought in World War II. Both he and my mother speak of Republican presidents with unfailing decorum, referring to them as “Mr. Bush” and “Mr. Reagan.” Democrats are not afforded the same respect. By definition. My father uses, let’s call them “nicknames” when speaking of Democrats. Me, I don’t care much for politics, one side or the other.
One reason I don’t care much for politics is because, well, it’s politics. Maybe the other reason is what I learned all those years talking with my parents — there are no simple solutions, no one way to look at things, no one person or group having all the answers. My parents sure didn’t know everything. I guess I didn’t either. That’s why — as I’ve learned — you’ve got to keep listening, and hearing.
My parents are in their 80s now, and they still don’t know everything. So we keep talking. We talk about war and peace, about the church, about the environment, about personal morality and who we are and why we can’t get along with all those we share the world with. We talk about many of the things we put on the table when doing this magazine.
We don’t always like what we hear. We don’t always agree. But we’ve all lived long enough to know how important the talking is, how important the listening — even when we think we have the answers, or think we’ve heard it all. There’s an essay here about this by Mark Yates. He writes about the stories his father told and what they mean now. I hope you like it. I think you will.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.