For My Grandmother, on November 9
I am thinking of you today, just six months gone from this world. When did we last sing Joe Hill together? Was it in the nursing home, all of us crowded into your little room, or was it at a family gathering before your decline, your voice creaky and wildly off key, full of heart, inviting us all to join in?
And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize
You sang with your eyes closed, always, and a delighted smile. For you, Joe was Joe Hill, and also your father, Joe Gelders, who sacrificed his life in the struggle for racial and economic justice in Depression-era Alabama. You were only ten years old when he was beaten and left for dead in retaliation for his organizing work, and only 23, pregnant with your first child, when he finally died from those injuries. The name Joe is scattered through our family like confetti, in memory of him.
Just a few years later, in San Francisco, another Joe (McCarthy) came for your sweet, idealistic radio-personality husband. I have been thinking, on this day of Trump’s election, of the years that followed: the arrival of the subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the immediate (within hours) end of his cherished career, his decision to refuse to testify on first amendment grounds (he couldn’t take the fifth, he’d done nothing wrong, he said, and cooperation with HUAC was out of the question), then the contempt of congress conviction, and the long years when the FBI pursued him to every new job (even in a sandwich shop) advising employers to let him go.
I have been thinking, after watching Clinton’s tough, graceful, and heartfelt concession speech today, about how you stepped up and out during the McCarthy years, completing your degree and supporting your family as a chemist and statistician, as the 1950s reached their stifling, heteronormative peak. I have been thinking about how much you loved your career in the emerging field of biostatistics, how glad you were to use numbers to help people.
And I have been thinking of how, as the 1960s turned to the 1970s, when your questions grew so big they wouldn’t fit into the structure of science, or politics, or family life, you gave it all up and went to live in a monastery in the mountains (with your obliging husband), dedicating the last 45 years of your life to studying and teaching love and kindness.
I am thinking of you today, because we need our ancestors with us now, as we enter this new chapter in the struggle for a just world. I know you had your ancestors with you, through the dangers of growing up Jewish and radical in Depression-era Alabama, and as you struggled to raise your family in McCarthy-era California. Not just your father, who gave up his career as a physics professor, and eventually his life, in the fight for racial and economic justice in the pre-War South, but also Aunt Bertha Van Marle (I remember you said you called her “Aunt Buddha”), who helped to found the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at the Hague in 1915, and Uncle Isidor Gelders, who used his position as a newspaper editor in small-town Georgia to advocate for free textbooks in public schools, and public ownership of utilities.
So, now, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night they burned the synagogue in your grandfather’s hometown in Germany, I am gathering strength from you, and from all my ancestors, as we prepare to continue our struggle for human decency in the raw landscape of Trump’s America.