The Closet Politik
My grandfather was a closet Republican.
Harry Truman was his hero.
Born near Wilkes-Barre, PA, of parents who’d hailed from Cornwall, England, he’d brought his young wife, Mae, across the Commonwealth on or about 1915 to build cranes at Bucyrus-Erie. Yet, Erie, newly founded, was up and coming and this move — for a working-class conservative — was, at its heart, progressive.
But, after having attended a tent meeting led by Christian evangelist Billy Sunday, this naturally gruff dogmatist had experienced a conviction of belief which would solidify his politics for life. He brought with him to Erie a Bible-thumping, street preacher’s passion and, after meeting two elders of the Plymouth Brethren at the City Mission, would join their fellowship at the Gospel Assembly Hall on East Avenue.
But, Henry Thomas Sweet would not register to vote.
He and the rest of his fellow fundamentalists would populate a small, but ardent, segment of this growing town. Their teachings were the most extreme among conservatives; preaching that only those things due Caesar would be rendered, the rest would be left up to Almighty God — who would put into office whom He will.
Still, Henry Sweet taught his family all the values upheld by the Republican party. Hard work having yielded sufficient income, all resources would be put toward the sustenance of family and a tenth toward “the Lord’s work”, all capital kept close to the vest for just such purposes. The downtrodden were to be regarded as slacking, irresponsible, vagrant, and were admonished — from the street corner pulpit — to “Get up out of the gutter, repent, and get a j.o.b.”
What Henry and Mae did was work. Raising four daughters, they used their hands — baking bread, and delivering it door to door; hooking and braiding rugs, from old, discarded wool coats rescued from the Salvation Army; planting vegetable gardens, and fruit trees, gathering their harvest (had poultry been permitted inside the city limits, they’d likely have had hens and chickens); “slaving” over the stove, preparing meals for the entire, extended family for every holiday and birthday celebration. Mae also sewed, repairing and altering all manner of clothing, and creating from remnants everything from pajamas to suits and spring coats, draperies, and furniture slipcovers. Henry, after a long day at the crane factory, maintained every inch of their humble property on East 29th Street, as well as their royal blue Chrysler.
In his final decade, disaffected and excommunicated from the Brethren for “railing”, sunken into his harvest gold La-Z-Boy recliner in the northeast corner of the living room reading his National “Geographs” and his Bible, listening to talk radio (and, calling in daily), he would brood.
Sympathy was not part of his lexicon. Compassion was merely a concept, to be contemplated while meditating upon the person of the Christ. Weakness was not to be indulged; one was given a life, and one must take up the reins of it and serve the Lord with all one’s might. Paying income tax was the bane of existence.
Three of the four daughters carried on the traditions of his closet politics. All honorable citizens they, nevertheless, also never registered to vote — raising their children to accept having come out from among them, being separate, avowing to touch not the unclean thing. There were us, the elect bride of Christ, and there were them, the reprobate, damned to hellfire lest they repent and believe the Gospel.
I don’t know what happened. But, something did. Time, and its inevitable evolution. Being Republican of mentality used to mean such noble (if self-centered) intent, even if it appealed to the most narrow-minded among them. One wonders if the GOP was forever affected by those who will only vote for he or she whom their God has ordained. Being a Democrat came to defy such selfish, belief-driven ideals. In between, I now find myself — a registered Independent, caught, without a closet in which to hide. We are all part of America, a nation of so many small countries fighting to stay socially intact, more exposed than ever before, members of a globe of earthly nations pushing and pulling and hanging on.
And, the world’s eye is still on our family.