Some years after my mother’s passing, I went through a box of faded newspaper clippings, the kind that mothers keep of their children’s successes, no matter how minor. Mixed in with the wedding announcements and school awards was a letter written to the editor of The Greenville News. The letter, penned by my sister in early 1969 when she was a junior at Blue Ridge High School, praised incoming President Richard Nixon for having Rev. Billy Graham pray at his Inauguration and preach at the White House. She went on to encourage Nixon to keep Graham close by for counsel and prayer as our country went through difficult times. She closed by affirming her love of God and country.
My sister’s idealism was not typical of teenagers during the late 1960’s or at least not typical of the drug-fueled kind portrayed later as the Woodstock Generation. While talking with her about the letter, I discovered that her idealism was typical of her classmates at Blue Ridge. She described her lunch table where a student was free to sit only if the student was prepared to discuss the important issues of the day – issues like civil rights, Viet Nam, assassinations or other revolutions of the street. I later found a photo of her in a Blue Ridge High classroom from that same school year. She sat in front of a bulletin board boasting a picture of Hemingway and a list of the Ten Commandments as she talked to the class about some subject not noted on the photo’s proof label – maybe it was a lesson on Nixon and the Ten Commandments. She went on to become an excellent high school English teacher. A career choice that would carry her to teach my future 11th grade class.
Being fourteen years younger than her, my sister profoundly shaped my worldview. She did so by including me in her own interests. I remember watching her create the vivid geometric designs on her abstract paintings, hearing the quiet notes of Beethoven’s Fuer Elise from her piano, flipping through the many books lying about – Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen to name a few favorite writers – that she eventually taught me to read. Playing with the treasures brought back from her recent tour of Europe. A green colored glass dachshund with needle nose and tail, a chalet inspired Swiss music box and a sleek black Venetian gondola comes to mind. I don’t have a Swiss chalet or a gondola, but dachshunds have been my constant companions ever since. Her photos of Switzerland, France, Italy showed me that the Alps are a long way from the Blue Ridge. She opened my mind to vast possibilities.
Later on she would take me to see my first Shakespeare production (we discussed recently whether it was A Midsummer’s Night Dream or Much Ado About Nothing) and my first opera (Faust, we think). Later on I would study Kit Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in a graduate school Renaissance drama class. Just last year my son had a part in his school’s production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. With him, my sister’s influence became generational in my own very slender branch of the family tree.
If The Greenville News were to run her Nixon letter today, she would be ridiculed for her seeming naiveté. The online trolls would not understand that she knew Nixon had the same temptations of political greed and ambition common to all men. When my sister praised Nixon, she had already read Macbeth. She understood that the ideal must be stated if only to stand as a beacon when the electorate has to avert their eyes from the bloodstained chalk line of the latest fallen politician.
My sister has been my most stalwart encourager during my time in the South Carolina House. Her continued idealism, not just in politics, but in how to live and treat others frames my thoughts and my votes. Even today as she faces her life’s final battle, her idealism – Christian faith is a better description in this case – remains strong and her treatment of her family, friends, my son and myself filled with heaven bound loving-kindness.