Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

In Families, The Unspoken Too Often Becomes The Unknown

I was thinking about a baseball game I was privileged to attend recently with my family. Our team didn't make out too well but we didn't care, sated as we were with the hot dogs, the ice cream and the excitement.

Later it hit me that I don't remember ever doing something like that with my parents when I was growing up. Don't get me wrong; we had enough to eat, we weren't dodging bullets and I am grateful to have had two parents who both lived to see me to adulthood. But I don't remember ever going to anything like a ballgame with them; save for one glorious Jackson 5 concert my parents took us to. My father, ever the fire marshal, made us leave early — to beat the rush, he said.

I do remember the very rare trip to very crowded city beaches, and the occasional outing to places that often went wrong, for whatever reason — places where fights would break out, or some mess or another. In fact, "Some Mess or Another" could be the title if I ever wrote about my childhood, which I doubt I will do.

But I will say this: For years in my child's mind I thought my father was cheap or mean or just terminally disorganized. And then it hit me one day out of the blue, that he was just doing the best he could do. He — and I mean he because he was definitely the CEO of that operation — was taking us where he could afford to go.

And although years later I was fortunate enough to be able to take my parents to some nice places, including the occasional ballgame, I never got the chance to ask my father how he came to make the choices he did make. A stroke has left him with only enough speech to indicate the most basic of desires. The time for deep conversations about his hopes and dreams and the forces that shaped him has passed.

Two very different books I read recently made me think about that. The first is by my colleague here at NPR, Michele Norris, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. She has just published a memoir called The Grace of Silence. And we expect to tell you more about it when we have her on the program soon. But one of the lessons of the book I will mention now is the importance of trying to dig those family stories out before it is too late.

In Michele's case and mine, by the time we learned some critical facts about our fathers it was too late to ask them to fill in the blanks. She has managed, through some dogged reporting, to fill in some of them, especially about a critical but unspoken of event in her father's life. And she has gone on to speculate about why so many such events go unspoken in so many of our lives.

That silence, she came to believe, was that generation's way of shielding those who came after, of trying to make space for a new relationship with this country, unencumbered by the bitterness of past slights and wounds and trials.

Did they make the right decision? Who knows; it was the decision they, and so many others felt, at the time, they had to make.

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Can I just tell you? The question is, what decision should we make now? How much truth will we tell about our own lives, our motivations? All of us — politicians included. Especially, as we again debate how our country's deficit will be addressed, and how critical issues like education will be paid for. Who will be on the winning end as the scales are tipped one way or the other as they always seem to be? And how honest will everyone be about why and how that happened? How honest will we be with ourselves and with our children?

And that question leads me to the second book I read recently. It's titled Creating an Opportunity Society and was published a year ago by two scholars at the Brookings Institution, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill. Their book makes the point that for all the headlines, Americans just don't care that much about income inequality. But what many Americans do care about is ensuring equal opportunity — so that hard work and initiative can pay off for each new generation. And on that point, the authors suggest, America's enduring belief in its own fairness is misplaced. The authors write that although there is economic mobility from one generation to the next our economy tends to help those at the top stay there and makes it very difficult for those at the bottom to move up. For example, the incomes of those with less than a college degree — people like my father who left school early to help support his younger siblings after his father took off — have not increased for three decades or more.

The long and short of it is, according to the authors, success in this country matters far more than we like to believe on who your parents are, no matter whether they told their family stories or decided to keep silent. So the second question is, how long will the rest of us keep silent about that.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues