Updated: Aug 16, 2021
This picture of my maternal grandparents, Abraham (Al) and Sara Ring, popped up in my Facebook feed from five years ago. The picture is much older. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72, in the fall of 1984, barely into my first semester of law school. Although sad, that’s not unusual. What’s more so is that Papa, as my sister, Wendy, and I called him (from when she struggled with “Grandpa” as a toddler, and it stuck), stopped school at the eighth grade to support his family. Those who met my grandfather would never have known.
A generally quiet man, Papa daily read the newspapers, morning and evening editions when that was a thing, and he regularly watched the news, always well aware of the world around him. Although my grandparents enjoyed visiting there, Papa once famously said that he would never retire to Florida because he couldn’t imagine living where the most pressing story of the day would involve the rising price of cantaloupe. He loved sports, following the Red Sox religiously, demonstrating dedicated Boston fandom at a time when the team always delivered on failing to deliver. He was ever the reliable one—picking us up at the airport and dropping us off, always arriving to help if there was a crunch.
This summer and upcoming fall, I am working on a major project involving my deepening concerns about our failing democracy. I’ve read countless works by esteemed philosophers, historians, political scientists, and legal scholars. And yet, when I saw this picture in my feed, something occurred to me. For all the knowledge I’ve gained from these readings, none capture an essential wisdom I learned from Papa well before law school.
When my parents met, my grandfather had been in the junk business, driving a truck to collect it, and later dispensing what he gathered at a drop center. This is a young man’s game. Although their relationship was often strained, my father helped transition Papa into a career as a manufacturer’s representative, meaning a salesman for several companies rather than an employee of one.
Several years before he became ill, Papa and I spent a day together on the road. He took me for his usual breakfast jaunt, to the S&S, where he met with a regular group of friends, eating the same meal each day. He introduced me to several clients. He told me, as we entered one store, about a billing dispute. The company had failed to collect on an invoice, which Papa later told me he immediately cleared up that day. I remember thinking the business might be a front, although I wasn’t sure for what. When my cousin wrote this story about Al securing palliative marijuana for Sara, decades before it was legal in Massachusetts, I remembered back to that story. (Although Sara was diagnosed with breast cancer long before Al fell ill, she outlived him for more than a year).
Unlike Sara, who was extremely sharp-witted, Papa was generally reserved. The story goes that he saw, and fell in love with, her picture at the age of sixteen, and he strategized meeting her. Despite their different personalities, he held his own. Once at my family’s house, after a somewhat longer than usual bathroom visit, Grandma asked what happened. Papa replied: “I’ll write you a letter.“ My grandfather was a complicated product of his time, as familiar with davening in Hebrew in his Orthodox shul as he was with a fisherman‘s platter.
An economist who knew my grandparents once told me about a conversation between my grandfather and a wealthy man who was complaining about taxes. My grandfather told the man that if he can earn that much money, he could afford to pay.
My mother, Audrey Ring Stearns, who passed away in 2015, told one of my favorite stories. When she first got her driver’s license, she went out for a ride by herself for the very first time. She hit another car; thankfully no one was hurt. She ran to the house, crying and devastated, saying she would was never going to drive again. My grandfather responded emphatically: “No! You will take the time to calm yourself down, and then you will go back downstairs and drive. Today.” His version of tough love.
When I applied to law schools, Papa asked to read one of my essays. After finishing it, he told my mother and me that I must become a lawyer. When he became so ill that he wouldn’t take visitors or calls, I called from Charlottesville. I later learned that those with him were stunned that he insisted on speaking with me one last time.
A growing literature studies the widening cultural divide separating those who have, or lack, a four-year college degree. Harvard Philosopher, Michael Sandel, claims that this juxtaposition helps explain the animosity among populists toward perceived cultural elites. Political scientist Russel Dalton has demonstrated similar divides across Europe. I am not refuting or making light of these claims. We must be more attentive to all segments of our society. But as I think about my grandfather's legacy, it’s clear that something’s missing.
I have no doubt that were he alive today, despite his eighth-grade education, Papa would never have joined the rallying cries of the marginalized populist right. He would be horrified by Trumpism and all it stands for, would have lined up to get a vaccine (while wearing a mask and social distancing), and would be distressed by global climate change. Papa’s wisdom, born of experience not formal education, reveals what’s missing in the cultural cleavage literature: how we think about love, commitment, and community. For my grandfather, love was never about making sure that his family didn’t lose what he had. Instead, love was about conceiving a future for his children and grandchildren that he knew he couldn’t anticipate or even imagine. It wasn’t about him; it was about others, including those he might never know.
Populist discontent regards politics as a zero-sum game. Their win is my loss, and “my” implies me. For my grandfather, the real players in any such game always extended beyond himself. This was true whether he was thinking of taxes, driving, education, or just life. I know it would have been also true of masking, social distancing, and vaccines. Today’s populists draw the circle tighter and tighter, and the smaller the circle, the sharper the cultural divides. Papa’s wisdom was always thinking broadly, beyond the cantaloupe; expanding the circle; and imagining the unimaginable.
Al Ring and Audrey Ring Stearns both died of pancreatic cancer. If this post inspires you, please consider a donation of any size to this link. I won’t put a goal, but I’ve kicked this off with $100.
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