Each summer, as children, my brother and I spent most of August at the cottage Grandpa Rodham had built in 1921 about twenty miles northwest of Scranton in the Pocono Mountains overlooking Lake Winola. The rustic cabin had no heat except for the cast-iron cook stove in the kitchen, and no indoor bath or shower. To stay clean, we swam in the lake or stood below the back porch while someone poured a tub of water onto our heads. The big front porch was our favorite place to play and where our grandfather shared hands of cards with my brothers and me. He taught us pinochle, the greatest card game in the world, in his opinion. He read us stories and told us the legend of the lake, which he claimed was named after an Indian princess, Winola, who drowned herself when her father would not let her marry a handsome warrior from a neighboring tribe. When I was as young as ten or eleven, I played pinochle with the men—my grandfather, my father, and assorted others, including such memorable characters as “Old Pete” and Hank, who were notorious sore losers. Pete lived at the end of a dirt road and showed up to play every day, invariably cursing and stomping off if he started losing. Hank came only when my father was there. He would totter up to the front porch with his cane and climb the steep stairs yelling, “Is that black-haired bastard home? I want to play cards.” He’d known my dad since he was born and had taught him to fish. He didn’t like losing any better than Pete, occasionally upended the table after a particularly irksome defeat.
After the war, my dad started a small drapery fabric business, Roderick Fabrics, in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago’s Loop. He employed day laborers, as well as enlisting my mother, my brothers and me when we were old enough to help with the printing. We carefully poured the paint onto the edge of the silk screen and pulled the squeegee across to print the pattern on the fabric underneath. Then we lifted up the screen and moved down the table, over and over again, creating beautiful patterns, some of which my father designed. My favorite was “Staircase to the Stars.”
In 1950, when I was three years old and my brother Hugh was still an infant, my father had done well enough to move the family to suburban Park Ridge. The post-war population explosion was booming, and there were swarms of children everywhere. My mother once counted forty-seven kids living on our square block.
My mother was a classic homemaker. When I think of her in those days, I see a woman in perpetual motion, making the beds, washing the dishes and putting dinner on the table precisely at six o’clock. One summer, she helped me create a fantasy world in a large cardboard box. We used mirrors for lakes and twigs for trees, and I made up fairy-tale stories for my dolls to act out. Another summer, she encouraged my younger brother Tony to pursue his dream of digging a hole all the way to China. She started reading to him about China and every day he spent time digging his hole next to our house. Occasionally, he found a chopstick or fortune cookie my mother had hidden there.
My brother Hugh was even more adventurous. As a toddler he pushed open the door to our sundeck and happily tunneled through three feet of snow until my mother rescued him. My mother loved her home and her family, but she felt limited by the narrow choices of her life. She started taking college courses when we were older. She never graduated, but she amassed mountains of credits in subjects ranging from logic to child development. My mother was offended by the mistreatment of any human being, especially children. She understood from personal experience that many children—through no fault of their own—were disadvantaged and discriminated against from birth. As a child in California, she had watched Japanese Americans in her school endure blatant discrimination and daily taunts from the Anglo students.
I grew up between the push and tug of my parents’ values, and my own political beliefs reflect both. My mother was basically a Democrat, although she kept it quiet in Republican Park Ridge. My dad was a rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican and highly opinionated to put it mildly.