The American Dream and My Parents:
Embracing Exceptionalism, Idealism, and Pragmatism
By. Raimondo Graziano
~ Written sometime after the 45th President’s Inauguration
The United States of America is a nation that was built on ideals. These ideals concern democracy, the rule of law, liberty and economic freedom and mobility. Today there is a great deal of talk on the collapse of our American ideals and preconceptions of everlasting dominance, globally. We are witnessing the stagnation of wages, the degradation of our judicial system, a decline in a generally prosperous way of life, and the loss of faith in our government, representatives and guiding principles and institutions. We have lost faith, because of a continuing pattern of government and corporate irresponsibility. There is a transfer of wealth and power to the wealthiest families in our nation. It may seem that The United States has lost its sense of self, we seem to be abandoning our ideals – the things that made us a nation that people looked to for a chance. This has left many Americans asking: is what we call the American dream dead? How do we come together, how do we work together for a more equitable, equal, fair and just national community?
Now, no one person has the answers to help an ailing society, but from our own personal experiences and thoughts we can come to a consensus of what we believe is, at this time, lacking in our American way of life. While I know this country, and the world faces troubling and trying times in the years ahead as we face issues that have been building for years, I stand in my belief that this country, despite its faults, is a great engine for global good. Though our record may sometimes be muddled, like any other nation, we have to move forward together in the belief that our country can not only help its own, and expand prosperity for those domestically, but that we can share and offer the ideals, goods, and hope that comes with being an American. The idea that you, your brother, your family – anyone – can achieve that which is not yet conceivable to those that don’t see through our eyes. So I say the American Dream is not dead. To see that truth, I look no further than my parents. Family is the foundation upon which our lives are built, and if that foundation is strong, then stronger will our collective will and drive for prosperity be. Sadly, there are many children in this country that are not afforded this stable foundation upon which they should be able to expand on and add to. Therefore, it is the responsibility of those that do to carry on the values and lessons we are taught to the next generation of Americans. If we are conscious enough to recognize a downward trend in our way of living, connectivity and strength within families then we are intelligent enough to actively push back against that trend, reverse it and ensure a united America where all children can be afforded a family on which to build their foundation.
Both of my parents grew up in working class families. My mother was the daughter of a carpenter and a stay at home mother turned office receptionist. My father was the son of a construction worker and a stay at home mother turned school aide. From a young age they understood the value of work and helping one’s family. They understood that their actions were their own, and that if they were to stumble along the way, family would be there to help them always, but in the end, responsibility and owning to their mistakes or missteps was important to their own personal growth – understanding that Mom and Dad were not always going to be there to help during difficult times, that they too would have to one day take on the roles and obligations that their parents, and their parents in turn all took hold of before them. Both of my parents from a young age understood that they were not entitled to everything. They had a care and a respect for their parents – while they never pried into their parent’s personal business, they silently acknowledged certain realities, whether it be economic or otherwise. There were certain boundaries that were not pushed, as they are pushed today. They respected their parents’ work, and the hardships they faced – they understood that their parents were people too, that they were tired, overworked, stressed and had interests of their own that they seldom had time to indulge in. The silently recognized the tremendous sacrifice their parents made in raising them and their siblings. They did what they needed to do, what they felt obligated to do, to lessen the load on their parents. Whether it be helping with the dishes, fixing dinner, or forgoing a school trip or an event in order to ease any financial burdens they may have had. While they were dependent on their parents for the necessities of life, the things that a parent ought to provide to a child – clothing, food, security, love, a home – they took the initiative and learned from their parents the value of work and put it into play to acquire the things they knew they were not entitled to by birth. They were not dependent on their parents for their happiness and direction. Their parents gave them a foundation, taught them lessons when they may have made a misstep, and gave them the freedom to decide for themselves what life they wanted to live, never stopping them and trusting that their children would, with the knowledge they’ve given them, lead meaningful lives. That is all a parent can ever hope for their child; that they head the words of their mothers, and fathers, and forge a life of purpose, responsibility, and fulfillment.
Eventually the time came for my parents to go on their own. Not even in their twenties, they unexpectedly were faced with a new prospect. They had to raise their own child, by themselves, and worked to ensure that that child had a good life. Although the road to where they are today was not initially planned, they did not pass the buck, or skirt their responsibilities or obligations. It started when they were both nineteen years old. My mother out of high school, and my father already with five years of work under his belt. They were standing on the precipice of a new life together, just children themselves, and with the support, guidance, and compassion of their parents who helped their children raise their own, they were able to march forward confidently, securely knowing full well that they were now about to start a family, and a journey all their own. One of the things my parents had to deal with, as many young parents do, is the stigma associated with being just that – a young parent. What these people looking on from the outside don’t see, is the hours my father put in at the construction site. The hours my mother put in as a patient coordinator at a radiology office. The hours my grandparents put in to watch me, and care for me while my parents worked to put food on the table, and clothes on my back, and a smile on my face. People looking in, only saw two young children, not ready for ‘adulthood.’ Though they couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Family, the concept and the reality, are rooted in the idea of unity. A unit. It cannot function without the full force of its parts. My parents were able to overcome the circumstance and the stigma through their own diligence and determination as well as the guidance of those that came before them who shared similar pasts.
In my childhood and well into my teenage years up to now as I stand on the forefront of a new world of opportunity and experiences foreign to me up until this point and to my parents, I witnessed first-hand the truth that lies behind these words. Growing up I was often saddened by the fact that a lot of the time I wasn’t able to see my father as he would get home late, it was only as I got older did I understand and appreciate that he was working hard to ensure that myself and my two sisters were afforded opportunities that he and his wife, my mother, were not. While he worked to ensure our financial security, and wellbeing and then some – my mother made the choice to stay home to raise her children and teach them daily the things that she believed would help her children in the world. Teaching them love, respect, tolerance, and an appreciation of knowledge and life. They now have three children, each separated by five years all with different interests and ideas and conceptions of the world. They taught us that honesty, even if we are wrong in our actions is valued above all else, that to lie and to have no integrity is the worst thing you could commit in their eyes. Honesty, and openness. Being able to talk about the things that sometimes children and parents may be uncomfortable talking about, leaving nothing off the table. This not only helps to build a strong bond between their children and themselves, but it helps the children understand that their parents may not always have all the answers and that they should not rely on them for the answers to life. We are all still learning, and we have to seek answers sometimes on our own accord. My mother and father value hard work in their children, and they do not hound or pester their children to complete their work, nor are they restrictive in our own personal freedom and choices that involve the direction we hope to take our lives. They listen, and hear the case that we may make, and it is because of the lessons they have taught us, regarding personal responsibility, honesty, loyalty, respect and work that we often make the right choices for ourselves; choices that are informed and not hollow. They have given us the reasonable expectation that we ought to do well in school, and treat others kindly, and in turn they give us the freedom to choose what we want for our lives, which is a reality that not many children can say they are a part of. America is built on the idea of self-determination – that a people ought to be able to chart the course for their lives on their own accord, so why is it, that our children – the next minds, leaders, diplomats, innovators of tomorrow – aren’t afforded that opportunity? Parents today often coddle and regiment their children. Too much, and resistance follows. Too little, and no direction is taken at all. My parents have managed, three times at that, to effectively balance between guidance and freedom. Like their parents before them, they have taught us that our actions are our own, and while family will always be there to help, we must take ownership of the wrongs we do. Something that has become so apart of our family routine, that I myself often overlook it as just another night, and not as something to be truly grateful for: Our family meal. Each night our family of five, and occasionally our cat who wanders about from her litter box to her food bowl, gather around our dining room table and talk about our day, the news, and our lives in general. It is a moment to catch up, to take a step back from the day and silently recognize that we are all living together as one force, under the same roof all concerned and caring for each other’s well-being, that we are a family.
My parents now after almost twenty years together, building and strengthening the bonds they started on during their late years of childhood, now own their home. That is the American Dream. The idea of American idealism, the ideas and perceptions of the world we live in, they lie within our families and what they teach their own. Tolerance, unity, respect, hard work, integrity, compassion. American exceptionalism, that far off idea that we are better than other nations lies not in that falsehood, but rather lies within the dreams and hopes our parents and families – that we can leave a life that is greater, and more prosperous for our own. American pragmatism lies within the will to overcome circumstance, work collectively and heed the opinions and advice of others not as critiques but as counsel to ensure prosperity and security for our own. The American Dream is not dead; we need a revival of the role of family in our American culture. If you do not have a family whom you think you can build this with, then you must work to build one of your own because when one of our countrymen prospers it should come naturally that all of us ought to prosper from continued unity and strengthened foundations of family and hard work. Through all our division, America is a family, and although we may be a dysfunctional one, we need to understand that our bond as countrymen, that our potential to create a world more open, tolerant and civically engaged than ever before is great. It starts with our immediate family. It starts at the dinner table.