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Let's Do What It Takes to Make America Great Again
By Christine O'Donnell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Christine O'Donnell
All rights reserved.
Where I Come From
The O'Donnell family quilt is a colorful patchwork of classes and cultures, and political affiliations, but the common thread that knit us all together is a tireless work ethic, a fierce determination to stand for something (and for each other), and an enormous sense of pride, place, and love.
We have our disagreements, just like any other American family, but we work past them and set them aside because we love each other. We come together from all these different, sometimes opposing views and opinions, and we find our way to common ground, to a place of shared purpose and meaning.
I think every American family is its own little melting pot. In ours, there was a whole lot of Italian and Irish, with a healthy dose of American blue blood thrown into the mix.
Initially, I wasn't really sure about including any stories from my childhood, because they don't only involve me. My parents and siblings were put through so much scrutiny and hardship when I ran for office and declared myself a public person. The moment I became a candidate, my life became an open book — and my life is so intertwined with their lives that my family was thrown right out there with me. Then I realized that my goal in writing this book is to inspire real people to engage in the political process. And real people have real lives and real problems.
When we share the hard truths of our lives they often stand as an inspiration to others. We've all had our share of rough patches, and I believe we lift each other up when we talk about them; we can learn from each other's mistakes, and find strength in the struggle.
My family is close. We all have our own special relationships with our parents and with one another and this extends to the next generation as well; my siblings have great spouses and well-adjusted children. By all outward appearances, we're one big happy family. And this is true from our own perspectives as well. That's not to say we didn't have our problems. We did. Along with the great times, we had some tough times as a family. To the outside world it might have looked like we were the Waltons — living in the suburbs instead of the mountains. And in a lot of ways, that was true. But in addition to the financial struggles that you could imagine would arise in raising six children — yes, there were six of us — my dad drank heavily during my childhood. He doesn't drink like that anymore. And I'm proud of the way we've powered past it all. Our difficulties don't define us. It's how we deal with them that shape who we are. Frankly, I'm a little wary of politicians with "perfect" pasts, and I've come to regard the imperfections that have found my family over the years as badges of honor, not marks of shame.
My parents are the true heroes of my story — and were it not for their strength, their faith, and their boundless courage my journey could have gone another way. My mother's refusal to let her family fall apart on the back of my father's alcoholism was, and remains, an inspiration. My father's willingness to let himself be lifted by the love of his family to a place where he could do the hard work necessary to make himself whole ... well, it's been a kind of revelation.
Ah, but I don't mean to get ahead of the story — my story, our story ...
My parents grew up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, so they knew each other as kids. My mom, Carole Chillano, is Italian; her parents were first-generation Italian-Americans. My dad, Dan O'Donnell, is Irish-American, with family roots in this country that quite possibly reach all the way back to our Founding Fathers. My parents lived on opposite ends of what they've always called the Corpus Christi part of town. You won't find that name on a map of the city, but in those days, to hear my parents tell it, Philadelphia neighborhoods were known by the churches in each community. My mom lived on the Italian side of the neighborhood and my dad lived on the Irish side, with a playground in between, on Clearfield Street. They started dating as teenagers, and they've been together ever since. (They even married as teenagers, so they got a good running start!) And they still keep in touch with their neighborhood friends from the playground.
My paternal grandmother, Kathleen Carroll, had a real zest for living. She was witty, charming, and full of spunk. I remember visiting in the hospital when she was dying and she said, "Go get my purse, let's go dancing!" — and she was serious!
Kathleen Carroll came from a long line of Carrolls — for a time, one of the most prominent families in Philadelphia. We were always told that one of Grandmom's great-great-great uncles was Charles Carroll, a United States Senator from Maryland, the longest-living and last-surviving signer of our Declaration of Independence. We were never able to confirm a direct relation, but I mention the connection here because I know my nay-saying critics are fact checking this book. I'm hoping to use their scrutiny to my advantage — either to corroborate our long-presumed link to Charles Carroll of Carrollton or to set it to rest.
Just in case, we'll have it covered!
At a young age, my grandmother found herself "in the family way" after taking up with my grandfather, Francis O'Donnell. The circumstances surrounding their relationship and the pregnancy caused a great scandal and in the end she was estranged from her family — and cut off from what would have been a sizeable inheritance.
I can't imagine what my grandmother suffered, for the choices she made as a young woman, but in the years to come her courage and great conviction came back into play, because it turned out my grandfather was an alcoholic, the same disease that would later haunt my father — only in Grandpop O'Donnell's case, sad to say, the battle didn't exactly go his way. The marriage didn't last, and my grandmother eventually found someone special — a wonderful stable man named John, who worked hard in a gas station and was utterly devoted to my grandmother. We called him Grandpop John, because in time he became more of a grandfather to us than Francis. In fact, later on, my grandmother's dying wish was to make sure my father would look after John once she was gone — and, as always, my father was true to his word. Grandpop John ended up moving in with my parents the last couple years of his life, and here again the takeaway for me was the importance of family.
There's one cherished memory that grew out of my grandmother's estrangement. My grandmother's siblings, for the most part, were fearful about keeping in touch with their sister because they did not want to go against their father's wishes. However, a couple of my father's aunts and uncles did on occasion secretly defy him to maintain a connection with my grandmom.
On one such occasion, my grandmom was having a family barbecue and her sister, my Great Aunt Urse, snuck around to take part. Not in the habit of showing up empty-handed to a gathering, she brought a plate of deviled eggs arranged on a blue Limoges plate. To Aunt Urse, the plate was an everyday plate, but to the rest of us, it was clearly a fine piece of china. Grandmom O'Donnell recognized it right away from her mother's china collection. At the end of the party, Aunt Urse left in haste, forgetting the plate. Grandmom thought about returning it — but the temptation to have something that belonged to her mother was just too great, so she kept it. A few days later, the plate took a place of honor up on my grandmother's wall. It was the only keepsake she had from her mother, so it meant a great deal to her. She proudly showed it to everyone who came by for a visit.
She would point to it up on the wall, and say cheekily, "That's my inheritance." Except, of course, when good ol' Aunt Urse came over. For her visits, the plate was temporarily removed.
Well, the story of my grandmother's prized blue plate did not end there, because after she and most of her siblings had passed, the provenance of the plate was thrown into question. At one point, one of my father's relatives reached out to him to see if he planned to challenge the estate. My father didn't want any of their money, he said. All he wanted was his Aunt Ursula's blue plate.
And so it was settled — and now the blue plate hangs proudly on my parents' living room wall.
* * *
I never really knew my paternal grandfather, Francis. He was out of the picture by the time I was born. He was a difficult character. He drank ... a lot. I share the broad details of his life with a heavy heart. He was my grandfather, after all, and it's difficult to cast a member of your own family in such a vulnerable light, but this was who he was. We do not lift or improve ourselves by ignoring the mistakes or missteps of others; rather, we must consider the bad paths they've taken or the turns they might have missed and weigh them against the roads that spread out before us. We don't do ourselves or our loved ones any favors by avoiding the truths of our lives, however ugly or heartbreaking those truths happen to be.
I only met my grandfather once. I was in fifth grade, and he was living down in Clearwater, Florida. My father hadn't been in touch with him for years, but out of the blue his father sent him a check for $1,000, as a kind of make-amends gesture. My dad recognized that check as the lonely, desperate cry that it was, so with his $1,000 he packed us six kids and my cousin Evelyn into a run-down passenger van we'd borrowed for the occasion, and we drove down to Florida for a family reunion he said was long overdue. Even as a kid, I saw this as a great lesson in forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I was old enough to understand the depths of my grandfather's mistreatment of his family, but here was my father, taking what for us was a lot of money and spending it on the man who'd showered so much abuse on him for so many years.
It was a beautiful moment of redemption, and a wonderful opportunity for us kids to see our father rise above his raw emotions to do the right thing, and set the right example. Even in retelling it, it still moves me.
Grandpop O'Donnell was thrilled to have us visit, and we kids were able to tune out all of the anger and anguish that had been built up over the years. To us, he was just a fun grandfather, and my father was happy to see us all getting along so well. In fact, things were going so well, from our little kid perspectives, that the night before we were due to leave we pleaded with our parents to take my grandfather back with us. He seemed so lonely down there in Clearwater, his days so dark and dismal; we all thought he could use a change of scenery. My parents, a bit reluctantly, agreed.
It was quite a frantic scene, as we got ready to leave early the next morning. It was barely daylight, and my mother had her hands full getting her six kids and her niece all packed and washed and into the car. I believe now that my grandfather had probably been up all night drinking, so in addition to worrying about us kids my mother had to wonder what he might do next, but somehow we got past the chaos and were ready to leave. The last thing my mother had us do, just before leaving, was to shuttle us each into the bathroom, so we wouldn't have to stop on the way. One-by-one, we took our turn and then headed out to the van.
I was the last — and by the time I stepped out of the bathroom everybody had gone. I thought they were all waiting for me in the van, so I raced outside, but the van was gone, too! It was a real Home Alone-type moment, back when Macaulay Culkin was just a baby!
Amazingly, surprisingly, I didn't panic.
They'd driven a couple miles before anyone figured out I was back in the apartment. Remember, this was before cell phones, so they couldn't call to tell me they were on their way. Before heading out, my mother, as usual, did a quick head count, and in the rush of the morning had simply forgotten that we also had my cousin Evelyn in tow, so when she got to six she left it at that, and now all they could do was race back to my grandfather's and hope against hope I hadn't gotten into any trouble.
My poor mother was absolutely mortified that she could leave me behind like that. To this day, she gets embarrassed when we tell this story, but I didn't see it as anything to be embarrassed about. I still don't. There was a lot going on that morning, that's all. There were a lot of kids to track, and my cousin Evelyn, and my ornery grandfather, and all of our stuff. It's a wonder they got out of there at all, with most of their kids — I count this to my mother's great credit.
Meanwhile, first thing I did, after assessing the situation, was plan my new life in Florida. I didn't know how long I'd be there on my own. So I searched my grandfather's kitchen cabinets, and saw a couple cans of tomato soup, so I figured I was covered in the food department. Then I went out back, and started exploring. It occurred to me I might need to find some way to make a living, so I gathered a bunch of stickygooks from the trees behind my grandfather's building. I don't know what these things are actually called, but I used to collect them with a friend of mine at Strawbridge Lake, near our house in New Jersey. We always knew them as stickygooks — brown pods, with a hard outer shell, filled with seeds and green sticky stuff. If you dry them out, you can shake them like maracas, so my idea was to decorate them and sell them, and if I couldn't find a market for them I told myself I'd at least have a nice collection going.
I was wearing a sundress, and I lifted the hem so the dress made a small basket in front of me, and gathered as many stickygooks as I could carry, and when my family pulled back up, I was out by the curb in front of my grandfather's building, trying to sell my wares to folks as they passed by.
I must have made quite a picture.
We've told that story into the ground in my family, and it always gets a good laugh at Sunday dinners, but we've never told it outside the safe harbor of our own family ... until now. I share it here for the way it stands as a precious family memory, but also for the gracenote it offers to this one extended visit with my grandfather. There were all kinds of lessons in it. Self-reliance wasn't meant to be one of them, but there it is alongside the all-important lessons of forgiveness, tolerance, empathy, and all that good stuff.
We didn't always get it right, in our family, but we made the effort.
* * *
I fared a bit better in the grandfather department with my grandpop Chillano, my mother's father. Actually, he was pretty great with us kids. My grandmom Chillano was a jewel all around. She was beautiful on the inside and the outside. She had ocean blue eyes and dark blond hair. Although she came from limited means, she was always dressed to the nines and had an amazing fashion sense. We were extremely close to them throughout my childhood, and both my grandmother and grandfather had as much of a role in shaping me and my worldview as anyone.
My grandpop was a hardworking man with a fascinating background. He was one of those cantakerous old men that you couldn't help but love. He was born in New Castle, Delaware, but moved to the rural outskirts of Philadelphia by the time he was an adolescent. Throughout his life he had several different careers, which meant he had an endless supply of stories to tell his grandchildren. He was a foreman for the railroad. He was an MP in the army during World War II. He was a cook. He worked as a taster in a local brewery — Ortlieb's, a onetime Philadelphia institution. He'd tell the story of how he once alerted his boss to a bad batch of beer that was nearly sent out into the marketplace. Apparently, my grandpop could taste that the yeast was about to turn, but he couldn't get anyone else to agree with him on this. They ran a bunch of tests, since discarding an entire batch would have cost the company a lot of money, but everything kept coming back fine. Finally, my grandfather's boss turned to him and said, "Pete, if you tell me it's a bad batch, it's a bad batch." Sure enough, within a week to ten days, the beer had soured and Grandpop was proven right. But this was almost beside the point. What mattered to my grandfather was that his boss believed in him, even when all the tests and all the other tasters didn't agree. He'd built up enough credibility and goodwill to be taken at his word, and this to him was a tremendous accomplishment.
And he always had a story or two he'd share to instill that same work ethic in us. The most memorable was a kind of parable about hard work and determination, centered on a bag of peanuts. He told it to us so often that years later it made its way into my campaign speeches. He used to sit us down and in his gruff voice he'd say, "Listen, no one is going to hand you a bag of peanuts. If you want a bag of peanuts, you have to earn it." Then he'd go on. "Instead of banging your head against the wall in frustration, you could work hard and earn enough money to buy two peanuts at the end of each day. Then, eat one peanut and put the other in a bag. The next day," he'd continue, "do the same thing." As he spoke, he'd raise his hand to his mouth as if he was eating a peanut. "Eat one," then gesturing as if to toss a peanut into a bag, "put one in a bag. And before you know it, you've earned yourself a bag of peanuts!"
Excerpted from Troublemaker by Christine O'Donnell. Copyright © 2011 Christine O'Donnell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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