My grandmother, Dorothy Ray Healey, didn't listen to you with her ears. Now, that's not a joke about her becoming hard of hearing as she grew older. She listened with her eyes. Her eyes took the measure of you as you spoke, and you knew it. Her eyes reflected so much: a lifetime of struggle, deep sadness and empathy at the state of the world; flinty resolve, a commitment to make that world better; enormous intelligence, challenging you to respond thoughtfully; and underneath it all, but always gleaming around the corners of those eyes, a profound love for human beings, an unconquerable faith in our potential to create for ourselves lives full of meaning.
More than anything else, that last piece stuck with you because it included you. She made you feel very big, not because she was so tiny, but because, somehow, she saw you as you could be – as the whole person you might become and could grow into, and she reflected that back at you. My grandmother challenged you to become that person.
Is there a political lesson, then, in that assertion? In her life, my grandmother demonstrated rare courage, strong leadership, deep conscience, and ironclad determination. From all these strengths we could learn much.
But I focus on the lesson found in the gleam of her eyes. Her ability to see the potential in every person and to help translate that potential towards reality – through teaching and shared organizing; through coaxing and prodding towards action; but mostly, through the most respectful and honest listening one could ever encounter – had enormous political ramifications.
It meant that she chose to fight any system that denigrated or destroyed that potential, that honored it in the few while crushing it in the many, that failed to recognize the value of every single human being – and the potential we each have within us to contribute to our society.
This led her to analyses of class and race, gender and sexuality, power, corporatism, militarism, capitalism and, of course, socialism.
Would any other American Communist leader have had the chutzpah, when asked what she meant by socialism, to claim the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and declare that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people seemed about right to her? But that gift of hers – to understand where people were, and then to help them imagine where they could be, and then to organize with them to get there – is why she was able to be an effective Communist leader in America. Don't quote Lenin; quote Lincoln. Or, in her case, I suppose, quote both.
It's why my father and brother and I are so lucky. When I write, "we're so lucky," it is because we had the benefit of her eyes watching us, encouraging us, believing in us, all of our lives. To whatever extent we reach our potential in this world, my grandmother would be furious if I didn't say that it was due to a combination of our individual talents and the societal conditions – the real existing material conditions, as a good Marxist might say – that have shaped our lives. But while she would probably not admit it, the faith in her eyes – the challenge to imagine with others a better world and actively move with them towards it, to engage in collective struggle to achieve a more humanistic society – that faith will always remain with us.
I hope that for generations to come – not just my father and brother and myself – that light in her eyes will remain both a guide and a beacon.