Green Party of Ohio  

Childhood Roots

 

Ralph Nader's Childhood Roots

by Annie Birdsong

One day when Ralph Nader was about 10 years old and was out in the backyard with his family, his mother asked the children, how much is a dozen apples worth? The children gave their answers. How much is a dozen eggs worth? The children gave their answers. "How much is the sunshine worth?" she asked. The children didn't know what to say. "Hear those birds?" asked Ralph's father, Nathra, "what is their price?" "You can't buy those," said young Ralph. "That's the point," said his father.

"They wanted us to learn that some things that are valuable in life can not be measured by the dollar," said Nader, who helped bring about the Environmental Protection Agency, one in a long list of accomplishments.

There were a rich abundance of experiences as these in his childhood that were like seeds planted in the fertile field of his young mind -- flowering today in his philosophy of life and in the concerns that surface in his bid the presidency.

He was raised on a quiet shaded street in a rambling white house in Winsted, Conn. near the courthouse where he listened to lawyers argue.

"I got a flavor of advocacy and controversy," said Nader, and "wanted to be a lawyer at a very early age." Years later he earned a law degree from Harvard.

Also near his home were town-hall meetings where referendums were held -- like those found across New England. Today, in his bid for president, Nader is calling for New England-style direct democracy.

Nader's parents were immigrants from Lebanon. His mother, Rose, was a school teacher, like six of her seven sisters, before she immigrated to the United States with her new husband.

She was raised under a sod roof in Lebanon with kerosene lanterns, nomadic rugs, seven sisters and four cousins.

"My mother made almost everything from scratch," said Ms. Nader, "our clothes, our wool-filled mattresses and our food." Once or twice a week we baked bread in our mud-brick oven, she said.

She remembers picking vegetables in the garden planted below their house and picking fruit in the kroum, a vineyard in the hills above the Bekaa Valley.

The kitchen was the center of family life where they talked and where the children listened to stories as they helped cook and clean. There was a lot of laughter, said Ms. Nader.

When raising her children, she continued the storytelling tradition. "She didn't read us stories," said Ralph's sister Clair. "She told them from memory because she wanted to look into our faces."

She often told the children hero stories for the "examples of strong character traits" and Jeha stories. "Jeha was a mythical town fool and the stories were both funny and instructive," she said.

Sometimes, she would tell parts of a long historical novel that took weeks to finish. We would rush home from school at lunchtime eager to hear the next part, said Ralph's sister Laura Nader Milleron.

Through these, she would "bring the stream of history into our lives," said Ralph. The stories were "full of lessons, homilies, things to be concerned about and self improvement," he said.

They wetted our appetite to learn about all kinds of cultures and geographies while she was feeding us very nourishing food, said Nader.

He once told a reporter if he had chosen a different occupation, he might have become an anthropologist, a writer and satirist like Voltaire or an explorer of far away places. He studied Chinese culture and language extensively at Princeton University.

All of the Nader sons and daughters acquired an interest in culture. Laura Nader Milleron said it is because they learned at an early age that cultures are different. "We lived between two cultures -- in my family there were Lebanese traditions and at school there were American traditions," she said. For instance, unlike American men, "Arabic men love poetry," she said.

"Our father taught us to take the best of both cultures," she said. Laura Nader became a social and cultural professor of anthropology at the University of Berkeley in California. One of her books, Naked Science, includes a discussion of how the farming methods of Indigenous peoples are more sustainable than modern day agricultural practices.

Nader's brother Shafeek, who is now deceased, studied anthropology before earning a law degree at Boston University. Claire Nader, who holds a doctorate in political science, is a social scientist.

When they were young, their mother was careful to ensure that they had times of quiet so they could "hear themselves," according to Claire Nader.

When they did their chores after meals, Ms. Nader said she talked to them using questions to bring out their insights while urging them to think independently.

Mr. Nader encouraged them to think independently, too. Once, when Ralph was coming home from school, his father said, "Hello Ralph, what did you learn today in school? did you learn to believe or how to think?"

Ralph walked off scratching his head wondering what the difference is between the two. He went up to his room trying to figure it out, then he came down and said, "I learned to think today, dad." His father asked, "What do you mean?" Young Ralph said, "Well, I think I know the difference between believing and thinking. When you believe, you don't question what you're taught. But when you think, you receive what you're taught and mull it over." His father said, "Not bad. You had a good day today."

Ms. Nader said her serious talk was mixed with funny stories because "criticism should be mixed with teasing and joking." She gave them nicknames like "slow car" when they were slow to get a job done or she would cite a proverb such as "wait until the grass grows, oh mule."

Rose and Nathra Nader's native language, Arabic, is rich in proverbs, which they used often, along with their own sayings, in instructing the children. For instance, Mr. Nader taught them, "Don't look down on anybody and don't hold anybody in awe. You can learn from the garbage collector and you can learn from the King of England."

When a child acted overconfident, Ms. Nader would say, "You'd better be a genius because you've clearly decided to stop learning. If one had too little confidence, she'd say, "Too little self confidence is like putting a brake on your brain. The world is already full of obstacles, you don't need to make more."

"Proverbs are helpful guides in absence of family -- especially for a young person encountering new experiences and new environments," said Ms. Nader.

Ralph Nader said the children never rebelled against their parents because corrections were given in the form of "advice" rather than "demands."

Ms. Nader never gave them gifts of games and dolls. "We wanted them to use their imaginations," she said.

Young Ralph loved the library. It seemed to be a whole world of books and magazines. But he could only check out two. So he would run home with these, curl up on a chair and read them, then run back to the library for more.

"I look back on those readings as the most delightful part of growing up," said Ralph.

He would read the Congressional Record thoroughly, said Claire Nader, adding, "The school got it and nobody else wanted to read it."

Ralph often read biographies of great men and women who he said were important role models for him. He began think about the distribution of wealth and power in society as he read the biographies of Ida Tarbell, the famous journalist whose writings led to Standard Oil being broken up into 38 companies and Upton Sinclair, the reform crusader.

They were raised during the depression during World War II before television sets had made their way into American homes, said his Laura. It meant they read more, did a lot more home work, played the piano more and talked to each other more, she said.

Ralph "was always secure in having had a lot of love," she said "He was less intense than the rest of us. He was the last child, the most relaxed, the most regular. He was loved a lot." We argued a lot, she said, but we also hugged a lot. "We were each others best friends," she said.

The fact that Ralph is able to take a lot of criticism and able to be a leader has its roots in his childhood, she said.

Ralph was "always comical" with a "wry sense of humor" and an ability to imitate people, she said. If it weren't for his sense of humor, he couldn't do what he does--"he deals with such seriousness," she said.

Rose Nader, who won't tell her age, often went barefooted and cleaned her house on her hands and knees. She went sledding with the children, always did exercises with them before bed and played ball with them. Ralph learned to love sports -- especially baseball.

Ralph said he got a real education working in his father's restaurant and bakery, the Highland Arms, which was across from mills up and down the streams where knitted goods, woolens, clocks and pins were made. Once, he heard a customer discussing the horrible conditions he saw in a meatpacking plant. Years later, Nader would help toughen meat inspection laws.

When the mill workers poured into the restaurant for lunch, Ralph listened as the men discussed their hardships, for instance, how they were exposed to bad chemicals and how the assembly lines were speeded up making them feel exhausted.

"It was the stuff of life," he said. Today's teenagers spend so much time watching TV or playing video games they are out of contact with "real life people," he said.

These childhood experiences probably influenced his desire in later years to found a magazine, the Multinational Monitor, that exposes, for instance, exploitation of workers across the world by corporate power. Laura Nader Milleron said the things Ralph Nader talks about today are the things they discussed at the evening meal: "greed, wisdom, food additives and family."

Rose Nader said she remembers her husband, Nathra, decrying the "stifling of small business by big business" and colonialism at evening meals.

After Nathra Nader died, his son and daughters collected some of his sayings and truisms he taught then at the table. Here are a few: "If the government in Washington is so opposed to communism, why does it work overtime fertilizing so much ground for communism overseas? When is Washington going to side with the peasants?"

"Everytime I hear someone say 'dumb animal,' I have to laugh. Dumb animals do not smoke or drink, they don't kill their own, they don't wage organized war, they don't soil their own nests and they don't watch television when they eat ... otherwise they're stupid."

"Television replaced the dictator's ban on three or more people gathering in public without a permit."

"When the rich get our money it's called a subsidy; when the poor get our money it's called welfare. Actually the rich are our biggest welfare cases."

Rose Nader included the collection of quotes in a book she wrote called "It All Happened in the Kitchen: Recipes for Food and Thought." The book also includes her philosophy of child rearing. (Available from Kitchen Box 19367 Washington, DC 20036. $9)

Ms. Nader fed her family on home-baked bread and a traditional Mediterranean diet with dishes such as tabouli, hummus and grape leaves stuffed with chick peas -- all made with garlic, herbs and spices she pounded with a mortar and pestle.

Scientists often recommend the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle because of the low incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes and because of the longevity of many that eat it in Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Lebanon. Nathra Nader lived to be 98 years old.

The Mediterranean diet is low in salt, uses a lot of olive oil, which contains flavonoids -- an antioxidant, (apples also contain flavonoids), and does not emphasize meat. Ms. Nader said she uses only one pound of meat for six people.

The Nader's ate homegrown vegetables using no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. They canned vegetables and made blueberry jam. There were never any processed foods, such as hot-dogs, canned foods, white bleached flour or fatty meats in the house.

"When you eat junk food, you feel irritated and you don't know why," said Ms. Nader, whose mother was a nurse and who had doctors in her family. When the children did not want to eat nutritious food, she would ask, "What does your tongue have against your lungs, heart, kidney and liver?"

For snacks, she gave the children raw chick peas soaked overnight instead of chocolate. They did have sweets, but in moderation. Ralph's father made wonderful ice cream with fresh fruit.

Ralph Nader continues his family's healthy eating patterns and says he is rarely sick. He said the reason he can work 16-18 hours a day seven days a week, lecturing, researching and writing is because he doesn't smoke and he shuns such foods as soft drinks, coffee, sugar, snacks out of the bag and food additives. He said he hasn't had a hot-dog in 37 years.

He became a semi-vegetarian, with fish being the only flesh food he consumes, after his brother died of cancer.

The Nader children had an old-fashioned upbringing. Ms. Nader, who was raised a Christian Orthodox, only allowed them to go to a movie if it had a moral.

A reporter once asked Ralph what he does for fun. He said he likes visiting a meat-packing plant or a coal mine when traveling, enjoys reading Chinese poetry, playing chess and taking long walks in Canadian woods, though he said "there's almost never time for these activities." When you get laws passed strengthening auto safety standards that saves 100,000 lives every year--"that's fun," he said. And when you get a letter from someone saying a seatbelt saved her life or the life of her child--"that's fun."

Nader, whose name the New York Times has mentioned more than 1,000 times, is often praised for his integrity. The editor of the Texas Observer said, "He has the integrity of a Thoreau and the conscience of St. Francis." In praising the strength of a campaign finance reform bill written by democrats, Nation Magazine said, "It almost could have been written by Ralph Nader." The Wall Street Journal called him "St. Ralph."

When someone told Laura Nader Milleron that Ralph Nader is stuck in the old days, she said, "He's stuck in the 1860's when there were enduring themes of social justice."


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Page last modified: August 27, 2000