We are approaching that ultimate day of family and love and Grace, with all of its beauty, delight, misconception and forgiveness, and I am reminded of where my values first evolved. Going through some papers in my den I came across a picture of my grandmother, we called her ‘Granny’ and I was immediately flooded with the wonder of memory. In looking in her eyes in the picture, I could see the woman that helped shape me and our wonderful extended Irish family into the people we are today. Along with my father’s Nordic influence, we have embraced lives of love and respect that I am proud to celebrate on this Christmas morning.
However, there are always reminders, always moments, forever tellings in our lives that give us pause and naturally ask us each to never forget that the evaluation of our beings is a constant process in our lives.
There are days when I still don’t know who I am. It is Christmas Eve, and I am reeling over a conversation that took place with my family yesterday evening. I know I’m confused, but I am not sure if it is because I am still, at 58 years old, reminded I am the youngest in the family, and I still allow my feelings to interfere with a quiet composure, or am I justifiably irritated by a sense of seeming entitled ignorance. Let me be clear, I love my family and all each member represents in my life; though, inevitably there are times when I need to feel allowed to recognize there are just certain behaviors I feel compelled to not tolerate. This coming from a man whose made far too many mistakes in my own life to throw stones.
I lived a sheltered life, growing up white in a small town in central Wisconsin. I was not exposed to racism beyond what I read in a newspaper, or saw on television. I grew up laughing at ‘The Good Times’ and J.J.’s ‘Dyn-O-Mite’ and ‘The Jeffersons’ making it to the East Side of Manhattan, and laughing at their uncanny ability to muse at themselves. Meanwhile Archie and ‘The Bunkers’ were slaying the dragons of good taste a few floors below in the heart of Queens.
In my life, there were incidents I read about that horrified me, but they didn’t touch me. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, I was listening to the report on a radio in my grandparent’s sunroom, a place where at the time for some reason my grandfather was not sitting in his chair, smoking a pipe, while looking over the harbor of Lake Superior, quietly wondering what his life had measured. He was always reading the paper, always had an opinion, but in the eyes of a 9 year old, he smiled and gave me a pat on the head, for he knew my world was built around waiting when he would take me down to the canal to watch the ore ships steam in. He wasn’t there to see the confusion in my eyes, or my wondered expression when the report indicated that MLK, Jr. had just been gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel room.
The time was now around 8 PM, Thursday, April 4th, 1968, and the world as we knew it, continued to turn itself upside down. Racism was suddenly apparent and people were reacting in an explosion of ‘civil disobedience’ across the country. My grandfather has a beautiful smile, and I can visualize it as I write these words, but that smile would turn to a sudden grimace as he would have no words. I ran into the kitchen where my mother was chatting with ‘Granny’ her mother, my grandmother, the woman I would dedicate this writing to and I told them the report.
They went quiet, and quickly turned on the television, which at that time would need to warm up, allowing the riots to already begin before we saw the original pictures of mayhem, starting in the streets of Memphis and escalating in several major cities for the next three or four days. I remember watching storefronts obliterated with bricks and being fascinated, if not a little terrified. The press would later call it the Holy Week Rising, and this horrific weekend would be another in a string of race riots that would mark a cornerstone in the historic bearing of the civil right’s movement and racism in the 1960’s.
I was nine years old, and my greatest concern again was fixing the loop to loop on my matchbox car set so I could run my track around Grandpa’s chair. I looked out the window of the sunroom and saw the Duluth Harbor and the aerial-bridge and all seemed well. I still was too young to realize a world outside our warm and comforting home contained an ugliness it would take me years to understand, a world I still try to define as my involvement in it becomes far more prevalent than that of a young boy playing with toys in his grandparents home, celebrating Easter surrounded by family.
I listened to the conversations turn political that were honestly white noise(sic) in the forefront of my mind, but I knew something important was happening. I could tell by the expressions the faces of all the adults held. I knew the table conversations the remainder of the weekend would be far different than originally planned. We would talk about a nation in turmoil the next few days. We would talk about a man revered by my mother and her mother for his peaceful intent, for his ‘dream.’
It was 1968 and while ‘Granny’ as we know her continued preparation for a probable ham dinner in the coming days, I began to be cognizant of a world outside my own that demanded attention beyond a simple television article. There was clearly nothing simple about the change our country would endure as my thinking would shift from childhood toward adolescence. A civil right’s leader had been gunned down and a people of hope and faith were suddenly halted in their tracks. The death of MLK, Jr. changed my world as I knew it.
I recall suddenly being directed there were certain terms we could no longer use as freely as we once had. The word Negro had transitioned to Black to today’s African-American and its many variation – still today, the term mulatto has now become bi-racial – but the most disturbing and vitriolic being ‘nigger’ a term used quite viciously in my childhood. It was a word we didn’t hear at our family dinners. Granny insisted we recognize tact and decorum in her home. This value was taught to me at a very early age, and I am forever grateful.
I recall years later a specific incident when arriving home as a young adult I had come across a book of jokes, that contained disparaging and racist commentary. I remember at the time feeling clueless of the nature of their impact. I walked into my very white family home and tossed a couple of them around, and was immediately shunned by my loved ones for producing something our world could no longer tolerate. I was mystified and hurt and confused, but more importantly immediately reminded where I came from. The shame and guilt I felt in that moment were overbearing. I took it to heart, and from that day on, recalled again those early values instilled by my grandparents, and as I envisioned a family dinner with Granny presenting as the matriarch of our simple existence, made a pact with myself that I would never ever again partake in such discrediting misinformation of a person of color or culture different than my own.
That moment in 1982 helped shape me into the person I am today. Certainly there have been many experiences in my life that have been integral, but moments like those, when my family reminded themselves and me that we can be beautiful people together in a world where everyone deserves that same element of Grace, I began a journey of sensitivity toward my fellow human beings that I hang onto with every fiber of my being.
So today again, I am reminded of who I am. For a moment I can take solace in the knowledge that our world is one of good, where love and compassion do exist and we live in a society where acceptance and sensitivity to another person’s needs are real. We live in a world where humor and a good joke are real, yet there is also a boundary of recognition that is an earmark of respect that is one of the most important values in our lives.
Today, while I recognize Christmas in the world around us all, I am reminded of my grandmother, ‘Granny’ for the love I know she would wish we all share together in the arms and energy of our family and friends. I am reminded there is truth in the realization that our world is a constant learning curve and we must all recognize the individual merits we bring to whom we are today, together and in the future. The education of our lives as human beings living in a world of constant change is certainly eternal in its mystique.
Love your family, your friends, the man or woman or child or vagrant or executive or definition of difference on the street, your neighbors, the person that cuts you off on the road today while you last minute shop. Love the world around you. Love yourselves.
Thank you ‘Granny’
Have a Happy Christmas everyone.