Friday, November 3, 2017

The Cinderella Incident

    I recently finished reading the book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise.  Here is a memory this book managed to dredge up in me.
     I was about 9 years old when my parents were divorced.  In those days one parent had “custody” and the other “visiting rights” and paid some amount in child-support.  My mother had custody of my two sisters and me.  She went back to work and needed to find someone to take care of us.  Cheryl was in my Girl Scout Troup.  Her family lived a few blocks from the school.  Her mom was willing to take care of us before and after school.  At the time it did not occur to me that this family was black.  I can’t explain it, really.  Though my neighborhood was somewhat ethnically mixed, there were not many black families.  My friend Cheryl had darker skin and brown eyes and, what I would call at the time, frizzy hair.  But for some reason they did not look like black people that I had met or seen. 
     Cheryl’s father worked and her mother stayed home with the kids.  They lived in the same kind of house that we all lived in at the time.  I remember being excited that I would get to spend time with my friend every day before and after school. 
      We would come up with all sorts of ways to entertain ourselves.  One of the things that we would do was create plays and perform them for our moms.  One of the plays that we created was Cinderella.  When dividing up the roles I declared that I should be Cinderella, leaving the roles of the wicked step-mother to Cheryl and step-sisters to our younger sisters.  Why should I be Cinderella, I argued?  Because I was the only one with blond hair and blue eyes and we all know (Thank you, Walt Disney) that Cinderella has blond hair and blue eyes.   Cheryl was upset that she couldn’t be the lead of our play.  When her mother found out my reasoning for being Cinderella--and Cheryl not being Cinderella--she was upset too.   She told my mother, who tried to explain to me that just because the Cinderella in the animated version was blond and blue-eyed, it didn’t mean that other versions of Cinderella couldn’t look different.   Somewhere in the midst of all of this I came to the realization that my friend, Cheryl, was black. 
     As I remember it, things were never quite the same.  Not long after, my friend’s mom said that she was unable to take care of us anymore.  I don’t remember why.   Sometime before I graduated from elementary school Cheryl and her family moved out of the neighborhood and I lost track of her. 
A different occasion of pretending, with my younger sisters.
    Amazing that almost 50 years later this memory would resurface.  I can’t stop thinking of it.  I wish my mother were still around so that I could check out my recollections with her.  I asked my sister what she remembered but she would have only been about 6 years old and she doesn’t remember much of that time.  And so, with my 9-year-old-blond-blue-eyed understanding and nearly 50 year-old memories, I think about privilege.  My mother did her best to teach me that all people are equal, no matter what their race.  I don’t think I would ever intentionally discriminate against someone of another race, even as a 9-year-old.  Had we done the play, Snow White, would I have agreed that Cheryl should do that role because she had dark hair and dark eyes?  I don’t know.  But I realize that I grew up in a reality where all of the movies and images that I saw around me were white.  The normative was white and everyone else was the exception.  And because I had blond hair and blue eyes, I was special.  How did that impact me?  How did that impact Cheryl?  I wish I could talk with Cheryl now.  I wish I could find out how she remembers the “Cinderella Incident.”  I wish I could say, “I’m sorry.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Modern-day Thanksgiving Traditions – Buying the Free-range Turkey

      After years of living in Indiana we discovered the wonders of the farmers market that set up every Wednesday afternoon during the summer about a ½ a mile from our house.  After hanging out there and getting to know some of the farmers, we discovered that we could get a free-range turkey from one of them for Thanksgiving.  After experiencing the goodness of the produce that we found at the farmers market each week, we decided that we should try one of these turkeys for Thanksgiving.
      This is how to buy a free-range turkey directly from the farmer who raises it:
Sometime in mid-October email the farmer and order the turkey, telling them what size you want.  They will confirm your order and tell you that they will email you sometime in early November as to the arrangements for pick-up and payment.  The email arrives in November and they tell you to meet them at a particular time on a particular Saturday in the parking lot where the farmers market is set up during the summer.  You bring your check to pay for the turkey.  We had lived in Indiana long enough for this not to seem strange. 
     So the day came.  It was gloomy and chilly and a little damp.  We drove to the parking lot of the park.  It was not long before a small SUV pulling a tiny trailer pulled into the parking lot and stopped right next to us.  We got out of our vehicles and with smiles and greetings and a small amount of conversation we handed over the check and the farmer handed over the frozen turkey in a bag.  After a few words of instructions on how to cook the turkey (not the same as a store-bought, hormone-filled one), we wished one another a Happy Thanksgiving and got in our car and went home with our turkey.
     One year when the email came telling us the delivery date we discovered that we both had commitments and would not be able to be at the parking lot at the proper time.  We called our barely young adult daughter to go pick up our bird.  She agreed.  We gave her all the instructions and she seemed fine with it.  When the time came I got a phone call:

Daughter:  “Mom, I’m sitting here in the parking lot and they haven’t come yet.”
Me: “Don’t worry, they’ll come.”
D: “How will I know that it is them?”
Me:  “Don’t worry, you’ll know.”
D: “Okay. Bye.”

A few minutes later the phone rings again.
D:  “Mom, what kind of car will they be driving?”
Me:  “I don’t know.  I think it was a jeep or something.  Last year they pulled a little trailer behind, but don’t worry you will know.  Besides, who else is in that parking lot this time of year?”
D:  “Well, there was this lady who pulled up and parked.   As she got out of her car I got out and walked over to her.  She looked at me funny when I asked her if she had my turkey.  She was there to go for a run.”
Me:  (trying not to laugh out loud) “Ok, but there probably aren’t that many other people there, right?”
D: “Yes!  There was this other woman who pulled up.  I got eye-contact with her and smiled.  When I started to get out of the car, she put her car in gear and moved to another parking spot across the lot.”
Me:  “Wow, who knew so many people would go to the park on a gloomy day like today.  Last year there wasn’t another car.”
D:  “But, Mom, this is embarrassing.  It feels like a drug-deal or something!”
Me:  “Yeah, I know.  Don’t worry.  They’ll be there soon and you can go home.”
D:  “What if they don’t come.”
Me:  “Don’t worry about it yet.”
D:  “Okaaay.  Bye.”

Several minutes pass and I hear nothing.  Several more and I begin to worry.  Finally, I call her:
Me:  “Did they come?”
D:  (cheerfully) “Yes!  I got the turkey!  No problem!
Me:  “Okay.  Thanks!”
D:  “Sure!  No big deal!  Gotta go.  Love you!”
Me:  “Love you, too!”

And so we had another wonderful turkey dinner that year and a great story to tell for years to come.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, January 8, 2016

"There Are Better Beaches" - Another Attempt

We went to our favorite beach.  The last time we went there I tried to write about it in a creative way, from the perspective of someone we met along the horrible dirt road, who told us how terrible the beach was and that we should turn back because, in his opinion, it wasn’t worth it.  “There are better beaches,” he said.  Well, I had been to that beach before and I knew that I wanted to go back.  The road to get there was muddy and full of rocks and potholes and we were driving a rental car.  Already, we were breaking all sorts of rules just being on that road, and it was going to take us forever to get to the beach.  This was our third attempt to get there and it wasn’t looking good.  And that guy somehow got to the beach and he didn’t even appreciate it!  But my attempt at humor and sarcasm instead was at best a good, “you had to be there” story.  So, upon visiting my favorite beach again, I am inspired to tell about this beautiful place more directly. 
We were first introduced to this beach when were in Kauai with our friends Sonya and Walter.  We had taken a short trip over to Maui overnight and while we were gone they discovered this beach.  When we got back Sonya said to me, “Shawn, you are going to love this beach that we found.”  So on our last day, before flying out to go back home, Walter skillfully drove us on this horrible dirt road for what seemed like hours until we arrived at this bay that had sand and cliffs and reefs and trees and tide pools, as well as all of the things you find at nearly any Kauai beach, clear warm water, beautiful dancing waves and a sandy beach.  As we left to head to the airport, I made a mental note that we had to return to this beach on our next visit to Kauai. 
Three years later we found ourselves attempting to keep that promise.  The first time was after a bit of rain and so giving up on the dirt road (which seemed even worse than when Walter so skillfully maneuvered it) we decided to wait a day or two when it had some time to dry out.  A few days later we attempted it again.  This time, though somewhat less muddy, it still seemed impossible.  We would be changing rental cars, maybe the new one would handle the trip better.  As we prepared for our third attempt, I decided that I would look at the map once again and see if there was another way to go.  I found what looked like a trail that could possibly lead us there without having to spend a great deal of time traversing the near impossible dirt road.  It was on this third attempt that we met up with the guy in a jeep, coming towards us, motioning for us to turn around.  I thought he was going to tell us that the road was impassible or something like that.  Instead, he told us that “There are better beaches (!).”  We thanked him and went on a bit further and then turned around and went back almost to the beginning of the dirt road. 
Our last chance was the trail that I had found on the map.  Still on the dirt road, but before it got really bad, we took a turn and parked our car next to a horse stable.  We took a path over a rise and through some bushes which took us down to a beach, not “our” beach, but one we hoped would lead us to our beach.  We walked along the water’s edge, enjoying the warm, refreshing waves on our feet.  Part way there was a monk seal in a dead sleep on the beach.  She had been there long enough for the ones who do such things to put caution tape around a 15 foot radius of the sleeping “beauty” so that no one would bother her slumber or attempt to “rescue” her back into the ocean.  Not everyone gets to see a monk seal when they come to Hawaii! 
After walking a while on the beach we came to a turn, or a point.  From there we were able to see into the bay that was the goal of all of our attempts!  Just as beautiful as I remembered!  We got to the tide pools and watched fish and crabs and other sea creatures.  We hiked along the cliffs and looked down at the waves crashing on them, as we felt the accompanying spray of water.  We found a hole that would shoot out air as the wave crashed nearby, strong enough to send your hat flying!  The shapes that were the result of years of erosion were the making of fantasy stories.  As we walked along the cliffs the space opened up like a mesa.  The movement of the clouds and sporadic rain showers were such that there were rainbows almost constantly.  At one point walking across the mesa there was a full rainbow that made me feel like it was the handle to a basket and I was on top of the contents of that basket.  I felt like the Kauai version of the first scene of Sound of Music and I began to run toward what I knew was ahead of me.  Another bay, completely deserted, with huge waved dangerously crashing against the cliffs that surrounded it.  The colors of blue and green and white changing with the currents, the waves and the movement of the clouds are difficult to describe. And that rainbow, continued to stretch over me as I ran to the scene of the bay.  There it expanded even further, adding to the majesty of the sight before me.  We stood and took in the beauty of the sight, feeling the wind coming off of the water, so strong at times if felt as if it would knock us over.  On our way back we walked along the cliffs, looking for shapes and faces that had been warn into the stone by the wind and waves.  At one point we saw a smiley face.  And as we walked the beach to find the trail back to our car, we once again passed the sleeping “beauty” who had actually rolled over.
And so we returned to “our beach” the other day...  And we we're going back again today!  After all, “There are better beaches,” but I don’t know where!

To see the previous blog, "There Are Better Beaches,"

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Happy Birthday, Bettie GRACE

      Today is my mom’s birthday—the first one since she passed away on May 25.  She would have been 79.  We were already thinking about what we were going to do for her “Big 80th.”  I guess it will be different than anything we were thinking about.
      Though I started my day in West Lafayette, IN, I am ending it in Los Angeles—an appropriate way to spend my mother’s birthday, in the city where she was raised and where she raised me.  I am on my way to a conference called, “Space for Grace.”  “Grace” is what filled the space between her first and last name.  Grace was also something that she lived out better than anyone I know.  It’s what I appreciated most and what frustrated me most about my mother.  It’s what made her a great mother and an amazing grandmother (which also made her a great mother).
      At the time that my mother died and the weeks after, I heard all at once something that I had heard many times in my life.  “You mother was my best friend.”  In the midst of the shock and my grief I remember thinking (and maybe even saying out loud to my sisters) “How in the world can someone have so many ‘best friends’?” and “I’ve never even heard of you.  How can you be my mother’s best friend?”  And then I realized, they weren’t her best friend, she was their best friend.  That I could understand!   Bettie GRACE ‘s legacy.
Mom and I (and possibly Kellie?)
      It made me think of the people that were a part of our life growing up.  I am quite sure that for some of them my mother not only was their best friend, but their ONLY friend.  I would say to her, “Why are you friends with that person?”   But that is grace.
      And it is a good thing that she lived up to her name.  There isn’t anything that she wouldn’t do if it would help her daughters or her grandchildren.  She was the haven for parents (her daughters) and children (her grandchildren) that could no longer live peacefully in the same home.  She was the one who unconditionally loved her grandchildren when they felt like no one else did.  We knew she was praying for all of us, even when we didn’t ask her to.
       Space for GRACE:  Happy birthday, Mom!  I miss you!