Every so often something comes along that grabs me, reminds me of some lesson learned. The other day a picture came along, more of a caricature really and it took hold of my gut. It reminded me that sometimes it's the little things that matter most. Sometimes what I don't see is more important that what I do see.
I was remembering something from my youth. It was the 70's, that wild and crazy decade. It was the summer I turned 16. It was my age of an enlightenment.
My parents were running a rinky dink little newspaper of the hometown "get the kids pics and names in the fool thing" to sell lots of papers variety. I really didn't care. I got to write and that was all that mattered to me. I wrote about little league games and picnics and church events. There was very little real news in it, but like I said, I got to write.
We had this editor, Mathias Harpin...what a kewl name for an editor. His name just sounded so important to me. This man of much experience was willing to work with me and help me hone my writing skills. I was delighted.
Mr. Harpin had neighbors like so many of us do. For a few days he brought in his neighbor's daughter. She wanted to be a writer like me and like me she was 15 or 16. We hit it off quite nicely. Together we put out a couple of assignments. Now remember, when I say a few days I really do mean she was there a total of 3 whole days. On the third day, things were slow. I pulled out the Monopoly game and we enjoyed an afternoon of pure capitalist fun. We laughed. We talked. We became friends that day as the busy hustle and bustle of the office went on about us. That was our first day as friends and our last day as friends. Mathias never brought her back to the office again..
I rode home with my mom as usual. I don't remember what conversation did or did not take place. It wasn't anything memorable, to say the very least. No sooner had we gotten home and walked in the door than my mother grabbed me, shoving me against the wall with such force that I lost my breath as my back slammed against the hard surface. My head banged the wall and barely standing I could do nothing but listen to the tirade to follow.
"What was I doing playing a game with one of ‘those people' (insert the N-word here)? Didn't I know that ‘our' customers didn't like ‘those people' (insert the N-word here)? Hadn't I listened to Paul talk about his feelings about ‘those people' (insert the N-word here)?" I was beginning to see a trend...a very sick trend. My mother went on and on about how ‘those people'(insert the N-word here) were lazy and wouldn't amount to anything, they (insert the N-word here) did drugs, they (insert the N-word here) were disgusting, they (insert the N-word here) weren't like us...you get the idea. She went on while I waited for the next blow to fall on me.
I figured I was a goner anyway, so I spoke my mind. They taught me in school how we were all created equal, what prejudice was about, why it was wrong. I'm not sure which part of what came next hurt me more, what she did physically or her verbal plan of attack. It stung when she told me how my beloved grandfather, so long gone, would be so disappointed in me. He didn't like ‘those people' (hear the N-word here) either. Why when Uncle Charlie wanted to marry Ruthie, he was adamantly opposed to it. See, Ruthie's father was black...a fact kept from me till that very moment. And then when they went and got married the family demanded that they never have kids in case one would come out black. The language she used was vile. I felt a pain like no other. Knowing how much Uncle Charlie and his wife loved children, what my family had put them through seemed so unconscionable.
I realized too, in that moment, why my respect conscious family had allowed us kids to grow up calling them Ruthie and Uncle Charlie. It was a matter of throwing in more contempt for a woman who always acted with integrity, who always showed great strength. I understood for the first time the quiet dignity that my Uncle Charlie possessed. I understood a lot of things in that moment. That was the exact moment in time and space when Ruthie and Uncle Charlie became Uncle Charlie and Aunt Ruthie. That woman became one of my heroes that day.
For the rest of my mom's life, hearing the word's Aunt Ruthie went right up my mother. I got some pretty scary looks in the beginning. I thought I might suffer bodily harm at the very start. But, the gods were good. After that day my mother and I never spoke of prejudice again. There was only one other time I ever heard her use THAT WORD in reference to anyone. That's another story.
What I learned that day is, the little things really do count. Not calling my great uncle's wife Aunt Ruthie was a matter of contempt. It was something my family was trying to teach me. Thankfully, it was a lesson I did not learn. What I learned was that the little things, like terms of respect, some small action, a picture not shared, a joke not told, can make a big difference. I never meant to be disrespectful. I never meant to be prejudiced. But, if I bought into what my family was teaching I was set on that course. Fortunately, they were inept teachers and my school days had been filled with lessons of compassion and equality and human value for all. I am grateful that I caught this and was able to right a wrong set in motion so long ago, a motion I followed blindly. Change happens one person at time and I chose that day to be the change I wanted to see in the world.