There I was with fifty years of love and admiration invested when I discovered his love meant nothing at all. What do you do when that happens?
This man had shown up on every holiday, picked me up when I fell, cried when I cried, laughed when I laughed, clapped when I sang, carried my furniture up three flights of stairs, visited me in the hospital, danced with me at my wedding, and dried my tears at funerals. What did that mean if he could just as easily hate other people for no reason?
"Nuke them all," was the first sign. I thought it was a joke (not a funny one). But he didn't laugh. "We need to nuke that whole area off the map," he continued. "And stop all the talk about giving queers special rights."
He would get over it. He would realize how wrong he was to say these things, and regret the confusion that allowed such words to slip between his lips. I had faith in him; he would never truly wish innocent people dead, or begrudge anyone happiness.
But he didn't take it back. He never did laugh, or apologize. He didn't catch the splinters of my heart as they scattered in unexplored directions.
Those people became towel heads. He wanted them dead. He said it often and loud.
I heard every possible rationalization for continuing my relationship with him from other family members. He's family. He's a good Christian man. He donates time and money to charities. He hasn't ever done anything to you. He's entitled to his opinion.
Did they agree with him?
"We aren't taking sides," they said. "Don't ask us to." I wasn't asking for sides, I was asking them to stand for principles. Everyone should have their own principles and standing for them isn't taking a side. It's being real.
As the political climate changed, so did Uncle Charles' vocabulary. Nigger and queer joined towel head and spic. Uncle Charles hates them all and his ability to hate came as a devastating surprise. I had assumed he loved everyone the same as he loved me. Should I be grateful for the climate that made openly expressing his hatred so comfortable for him, so I'd know the truth? Alternatively, was this a case of what I didn't know didn't hurt me?
"If you have nothing good to say, don't say anything," a friend advised. "He has a right to his opinion."
He has a right to hate people he doesn't know? I had to think about that. On the surface, it made sense but deeper, where my heart and mind dissected the situation into possibilities, probabilities, and consequences it wasn't acceptable. Was it my business?
Education was the answer. Somewhere along the way, he had missed some important lessons. He hadn't absorbed Grandma's seldom spoken messages of love, and everyone knew he hadn't read a book in years, and watched the news only long enough to catch the sports and weather. I would help by bringing the needed information to him. He was a good man. He'd appreciate my help.
I collected articles and books, prepared debates and composed scenarios. He didn't appreciate my effort. He didn't look or listen. He laughed. "You sound like a damned hippie," he shouted. "Keep that crap to yourself. You have a heart and a brain. The heart belongs to the church and the brain will get you in trouble if you go twisting what the church teaches this way."
"Your church doesn't teach you to love everyone?" I asked. "Don't they tell you it's wrong to kill? That's what nukes do, Uncle Charles. They kill."
"I'm not killing anyone," he offered as his final comment.
Uncle Charles didn't want to talk to me any more. But his kids had plenty to say.
"You need to keep your mouth shut and get along," one said. "You hurt his feelings," came from another. My aunt shook her head. "You've divided the family with your hatred."
My hatred? My mouth? My division? All I had done was try to talk to him about his hatred of innocent people and the death wish his mouth delivered. I was the bad guy?
Pleas came in from everywhere. "The family that prays together stays together. You have to come on Thanksgiving for the sake of the family, and don't cause trouble," they warned. "Don't ruin our holiday with your negativity."
I tried. I really did. I packed up my children and grandchildren and joined the rest of the family for a day of gratitude and kinship.
Uncle Charles said grace. While he thanked God for wealth and health, flashes of starving Iraqi children with blown off limbs distracted me and ruined my appetite. I bowed my head lower, in shame for what my country was doing to other families while we gathered to express gratitude for not suffering the same fate we forced on them. Is that how God planned it? Should I participate in thanking Him for something I believed He wanted no part in?
"Dig in everyone," brought me out of my trance. "Gramma, what's a towel head?" delivered me from my quiet.
"It's a very ugly name some people call others," I whispered.
"Because they don't know better," I explained. "But you do, so don't ever say that again."
"Can we teach them better?"
"We'll talk about it later."
What Uncle Charles didn't know might not have hurt him, but it did hurt me. When his hatred filtered through his family, and they used it to vote for an administration that would use their uneducated opinions to kill people in my name, they hurt me, they hurt my children and grandchildren, and they hurt innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do people really have a right to be this ignorant, and demand that I keep my mouth shut?
"Don't brainwash that baby with your liberal bullshit," the nearest cousin advised, with the amen of his hypocritical prayer still on his breath. "Towel heads are terrorists who'll kill us if we don't kill them first."
My semi-brainwashed baby's eyes stretched in fear. "Kill us?"
"Nobody is going to kill us," I said. "Eat your turkey."
"Are we going to kill them first?" My grandson asked.
"Do you want mashed potatoes?" I answered.