Crystal Meth Meets Aunt Mabel

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My Aunt Mabel was a very rare and special person. Known for her bread and butter pickles and her gift for making pastry, she was just the epitome of love and caring. A small woman with a sweet and gentle face. Wavy, constantly blond hair that was forever perfectly in place. She always had a smile and her cornflower blue eyes were very bright and alert.

When Aunt Mabel talked, she had the sweetest southern drawl, like she was from southern Oklahoma or something, but she wasn’t, she was a Swedish, Iowa farm girl permanently from Pilot Mound, Iowa, who loved and married my sweet and gentle Uncle Cliff. Two gentler souls were hard to imagine.

The main difference between them was that folks in my Uncle Cliff’s family showed their love with teasing and practical jokes. It seemed to have its very own brand. I was introduced to it at the tender age of 5 when I went to Aunt Thelma and Uncle Ralph’s farm for a week visit. My older cousin, Billy had posted insults like “Bumble Bee is Stupid” alI over the house. I retaliated with insults to Billy Goat and I was called Bumble Bee the whole week. Hard to get homesick when you’re engaged in such intense battle.

I’ve always had trouble conveying to outsiders the special flavor of this family humor, kind of a gotta-be-there thing. But I miss it terribly and only can find it now with my brother and the Christmas letter I cherish every year from Aunt Mabel’s son, Cousin Chuck.

As a child observing her, I often saw jokes and teasing go right over Aunt Mabel’s head and Uncle Cliff would just smile like he was saying, “That’s my girl.” I remember wondering if Aunt Mabel even had the capacity to have a negative or sarcastic thought, it seemed like heaven would shake and open up if she ever did.

Aunt Mabel always greeted me exactly the same, no matter my age. Her smile would get big and her eyes light up, then she’d reach out and stroke my chin before the big hug, and exclaim in her drawl, “Oooohhhh liiiittttle Cheerrrie!”

There was a time in my adolescence that I actually believed I would soon outgrow this treatment. But when I experienced it again at age 40 after the world had knocked me around some, it was such a wonderful gift to be transported to be an 8 year old again.

After Uncle Cliff passed, Aunt Mabel moved to town and lived in a simple modular home she found quite sufficient. It was a very small town (population never got over 200) and folks knew each other.  There can be a lot of comfort in knowing your senior family members are surrounded by caring folks who will help to look out for them.

Chuck made himself available to give her rides and help her take care of her needs. Chuck, with the drawl he inherited from his mother, told me the following story, much better than I can, but here goes.

Chuck picked his Mom up and took her to the town’s grocery store. From the car, Aunt Mabel walked with a bit of a shuffle, keeping her head down to watch for hazards on the pavement but once safely inside the store – different story. Aunt Mabel stood straight and her bright eyes were darting around taking inventory of who she knew and who she needed to swap news with.

Chuck was also looking around as he knew the importance of these news swaps and didn’t want for Aunt Mabel to miss anyone. While he was doing his own span of the store, an unfamiliar woman distracted him. She was young and just seemed dirty and disheveled – greasy hair, dirt smudges on her face, greasy, dirty clothes, baggy sweatshirt. Chuck was at a loss, while not an affluent town, folks had pride.

As Chuck was trying to put all of this in perspective, Bam! The young woman and Aunt Mabel had embraced and were chattering away like old friends. Chuck was a little dumbfounded and started looking around the store to see if anyone else found this as strange as he did, or if they even noticed.  Nobody.

Aunt Mabel and the young woman wrapped up their gabfest, embraced again and the young woman went on her way. Chuck, a bit taken aback and trying to decide if he just saw what he thought he saw, asked, “Mom, who was that?”  The anticipated answers were – “Oh, she’s been doing some gardening for folks in town.” Or “She cleans homes for folks.”  Maybe even, “Her grandparents passed and she’s had to put the farm in order.” Then Aunt Mabel replied, sweet drawl and all, “Oh you know honey, she lives in that blue house across the street. The one where they had the Meth raid last week.”

Hard Lessons from a Bad First Boyfriend or Thanksgiving and Politics

 

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Thanksgiving always reminds me of the first Thanksgiving I brought a boyfriend home from college. There was much excitement and anticipation. He was in law school (Oh goody, mission accomplished. The main reason for a girl to go to college in that day was to find a nice doctor or lawyer to marry.) and from a nice Lutheran family in Northern Iowa. The family was not from the same Lutheran Synod (which could be a significant issue) and they were of German descent, not the preferred Swedish variety. But it looked like we had a winner – Law student, Lutheran and dare they hope, White. WhooHoo! Our girl is on her way!

There were a few warning signs that this was not my prince charming, but I was 22, thought I was in love and if a man (law student, Lutheran and white) said he loved me, well I should just consider myself darn lucky.

In the mix were also the confusing moral questions of the day. I had been raised, most emphatically, that I would be a virgin till after marriage. All indicators were that every woman related to me throughout history had done this and I was not to be the one to break with tradition. Well, too late now, the cow was out of the barn as they say. So, regardless of the signs, this had to be the guy and I needed to make this work.

Later in the relationship when we visited his family home, I noticed their small home had signs about Jesus everywhere. The one on the back of the bathroom door read, “If Jesus came today, would you be ready?” More than I cared to think about in the bathroom where I had gone for a little escape from the rigidity of the household and the not so subtle criticisms of living in sin and “Not under my roof” inuendoes.

The Christmas after his parents had visited our apartment, my gift was a toilet bowl brush. Yes, it was in a plastic container shaped like a cat and his mother said she thought I liked cats. How thoughtful that I could also use it to scrub the toilet instead of something to just admire on a shelf. When radio shows have call-ins about worst Christmas gifts, I just figure who’d believe me.

Then there was the time our parents were talking about our potential future and his father oh so thoughtfully said to my father, “Why would someone buy the cow when they can get the milk for free.”  Yes, there were signs, I could have saved myself from all of this, just following the first sign that Thanksgiving.

We had been living together for about 3 months and it was excruciating to think of being apart for the full 4 days of Thanksgiving break. Our parent’s homes were about 3 hours apart and he was obligated to spend part of the day there and then we planned that he’d drive to meet my parents for the first time and have dinner. He arrived on time.

There was excitement mixed with a bit of nerves as I took his coat and had a little time to chat and welcome him to my family home. While doing this, I looked down and realized that prominently on his shirt, he was wearing a button displaying a raised defiant black fist .  

I gave him my best girly-puppy-dog-face and asked if he could pleeeeease put the button in his pocket for dinner and just give my parents a chance to know him before we jump into the politics. He refused because it would be too much to compromise his principles. So count the first of several awkward dinners. My parents had no idea what they had signed up for.

His principles caused much not-good-boyfriend behavior, not to mention that soon after that Thanksgiving he dropped out of law school and declared himself an atheist, still white though.

We shared a commitment to help the oppressed and worked in factories with the proletariat, marched at grocery stores in support of Cesar Chavez and demonstrated for Women’s rights. Although at home, even though we shared the jobs of tuning up the car and changing the oil, I also got to cook, clean and do laundry, just cuz ‘I was so good at it’.

Then there was the visit we made home to my parents when I noticed that our car in the driveway had a flat tire. In the spirit of sharing tasks, I went out to change the tire while boyfriend was watching the game. I never before heard my father curse so creatively and extensively.  Boyfriend ended up changing the tire and we left soon after that.

Shortly after our third Thanksgiving, boyfriend’s principles led him to the need to sleep with two of my “friends”.  Something about how backward monogamy was and I should know that he really didn’t want me to leave, I was more than welcome to continue living with him, just sometimes he wouldn’t be there – whenever it suited him. I decided to not accept this opportunity to be progressive and we broke up.   As Thanksgiving triggers these memories, I give great Thanks that I moved on!

Oh, and to seal the deal. Christmas was coming and he said he wanted to give me a parting gift and asked what I wanted. I told him I’d like a turquoise ring or something similar to commemorate our 3 plus years together. Well, per usual, something got lost in translation. He gave me a stainless steel thermos and a sleeping bag lined with cowboy motif flannel. My mother gave me the turquoise ring, so I could always remember the lessons learned.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Can’t Stand a Bigot!

My daughter has a beautiful café au lait complexion. I have more of a ruddy au lait complexion. Twenty-five years or so ago, people found this curious and would stare at us for a while. I discovered that I had a timer in my head for what was an appropriate span of time for the curious stare. People, generally managed to stay within their acceptable limit.The acceptable limit is hard to describe as it consists of factors besides time – primarily the crinkles at the corners of eyes and mouth.  These crinkles are very telling and cannot be trained to be false, like a smile.

Were these crinkles warm and accepting, curious and confused, snarly and disapproving or any of the myriad of levels in between? Once the crinkle expression is defined with micro-second speed, an appropriate time can be assigned.It’s an awesome responsibility, setting this time. If people are genuinely warm and accepting, that must be embraced and welcomed with responding warm crinkles of the eye and mouth corners. If they’re curious and confused, they get a little time to see normalcy and then move on. If they’re snarly and disapproving, that’s when they get the identical eye expression of a lioness protecting her cubs.

My daughter would notice these stares and ask, “Mom, why are they staring at us?”

I’d reply, “Honey, they just haven’t seen two such beautiful women in the same place at the same time.”

To which she’d reply, “Moooooom!” – end of discussion.

Living in Chicago, there were certain neighborhoods where we’d draw fewer stares than others. A good Puerto Rican neighborhood was the best place for no stares. Mostly because my daughter and I were the same complexions as those in many Puerto Rican families.

We also liked it because people were friendly, a hardy “Good Morning” was required when passing a neighbor, very family-oriented with solid respect for elders, good food and outstanding music.  Generally, folks in the neighborhood seemed humble and gracious. A comfortable place for my beautiful daughter and I.

One evening, we’re in our local grocery store trying to figure out dinner. I spot this handsome, red headed, well dressed white guy. My first thought is, “What the heck is he doing here?”  Not typical of our neighborhood – at all. I steal a few curious glances, but I’m not going to stare. This is a no-stare neighborhood and I’m not going to violate that.Then it happens – he’s staring at my daughter.  He has literally stopped what he was doing and is staring at my child. I’m trying my best to read his crinkles but they’re unfamiliar to me.

Hey buster, you best know when to look away. Time’s up and he’s still staring, okay bud, looks like you need some educating and I’m just the Mom to do it. Get ready, here I come, you’re going to get it now!

As my fiery 5’2” frame charges toward his well-groomed 6’2” self, he suddenly looks at me, smiles and says, “You know, your daughter looks just like my daughter. Here let me show you her picture.” Well, shut me up! (Not easily done.) I get a whole new category of crinkles to consider.  So, who’s the bigot now?

Two Sides of the Same Coin

For most of my childhood, pretty much up to age 17 or so, I found my father to be all knowing and all powerful. I never once doubted that.  What led to my father coming down off the pedestal when I was 17, began with something that happened when I was five. 

I had pneumonia five times before the age of five and the doctor recommended removing my tonsils as a solution. Arrangements were made. My folks brought me to the hospital the evening before my surgery. The nurse had to get me settled and prepared, she suggested my parents get a coffee, then come back to my room. 

When they returned to the floor, they found me walking the halls arm and arm with a “Negro” girl just like we were long lost friends. Negro was the word my parents used when trying to be polite. In their natural environment it was always Colored or worse. 

This was most likely the first Negro I ever met. I had seen black folks when we took the bus to downtown Des Moines, which was still a segregated city.

All of this happened in a time long, long ago when families sat down to dinner together. During the week, every day Dad arrived home at 5:05 PM and expected dinner on the table at 5:12 PM. Dinner was generally swiss steak, ham steak or pork chops, boiled white potatoes, canned vegetables, Wonder bread and real butter with delicious homemade desserts.  The desserts were bait to get you to eat the horrific canned vegetables.

Sundays were for extended family dinners and would happen in the dining room. The menu generally consisted of a baked ham with pineapple and cloves, scalloped potatoes, Waldorf salad and corn on the cob with either lemon meringue pie or banana cream pie for dessert.

Me and Jeff

It was usually a warm and happy time with lots of news and family history being shared. Plenty of gentle teasing and humor with a pinch of competition thrown in for good measure.

Never stated, but clearly understood, this was a time for adult only conversation.  So, I just couldn’t resist when I had a question that turned out to be a real show stopper. I must have been about seven when I asked, “What’s a sex pot?”  Not sure I ever got an answer, but I did get a lot of questions back at me.

We lived across from some vacant land with a great tree that had a big horizontal branch, perfect for lying on and reading a book. There was this teenage boy who used to come down our block and spend hours in that tree. One day I was in the tree and found a book titled, “The Sex Pots”. I intuitively knew this wasn’t good, that’s all I knew and I put the book back. 

I shared this at Sunday dinner and the next time the teenage boy came down the street, my Dad went out to meet him and he never came to the tree again.

Back to the story at hand. During one of these Sunday family dinners, the usual banter and teasing is going on and I’m half listening, I may have been six at the time, I heard my name. My Daddy is telling a story about me! I’m so proud and eager to hear what he’s going to share.

He goes on to share the story of when he and my Mom found me walking down the hall arm and arm with a Negro girl. As I listen to the marvel and amazement in his voice, I have no doubt, he is proud of this moment in his young daughter’s life. My younger brother is sitting next to me at the same table, hearing the same story at the same time. It’s about 12 years later, I discover in a very harsh way that my brother heard marvel and amazement but it was the opposite of pride he heard in our father’s voice.

Over the next 12 years, I remember my parents frequently telling me that there are good and bad people in all races so it’s a wrong to judge people because of the color of their skin. Of course, they never foresaw the end of segregation so how often would I be interacting with Negroes anyway.  All I heard was that we’re equal.

When I was 16 or 17, my high school initiated a Black History Class. I signed up. Our class of about 300 students had less than ten Black students. Our claim to fame was that when there were civil rights demonstrations at other schools, they’d send the instigators to ours because it was not likely they could stir our students up. Sadly true.  My theory was that was why we got the Black History Class, little chance of reaction but it looked good for the school board.

 The teacher was Reverend James Harris. He really impacted me. We read and discussed “Soul on Ice”, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and more. I still remember him bringing a newspaper article about a young man who was arrested for a store robbery and sharing that the evidence that led to his arrest was footprints in the snow leading from the store. Reverend Harris blew my mind wide open. I was so charged up and wanted to share this inspiration with my family.

So at dinner one evening, I was sharing some of the brilliant lessons I had learned. I decided to top it off with this great insight, “You know, you can’t say that there’s anything wrong with interracial dating because if you do, then you’re saying that one race is better than the other and we all know that’s not true”.

Well the roof blew off the house. My brother looked at me like I had just returned from another planet. My mother got very pale and teary. She soon thereafter started wearing a George Wallace for President button. My father took charge and roared that if he even heard of me walking down the street with a Black man in college, he would bring me home and lock me up. I was confused, but began realizing perhaps I had misunderstood when I thought my father was proud to see me walking down the hall arm and arm with a little Negro girl.

George Wallace

About Reverend James Harris, I went looking for him later in my life to thank him for the impact he had on my life. I started my search looking at small churches in Des Moines and couldn’t find him anywhere. I eventually found him and discovered he had left Des Moines to be an Education advisor to President Ford. He was named by Ebony magazine as one of the 4 most influential African Americans in the US. He was the Founder and Pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church, Silver Springs, MD; past President of the National Education Association, an Educator (art and mathematics) for 35 years, and a Tuskegee Airman. His paintings and sculptures can be found all over the United States.

I was not surprised that Reverend Harris had this magnitude of life accomplishment, but I was very surprised that a man of his accomplishment would be introduced to me in my life. Thank you Reverend Harris!

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Rev. James Harris