A special message for today, written on a 2′ x 3′ container lid.
Yes, the word “mofo” still amuses me.
As I amused myself with this sign, I listened to my downstairs neighbor rage and scream for several minutes. I went out to the landing and stairs and recorded a little bit of it. I hope he is not screaming at his very young daughter again. That kind of behavior at 4 a.m. signals that he is out of control. It wouldn’t be better to listen to it at 2 p.m. but it somehow is much worse at this hour. He’s the one some of us call “Shirtless Guy,” because he goes shirtless when all evidence clearly indicates that he should not, at least from the standpoint of “things people want to see.”
I hear the train whistle in the distance. It will soon approach, roaring past. As loud as it is, it’s one of the things that is endearing about living in this area. As for the volume, it’s no louder than my mom, whose voice cut could through the apocalypse. Trains connect me to my childhood past, parts that are worth remembering. My grandpa used to tell me stories about jumping trains, even as my grandma Nellie would holler at him: “Woolie, stop telling him those stories!” I wish grandpa had lived a few more years to tell me stories I could remember. As for the train tracks, if you touch the rails, you’re connected to 140,000+ miles of them across the United States. I love that idea.
The train horn grows loud.
The day grows near.
The neighbor is silent.
Good morning, mofos. I wish you could experience how it makes me feel to recall sitting on the wooden porch swing next to grandpa.
He’s been gone 28 years today. He died at 3:33 in the morning. I was awake at that time this morning and took my first drink of coffee as I watched the minute click over. Nothing noteworthy happened unless you factor in the gratitude that I felt for still being here.
He violently tried to mold me into the man he thought he was. In doing so, he achieved the opposite result. And I’m grateful. His legacy is one of addiction, fists, and one of the wildest senses of humor I’ve ever experienced. He was in prison in Pendleton, Indiana, when he was in his 20s, and accumulated countless DUIs, fights, arrests, and violent confrontations. He also found his humanity from time to time and helped other people. I remind myself of those times as often as I can because they were just as much a part of him as the times he lashed out.
I think back to his funeral, with Jimmy and Mike sitting near me. Both of them are gone now. Both of them, unfortunately, absorbed much of the Terry inclination for self-destruction. Though I couldn’t apply the realization properly, I recognized at a young age that I was susceptible to much of the same sort of demons that possessed so many of my family. I learned to dance around them.
I was Bobby Dean’s accidental namesake. Not too many years before he died, I killed off that part of me, both in name and spirit.
It probably saved my life. Walking around with the people close to me calling me X was a constant reminder that I could choose my own way. While I have stumbled with the best of them, I’ve managed to keep my sanity all these years.
But through the arc of time, I still feel stirrings of Bobby Dean inside of me. Some of that is hard steel. Some of it is limitless humor. He taught me to take hard, unexpected punches and to swallow the blood, even if I did so through tears. At 54, things look entirely different to me. I don’t judge him as harshly as I once did. Being human has taught me that although I will never eclipse the stupidity and violence of some of my dad’s actions, I have that part of Bobby Dean inside of me. It is strangely comforting, even as I strive to be his opposite.
Were he alive, I would love to sit and have a coffee with him while he smoked a camel. And to talk to him about the sister I didn’t know I had. As reprehensible as the behavior was that led to her creation, it’s hard to fault the universe for the result. She’s a kind human being and proof that Bobby Dean could contribute to the creation of a stellar human being. If we met again, I don’t know whether we would hug or trade punches. Or both. But I do know that I would be overwhelmed. I can now see him as a person apart from being my dad. There was so much I could have learned from him; he was a mechanic, electrician, tiler, carpenter, painter, welder, gunsmith, outdoorsman, and farmer. If only he had acquired the skills to be loving, his life would have been ideal.
He, of course, hasn’t changed. He made his choices and left his footprints. He had his chance and walked the Earth. My understanding of him has changed. He would laugh at me and tell me to put my boots on and go out and get the punch in the face. He would also call me his favorite curse word: _ _ _ _ s u c k e r. Then offer me one of those horrible peppermint Brach candies that he loved.
Out of all the lessons I learned from him, one he didn’t even know he was teaching, is that we all need people and love. To find a way to get past what we’ve done and who we think we are. If we’re alive, we can use the steel and even the heartache to turn away from the things that make us lesser.
To Bobby Dean. Dad. Troubled human being.
Love, X . P.S. Below are more pictures, some of which I amateurishly colorized. All of the images used in this post were originally in black and white.
Dad in 1963. He was about 19.
Dad standing on a horse, of course.
Dad with Goldie, somewhere around 1974-75. He was 31, which blows my mind to consider.
My sister Marsha, brother Mike, me. Seeing it in color changes everything.
Me as a toddler. The picture looks strikingly different in color!
Though I start by talking about a movie, these words aren’t really about the movie. Most of the things that strike a chord in us are really about recognizing something magical or true in ourselves as if we’re hearing an old truth in a new way.
“Arrival” is already a thought-provoking movie about language, time, and destiny. I loved that the main character was seeing her own bitter future and lived it anyway.
Last night, I watched “Arrival” again, this time in Spanish. I intended to spend just a few minutes immersed in it. Instead, I watched a movie that initially fascinated me in its approach to language. Ingesting it in Spanish lit my curiosity zone on fire. Before I knew it, the film was over. I curled up with my bear Azon as my cat Güino laid next to my hip, an unusual place for him. Dreams hit me like an avalanche.
All of the evenfall (another word I love) and the penumbra of the night held me captive, my dreams bursting in Spanish. In one of the best parts, my Grandma Nellie and I sat in her house on Shumard Street in Brinkley, both of us speaking only Spanish. She’d scoff at the idea of her ever speaking another tongue. But our conversation was about life and love and a little bit about salt pork and bacon for breakfast. (She was one to concern herself that no one was starving in her house – or so full we could barely walk to the front door, for that matter.) Though I knew I was dreaming, my heart sang as I sat with her. She died in 2000, at 91. It’s been a while since I dreamed about her or heard her voice so expressively in my head. Though she would have never done so in life, she asked me to drive her to Monroe to see the old haunts. As we drove, my dream shifted to early morning. As we neared Rich and Monroe, I noticed that we’d moved in time, too, traveling through an odd mix of several decades. Monroe was once again a bustling place, with farmers and passersby everywhere. We stopped at the Mercantile, once a hub of life in the small community. “I’m going to get out here if you don’t mind. I need to visit. Call me when you get home!” she said, always one to insist that we let her know we’d arrived at home alive. “If I’m dead on the roadside, how will I call you?” I asked her. It was an old joke that I loved telling her.
When Grandma exited the car and shut the door, I woke up. A few tears pooled in my eyes. It was 12:15 a.m. I felt like I’d lived a year in the dream. Güino was still next to me, his body heat oddly comforting.
This morning, I wandered around the apartment, my brain still in a slight fog, listening to my internal voice whisper to me in Spanish.
Even though I did so inexpertly, I attempted to colorize a picture of her and my Aunt Betty. I love that it’s not complete; it’s an evocative mix of black and white and color. I let my imperfections have the last word. But Grandma’s face is revived, so many decades later. The picture was probably taken 60 or 70 years ago. For a moment, last night, time became a bridge, and I walked across it.
I feel like a little bit of me is still back there in the imaginary place where time and geography became fluid.
I sat on the steps of the porch, feeling the boards against my back. I was barefoot and wearing cutoff shorts, the official uniform of Southern boys. The porch was a stack of large railroad ties. Each section had at least two hundred nails driven in it. If the summer sun were shining on them, the nails became unbearably hot against your legs. The narrow highway was about thirty feet away, its tan hue rendered black in the early morning. No car was parked in the driveway because my grandparents didn’t drive, a fact that still surprises me. Later in the day, Aunt Betty or Aunt Marylou would come, and we would go to the store, probably to the Mercantile in Monroe. Grandma would let me pick out one of the cheap toys hanging on a rickety metal carousel. In a few minutes, one of the robins that preferred the protection of the cedar tree by the ditch would begin to call.
The days of the summer of 1973 filled with Watergate, and one of my favorite books, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” was a best-seller. Both of these facts might as well have been part of another world, one only remotely attached to Monroe County. I came back for the summer. My parents had precipitously decided to move to Northwest Arkansas the year before. I skipped kindergarten and went to first grade. Coming back to be with Grandma and Grandpa probably saved my life that summer. I didn’t know until I was over fifty years old that my Dad fled his hometown because he had another secret, one which was unacceptable to many people in that part of the state. He could kill someone and pay no price, but he couldn’t escape the pressure of violating an unwritten social norm. Mom and Dad spent many of their nights beating one another into reality. I was a couple of hundred miles away that summer before the interstate crept into Springdale. Because school used to start later, I had about three weeks to enjoy the summer. Three weeks at that age might as well have been a year. And time in the rural areas of the South slowed to a pace that most modern people couldn’t accept easily.
Because it was early August, Grandpa would come outside sooner than usual. He might cut a plug of tobacco but would probably wait until after breakfast. Grandma’s Saturday menu invariably included sausage or salt pork and toast with butter. Years later, I thought it strange that everyone didn’t have extra biscuits or toast leftover in a pan on the stove or table.
Sitting on the porch, I knew that just a few minutes separated night and day for everyone in the house. All the windows were up because the night was hot and dense. Being outside, I could hear the fans whisper against sheets and mosquitoes. As the day lengthened, I knew Grandma would be in the living room, asking herself what time she could seal up the small area, turn on the window air conditioner, and feel the chill of a small victory against hot summers. Much of my day would be spent digging in the ditch along the road or sitting on the floor near Grandma, cradling an infinite glass of Coke and crushed ice Grandma often made for me, using a hammer and hand towel. It’s a recipe you won’t find on The Food Network. It’ll never taste the same anyway because its alchemy includes water from old ground and love from one’s Grandma.
I knew I wasn’t there again, even as I smelled the dark earth of the surrounding fields fade from me. Monroe County receded and dissipated, leaving me to awaken in 2021, imagining August 3rd, 1973.
In a minute, I’ll get up, peer through the blinds at the backyard, and wonder about the intervening forty-eight years. I’ll make a strong pot of coffee, and as I take the first sip from my green Pyrite cup, I will invoke the misty morning I left behind.
I don’t dream of my summers before Grandpa died with much frequency anymore. When I do, though, I find it takes me a few minutes to shake away the idea that some part of me still sits on the edge of the porch.
Meeting my sister answered so many questions. Not all of them, though. Expecting complete answers at any stage of your life is a denial of the fact that as we change, the same answers can ring hollow or fail to give us satisfaction. We often don’t understand our motives or what led us to those choices, even regarding our own lives. Usually, the simple answer is “nothing.” You might be comforted by realizing such a thing. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that our lives might be a game of pinball, with our choices volleying us across an almost random field. Careful observation of other people’s lives tends to reinforce it, though.
Isn’t it strange that we stridently ask and demand explanations and answers from those who preceded us, even though we well know that there may not be a reason that falls blithely to our hearts?
When we’re young, we falsely believe that the adults and people in our lives somehow have a magic formula for safety and love. Growing up exposes us to the harsh alchemy of people being people, making mistakes, and quite often winging it. In my case, I should stop surprising myself with revelations. At this point, almost any combination of things may be valid. It took me until I was 52 – and in the face of constant argument – to find out that my Dad not only had fathered another child but that he had done so with a girl much younger than he and from a different background. For those of you who understand my hometown’s circumstances, this alone gives ample berth to find credibility in any rumor or suspicion.
It might explain why Dad decided to move everyone to Springdale and Northwest Arkansas for a new life. After he went to Indiana and ended up in prison, he returned to Monroe County to stay. Whether he would farm, be a mechanic, or work one of several other jobs available, he made it clear he was back to stay.
Now, thanks to DNA and an ongoing decision to keep looking, I’ve changed the narrative of how I came to live in this part of the state. Much of my adult life revolves around terrible misbehavior on the part of my Dad. Knowing that I live here due to it changes nothing. Yet, it does make me think about the spiderweb of cause and effect.
In the summer of 1972, we packed up and moved to Northwest Arkansas. It was probably August, not long before school started.
I am convinced that we moved in 1972 primarily because my missing sister was born in May of that year.
If I heard rumors of her when I was younger, they would have been snippets of angry revelation from my Mom or others, probably during a drunken tirade. I did hear hypothetical insinuations, but I don’t recall concrete accusations. Such a truth would have certainly caused a homicide between my Mom and Dad. I have to admit the possibility, though. The existence of my new sister in itself proves that we are all unreliable witnesses to our lives. I used that concept of ‘unreliable witness’ on one of my first blog posts about genealogy. We will never have all the facts of our lives coherently arranged. We can’t trust our memories, much less those around us, who actively conceal and camouflage their lives for one reason or another.
I lived most of my life suspecting that my new sister was out there in the world. She lived most of her life without the answers that could have given her the ability to understand herself better. It wasn’t her choice, but she paid the price and consequences of not knowing. I hate that for her.
I don’t know how life would have looked had Dad been honest with everyone about having another child. He died in 1993, another lifetime ago. My sister was around 21, and I was about 26. His shame or inability to acknowledge his indiscretion robbed other people of a fuller life. I can’t understand how a man who beat his wife and children, went to prison, and killed someone in a DWI accident would have difficulty saying he had another daughter. This is doubly true after his Mom died on May 21st, 1983. My sister turned eleven years old the next day.
I wish that people could be open to the complexity of their lives.
Were it my choice, all of y’all who know me well also know that I am no fan of concealment. We’ve done it, said it, and lived it, precisely in the same way that my Dad and others did before we came along. In the future, our descendants will whisper, pry, and discover. You may as well give the painful answers now if you find yourself in any way in the role of a secret keeper.
Somewhere, there is another me, looking for answers and wishing that my sister didn’t have to spend so many years without her truth being exposed.
I wish. For me, for you, for us all.
Let’s all shine the lights in whatever direction they are needed.
If you listened to the radio much between 1976 and 2009, at some point, you no doubt heard Paul Harvey’s distinct voice say those words. It was his way of kicking off his segment covering news of the day, personal commentary, and possibly a tidbit of some sort to make your life easier. His syndicated program was heard by millions of Americans every weekday for decades, and he had credibility and influence with his listeners.
How much credibility and influence he had became apparent when I saw him get three teetotalers to consume what I’ll call drunk grapes. To be clear, these folks believed—hands down without a doubt—alcohol is not to be consumed in any form unless you’re taking communion at church. No sip of wine with dinner; no beer while watching a ballgame. One tiny sip of inexpensive communion wine once a month was the only allowable type and amount of alcohol.
On a trip to my hometown in the mid-90s,I pulled into the driveway at my parents’ house one Sunday—-late morning. The folks were still at church, so I headed next door to my grandma’s house.
There I noticed but didn’t think much about, a mason jar on her kitchen table filled with clear liquid and globs of shriveled golden raisins.
Later, in my parents’ home, the same type of jar filled with clear liquid and raisins sat perched on top of the refrigerator. Neither of these jars had been in place the month before during my visit, so I had to ask.
Turns out, that week on his radio show, Mr. Harvey had touted a new remedy for relieving the pain of arthritis. In fact, the recipe might even be the answer to several ailments.
The recipe was simple: Pour a box of golden raisins into a large glass jar and fill it with gin. Let the raisins soak in the gin at room temperature for a week. After that, eat ten raisins each day. In about two weeks, your various pains should be significantly relieved – if not completely cured.
While it sounded a bit odd to me, stranger miracles have happened, so I made a mental note to check back during the next visit home.
First, though, I had to ask how this all came together…
Getting raisins was easy enough; Mom simply added them to that week’s grocery list. But how on earth did these three non-drinkers get the gin?! Mamma didn’t drive, so that option was out. Dad himself wasn’t an option because he wasn’t a fan of the unknown and going into a liquor store alone was far beyond the boundaries of the comfort zone he liked to inhabit. It was, as usual, up to Mom to do the heavy lifting or, in this oddest of cases, picking up the spirits.
One of the small town’s numerous liquor stores was situated on the route my mother took to and from work daily, so it seemed the logical choice. But my mother did not relish the possibility of being seen parking at and walking into such an establishment. A plan eventually was finalized. Mom would watch the pattern of occupancy at the package store, and Dad would drive her there during a day in the week with less auto and foot traffic. He would park at the side of the store in hopes they were less likely to be seen by people they knew (even though the side parking offered two directions from which to be seen just as the front did). Mom would go in to purchase the gin.
The chosen day came, and nerves tingled as Dad eased the large, white car alongside the building being careful not to block the drive-up window.
Mom gets out and purposefully, but quickly, marches to the door. An old-fashioned bell clangs as she pushes the wooden door open and steps inside to an expanse of potent potables.
The clerk behind the well-worn counter looks up to see an unfamiliar face and asks if he can help her find something.
She hesitates briefly but knows it is useless to look for it herself – she will never find what they need if she doesn’t have help. Yes, she says in a voice that fakes confidence in what she is doing. Yes, I need some gin.
Stepping around the end of the counter, the clerk throws a wrench in her business. What kind of gin, he asks. Kind? Her mind freezes for a second. There are different kinds of gin? She throws the wrench back. The kind that’s good for soaking raisins. Her firm answer implies “of course” at the end of her sentence, but she knows as the last word comes out how ridiculous it sounds. It is the clerk’s turn to be surprised. Mom can’t help but smile a half-smile at the situation. The clerk laughs and says “Well, let’s see what we have. You say it’s for soakin’ raisins, right?” Mom laughs and answers “That’s right!” before she adds that Paul Harvey said gin-soaked raisins are a cure—or at least a help—for arthritis pain and several other ailments, and they think it’s worth a try.
By now, they are standing before a selection of gins with a variety of prices. As with many things in life, Mom figures you get what you pay for, so she skips the cheapest and the clerk helps her pick a middle of the road gin. They return to the counter where the clerk totals the purchase, bags the gin, and accepts the cash Mom slides across the counter. Mom thanks him and turns to leave as he waves and wishes her luck with her raisins.
She closes the door behind her and notices the bell’s muffled jangle. She thinks that wasn’t so bad. She rounds the corner and notices Dad scrunching low in the seat looking furtively in every direction.
She marches to the car clutching her once in a lifetime purchase, grabs the handle, and hops into the passenger seat. Simultaneously, she says that didn’t take too long as Dad grumbles what took so long; he thinks someone they know saw him.
The engine roars to life, and Dad pulls as quickly as possible onto the street and drives home the back way.
And now the gin and golden raisins are hanging out together in glass jars waiting to be medical miracles.
A month later, I arrive home for another visit. The mason jar at my grandmother’s is gone. I ask if the raisin and gin “medicine” had worked to banish her aches and pains.
“Not sure bout that,” she said, “but it was really a dose!” The emphasis on “dose” was so heavy, I couldn’t help but laugh before saying it was too bad the taste wasn’t what she had hoped for.
At that point, I decided not to even ask my parents about their treatment as I could already imagine their reactions. The thought of the entire situation, all these years later, still makes me laugh and the line “it was really a dose” has become a fun and regular phrase in my vocabulary.
It’s apparently true after all. Sometimes, the cure really is worse than what ails you.
And, in the words of Paul Harvey, “Now you know the rest of the story… good day!”
A wise woman once told me anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy.
She spoke from experience having been raised from the age of three by a man who wasn’t her biological father but who loved her as if she were his own.
He was a man of the land; a farmer who sweated in the cotton fields of Monroe county and hunted in the area’s woods. He took his family to live for a time in California during the Depression where he worked as a carpenter and where one of his children was born before the family returned to its roots in the soil of the Arkansas Delta.
Before that, he had a wife and children he loved. When the youngest of them was still a baby, his wife became ill, and the family needed help. A young woman needing work came to the house each day to care for the younger children, cook, clean, and tend chickens while the man worked the fields and cared for his wife. Tuberculosis was common in those days, and it robbed many families of their loved ones. With her passing, the man was left a widower with children. He and the family still needed the young woman’s help, and, to keep things “proper,” they wed so she and her small daughter could move into the house full time. What surely began as a marriage of necessity turned to a marriage where love lived and grew, and they added four more children to the family. The number of grandchildren grew, too, over the years.
For many of them, memories of him included how he rolled his own cigarettes—carefully pulling a thin cigarette paper from its packet and holding it between several fingers of one hand while tapping tobacco from a Prince Albert can with the other. He then rolled the paper, licked to seal it, and twisted the ends. If asked, he allowed whichever grandchild had climbed into his lap to watch the fascinating process lick the paper for him. It was a thrill beyond thrills, and only a granddaddy wouldn’t mind a child’s spit on his cigarette. He loved his grandchildren, and the honest summary of their high energy visits was a simple “I love to see them come, and I love to see them go,” as he smiled.
He was a quiet man, but his eyes and facial expressions spoke volumes. You can take my word for it, or you can look at his expression in this photo—the first photo taken by my sister on her first camera. Its value can’t be determined by a number for it is priceless to me as it is the only known photo to exist of this elderly man and young child, and he only lived a few years longer after it was taken.
Most folks called him Lawrence; his wife called him Lun. Turns out the wise woman mentioned at the beginning of this memory was right. Anyone can be a father or grandfather, but it took someone special to be the man I call Granddaddy.
“Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” If I heard that phrase yelled at one of us kids once, I heard it, by conservative count, at least 32,760 times in my life. If the phrase had to be said more than once, the lollygagger was likely to be threatened with being locked out for a while; a punishment my brother figured out could be short-circuited by popping the door right where the hook went through the eye sending the hook flying up and over to dangle uselessly.
Keeping the screen door closed was important. We lived behind a grocery store in a small town. Its dumpster was straight across the street from our driveway and the screen door. My mother hated having the back of that store as the view from her kitchen window. In fact, she hated everything about that store.
Store employees and management dumped all kinds of expired food, including meat, in that dumpster. In the winter, it wasn’t so bad. But in the hot summertime, it became unbearable. The stench from rotting meat, produce, and milk could almost gag the maggots that formed on it. It was a common sight to see my mother marching across the street and pouring a jug of bleach all over the bin’s contents. She had talked to management time and again simply asking that they not throw away raw food items until the night before or the morning of the sanitation truck’s arrival. Sometimes, they would do as she asked. More often, they didn’t. As a result, they lost all of our business, as my mother began driving across town to the Kroger store near the interstate. The amount spent by my mother on groceries each week was substantial as she fed our family of five (including a male teenager who could pack away a lot of food easily).
Apparently, my mother’s example taught me as a child that not being able to beat them didn’t mean you had to join them. To this day, I will boycott a business in a heartbeat based on principle alone.
Aside from the smell in the summer, having a grocery store as a neighbor wasn’t so bad for us kids in the neighborhood. Really, it couldn’t get much better if you could scrape together enough change to buy a fudgsicle or a tiny container of ice cream with its own wooden spoon attached. If that much money couldn’t be found or begged from an adult, sometimes we had enough for a pack of candy cigarettes or a package of wax paper wrapped Now and Later candy (as if any of it was ever left for later).
Sometimes when money was scarce but supplies were available, we got our parents’ permission to make lemonade and sell it in the parking lot to earn candy money. Yep, for a kid, the positives of the store outweighed the negatives by far.
My mother rejoiced the day the grocery store’s owner closed the store. It stayed vacant for a while but eventually was converted into a maintenance shop and parking area for the school district’s buses. Life became a lot more peaceful – especially on the weekends when the shop sat empty waiting for school again on Monday.
Several decades have passed since then. The shop remains though the school district is shrinking as the town’s population shrinks. The house, however, now sits empty, its latest occupant having deserted it for reasons unknown to me. The kitchen windows stare blankly – one window partially broken.
It’s not much to look at, that house, but on the rare occasion I do, I can still hear “Hurry up and close the screen door! You’re letting flies in!” And I smile.
It’s 1:19 in the morning; another sleepless night as Lonely drops in for an unwelcome visit. Lonely doesn’t care if you’re by yourself or with others. It simply shows up when it pleases. As I attempt to put Lonely and the other things bothering me out of mind, I take a deep breath and release it slowly. Then, like a small gift from above, a train whistle sounds in the distance. As it draws closer, it transports me to a place in the past — a place where I can feel the subtle rumble and shake of the train’s cars as they rock to the wheels on the rails.
My sister and I shared a room until I was 10, when she moved out. She was 19 and had never had a room to herself. Nor would she in the foreseeable future. She was getting married. For me, a lot of excitement surrounded her wedding-especially since I was to be the only attendant. She would be a beautiful bride, and I would get to wear a pretty dress and hold a bouquet of lovely flowers.
Excitement surrounded her move too because she would be moving into a house she could decorate and set up completely as she chose. This was going to be fun to watch! Then, it hit me – I was going to have my own room for the first time ever! Wow! Things became more exciting each day!
The wedding day passed in a blur, but the bride was indeed beautiful, and I did wear a pretty dress while standing next to this young woman who was part big sister, part mother to me.
Later that evening, I went to my bedroom excited at the thought of having it to myself. As life often shows us, things aren’t usually what we think they will be. The room felt empty and sad. I had rarely spent a night without my sister, and now I was facing endless days and nights without her. She was the one who held and rocked me when I had a bad dream, she participated in my sleep talking to soothe me back to sleep; she even allowed me to warm my cold feet on her legs when winter nights were icy.
Facing that first night without her was lonely and more than a little scary. As I lay in what suddenly felt like a huge, empty bed, my fear of what might lurk in the dark grew until I wanted to scream for my mother. Knowing she was asleep and would not appreciate a screaming kid disrupting her rest kept me silent.
Just as the fear became completely paralyzing, I heard it. It was faint in the distance, but it was there, and it was coming closer. The evening train was rolling through town. We lived close to the tracks, and, as it approached, the sound of the wheels hugging the rails and the sound of swaying rail cars grew louder until the train was right there – practically outside the window. I could feel the vibrations from the floor up, and it was comforting. For a few minutes, I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t the only one awake in the world, and relief washed over me. I relaxed and focused on the train’s every sound and movement and drifted off to sleep as the train finished passing the house.
The nightly train became a trusted and reliable friend. I counted on it each night to lull me to sleep and, later, when fears and worries woke me in the early hours, I found that another train would come through and provide that distinctive rhythm that told me everything was on schedule and okay.
P.S. This is a guest post written by a reluctant writer, counted among my favorite people.
*Note: as with any mention of Trump, I acknowledge that Trump supporters are not automatically racists. I loathe the entire agenda of superiority, though.
“By elevating those who fought against equality, you are sending a message to those once with a knee in their back that you would prefer it be that way again, whether you realize it or not. America was not great when we enslaved people, chose to keep women from voting, or did any of the things that would be considered sociopathic if a person did them.” – X
Before Trump dreamed up “Make American Great Again,” I endured family members who constantly whined and moaned that the United States needed to return to what it once was. They were vague on specifics. What exactly were the parameters and years of “the good old days” in America? Because most of them believed that their religion and their color was the only way of life, all others were therefore inferior and the enemy. It’s true they had to live in the real world and interact with their perceived inferiors. Despite their exposure, though, they lived each day with the certainty they were victims to modern society’s demand that all men be treated as equals. They didn’t believe it. Many racists still don’t. They’ve learned to silence those vocalizations unless they are in their own bubbles of town, church, or family. As we live our lives, we run up against these unstated prejudices all the time. They simply aren’t labeled.
In the same way that blacks and women were left out of this country’s founding, the ideals that so many claim to cherish ring hollow to me. The revolutionists didn’t have women and minorities in mind when they phrased such lofty phrases such as “with liberty and justice for all.” People weren’t equal. Millions of people weren’t people at all. Much to our shame, it’s codified in our law. We can do better than the constitution we now have. I realize that such ideas go against the prevailing sense of patriotism. This country is people, though, first and foremost. It is malleable, adaptable, and flexible. It’s why we have the ability to change it.
Before my Mother died, she befriended a black woman who worked at Brinkley Schools. By all accounts, they were close friends. Saying this without understanding that my Mother didn’t believe her black friend to be her equal does a great disservice to the truth. My mom died with much of her racism intact and real. The stereotypes most of us reject were a large component of my Mom’s identity. Her alcoholism was a prism that intensified her anger toward those she felt superior to. I’m not writing this as an accusation toward my name. It’s not. It’s the truth.
I’m not saying that my Mom actively mistreated every minority she came into contact with. That’s not how the world works. Did she believe that she was superior to them? That she had a right to be served first, to be hired first, or that her color was better? Yes. My youth was filled with such diatribes and rants. If Mom would have had the power to enforce her superiority over minorities, would she have done so? Yes. If a black person was a cop, he got the job because they had to hire him. If the supervisor was black, it was affirmative action. In any argument, the n-word came out as if it were a label that negated the other side of the argument. Mom mocked and ridiculed me for speaking Spanish. She ridiculed any accent other than her own, saying it was a sign of a lack of education, breeding, or whatever nonsense might pass as a justification.
Mandatory sidenote: it is possible that someone can do an about-face and change their beliefs and way of living. This includes racists. People can change. Were it not so, we would all be cynical and filled with loathing for most people. There would be no incentive to change. As with all other behavior, if a racist succeeds in learning a better way, he or she should get a chance for redemption. It’s unfair to label someone as racist if they grew out of it. Likewise, it is no crime to point out that people once were racists; it’s just a fact.
For those without obvious intensifiers or addictions, I watched as their ideology sharpened their resolve to put the others in their place. Even as their ability to give voice to their poison lessened, their actual prejudice seethed inside of them.
There is no golden age of America, not an inclusive one. Whether we demeaned blacks, women, Jews, Latinos, or gays, the truth is that we’ve never been a county that truly worships the idea of equality. The South of my early youth was predominantly racist in a literal sense and metaphorically much worse. The surrounding elders lamented the loss of the ideals of their country. It confused me because from where I stood, efforts to force prejudices into silence were slowly improving our ability to live peacefully and equally. I didn’t have the tools or understanding to give voice to what was wrong with so many of my family members.
Whatever infected them, I could see that it was wrong.
It didn’t leave me without my own measure of guilt. Unlike others, I resented it, rejected it, and learned that such things were hurting everyone. For almost all of my adult life, I’ve been free of some of that ignorance.
I’m not sure if we can blame it all on ignorance. Many of my family members were truly intelligent. Had they focused their intelligence on bettering everyone’s lives, society would have been a better place.
When confronted, they’d ascribe the questions to youth or inexperience. If I pointed out that I needed a reason other than, “That’s the way it is,” they’d either resort to harsh anger, their Bibles, or some other circular reasoning.
Mostly Bibles that were rarely opened to the pages asking us to live peace and kindness.
It’s no surprise that my research skills have demonstrated that many of them had some sinister skeletons in their closets. “Pious bastards” rings in my head a lot.
Many still reside in that cauldron of prejudice. They don’t see themselves as racists, of course. They consume media and reinforcements that mirror what they believe. Their opinions do not change with new information.
One of my relatives couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to hear the n-word, sincere prejudices about Jews, or his definition of the differences of each kind of color. His job gave him the excuse to stereotype. Over time, it blinded him. He would get angry at me for telling him to stop using it while talking to me. I understood him, but in the opposite way than that which he’d appreciate it. My wife who died years ago secretly bit her tongue every time she was around him. It infuriated her that he couldn’t see that his heart was dark. Because I was younger and foolish, I didn’t appreciate that all of us would have been better served to let her unleash her fury on him.
If we do not exercise great care, the rising prejudices hidden in plain sight within “Make America Great Again” will ruin us. We can make America great, but not by following the lead of people who feel they are superior to others.
People see these arguments and falsely claim that such logic implies that we don’t want the best for the United States. It’s a vacuous argument for them to make – but one they’ll always make because they think it negates the need for further explanation. We all should be focused on making the best decisions for everyone.