My mother’s birthday was last week. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I’ve been remembering a story she once told me. I’m fuzzy on the details but I’ll do my best.
She was a young girl of about 17 when one of the nuns scheduled a meeting with her in her office. This was at my mother’s school, Notre Dame Academy. It was a new world and there were new conversations that needed having. I’m sure for my mother, young and brave and unafraid, it was no big deal. I’m not sure how prepared these nuns were to advise these young women, however, about entering a world that was evidently and obviously changing while they were largely committed to persevering in their calling.
Regardless, it was the good sister’s job to have a counseling session with the young ladies in her charge to discuss each girls future plans. It was right around the landing of the Beatles at Idlewild and performing on Ed Sullivan and what changes were coming could hardly be predicted. What was evident however was that young women had options. So the meetings were designed as an opportunity to ask these girls what it was they intended to do upon graduating. They were discussions that perhaps were designed to elicit answers of no real variation from the choices that were laid out for young women prior to this time, asked by folks who expected girls to hew to the norm, to lean in to ‘safe’ and to impose on themselves the restrictive, narrow set of options that had been thrust upon their moms and grandmothers. Surely they assumed this exercise would teach these girls that any ideas of rebellion were silly and not to be bothered with. Well, as is often the case when asking what one thinks to people who haven’t been solicited before, surprise abounds.
So few would answer in ways that the nuns expected. I can’t imagine what they thought when the plans included anything beyond teaching of small children, secretary school, nursing or looking to marry and have children. Surely many would still want some of these things, but many didn’t. My mom was somewhere in between.
‘Barbara. It’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ve known you for years now and I know who you are and whatever you are thinking will surely be less alarming to me than you can possibly imagine. Allow me to assure you, your answer will not be the most shocking one I’ve received. Now please, tell me what you imagine your life will be. What do you intend to do after leaving school?’, asked the good sister.
My mother, a decidedly ‘good’ kid, wasn’t afraid at all that she would shock her interviewer. She might surprise her, sure. Her concern was that she would tell her it was impossible. She would tell her she was silly for having such a dream, such a vision for a life.
‘I’m sure I’ll go to secretary school. The one in the city.’ She replied, avoiding eye contact.
‘Yes, Barbara, you’ve said. What do you intend to do with your life. You can’t be a secretary forever.’
To be fair to my mom, these questions weren’t really answerable. She was seventeen(ish) and her plans for what she’d do ten steps down the road were as unknowable as they were unlikely to turn out true. Still, she had an answer and at this point it was a power struggle. After fighting her way through the interviews with the girls who dreamed of marrying floppy haired British musicians and others that thought they could run entire companies or fly airplanes or do whatever it was they had gotten into their heads, well, Sister was not going to let Barbie Monohan skate by without engaging.
‘Tell me, Barbara. What is their to be afraid of.’ She asked.
‘You’ll think me silly.’
‘I will not.’
‘You will. And you’ll tell me it’s a fantasy and not a plan.’
‘We’ll see if you are right only when you tell me.’
So my mother, having developed a touch of the courage, answered the good sister.
‘I’m going to have a family. A huge family, with 12 children. They will be of every color and from all over the world. I want to be a mother to a rainbow of god’s children.’ She said.
Well. She was right, thought the good sister. That is silly.
‘Barbara, I don’t think you understood the question. Are you even dating someone?’
‘I did understand your question and no, I’m not dating anyone. You want to know what I intend to do. My answer is that I plan to have a big family filled with children of all colors, I want to be a mother to a rainbow of God’s children.’
After some serious scowling, a few more attempts to knock her back on course, the sister dismissed my determined mother. From the room and from her head. She dismissed her as a silly girl who didn’t know anything and still imagined fairy tales were real. She dismissed her as someone who had a lot to learn.
She dismissed her wrongly.
My mother ended up with a big, diverse, multicultural, multiracial house full of children. She stayed open to her hope coming true and woke years later exhausted, exuberant and with the life she could see that no one around her could have fathomed.
We were an odd lot in the pew. Six tall kids with complexions that reflected our (very) Northern European heritage, two black boys (if it was summer and D was up) and a teenage girl from Vietnam. We rolled nine deep, with at least 4 differnt heritages and at minimum 4, if not more, color’s on the rainbow of god’s children. Perhaps it wasn’t an honest to goodness Roy G. Biv rainbow, but it was a pretty damned great approximation of a youthful dream.
I don’t know what’s happening in our world. I’ve been writing a lot about race relations for the past year or two. Sadly a great many reasons have kept it at the top of my mind. The most recent tragedies come in the midst of a public conversation that no longer seems to adhere to the rules of decency that at least kept the truly ugly stuff behind closed doors. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand allowing the truly awful, secret hatred to be spewed out allows us to have the conversation. Compels us to acknowledge realities many of us have been able to ignore for far too long and in the end perhaps these conversations being had in the light of day instead of behind millions of closed doors will ultimately help us evolve and truly change. On the other hand hate has never had such cache in our communal discourse and it’s getting to where you can hardly avoid it. How can this be good. How can we ever hope to change when the truly ignorant are empowered by the truly powerful indulging in hateful, small minded, shameless racism and brazen sexism.
My children live in a diverse world, to some degree. There are kids at their daycare of many shades and backgrounds. That said, it’s not as diverse as my house was growing up. We have family over for birthday parties, uniformly white family. The kids on our block are largely white as are the kids we saw at the kindergarten orientation that Charlie went to a few months back. I worry about how we got here. The schools were literally ranked first in the state when we found the house and that’s the main point of conversation we had around whether the town was a good place to grow up. Diversity didn’t come up in any real way. It wasn’t a part of the calculus.
I don’t know how my mom did it. I should note clearly at this point that she did not do it alone. My dad was of course steering the ship as well, but to some degree, just based on how everyone arrived at our house, it was a function of my mom. She’s a much more social being than either my father or I. Or really most people you’ll come across. It was her relationships as far as I can tell that diversified our world. Many of her friends were different looking than her. If their was an organizing principle it was faith, but even that was diverse.
My mother wanted to see a different kind of church and in doing so met a mentor and friend, Algerene. Algerene was a foster mother to dozens over the years, a committed and hard working, and an incredibly gifted servant of her faith, not to mention a gourmet Chef. My mother met her when she had the opportunity to cross lines and go to the church where she stuck out as the ‘other’.
On a very sad day, the day we buried Algerene’s son, my brother, John, another brother, D, was at the house as we celebrated his life after a service where so many tears were shed. Well, John had an older brother, I believe he lived in Chicago and he wasn’t a huge part of John’s adult or even teen life, but he was of course there for this. Well, when D introduced himself he did so by saying, ‘Yeah, you ever get pictures from John. Yeah, well, I’m the other ink spot in the milk bowl.’ Funny and true. Well, in the church where she met Algerene my mother would have been the milk spot in the ink bowl. She did that. She was curious so she went. Didn’t think twice about it. Didn’t think it particularly notable. She was curious so she went. In the end she made a dear, life long friend. For a number of reasons that friend had a son that moved in with us and stayed.
D is another story. Without going into all the details, from what I know D came up for the summers through a program that paired city kids with non-city families. We were that non-city family. The program ran for years. Maybe 5 or six. We’d always schedule our vacations around when he was gonna be there. Turns out the first couple years he was nervous around my mom. When she finally asked him why he said it was because every time he showed up the baby had a black eye. I was that baby and I liked to fall on things at a very early age apparently. The story is good for a laugh now that it’s long ago as my mother is gentler than anyone you’ve ever known. In the end My parents kept bringing D up for Summer’s on their own accord after the program expired. When D was looking to finish his studies he came back to live with us. He’s been up there ever since.
Our vacations were always in the camper. My dad drove the wagon and we all loaded into it and drove and drove until we got to where we were going. We went to campgrounds, amusement parks, Baseballs Hall of Fame… We got everywhere with that thing in those early years. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that one of those trips when we had the adventure of staying in the trailer it was because those folks we were visiting weren’t comfortable with the make up of our family. My mom and dad could have chosen to take vacation at a different time. We could have been more ‘acceptable’. They didn’t do that. We stayed in the driveway and had our wonderful visit and some ideas might even have gotten changed in the time we were there. No big deal was made about it. Only figured it out as an adult.
My sister, who is Vietnamese, let’s call her May, came to live with us when I was five and not ready to have another person to compete for attention with. I’m afraid I may not have been that nice to her when I was very little. But all that was behind us when I was 16. That was when we all loaded up in the minivan and made our way to King of Prussia in Pa. That was where May was marrying a young Vietnamese man she met at school.
May is amongst the strongest people I can imagine. Her story is hers and I would never relay it, but it speaks to a person who had to be stronger than I ever imagine I’ll ever have to be. When we were asked to be in her wedding, well, snot nose that I was, I said no. I feel terrible about that. I said I didn’t want to wear a tux. I don’t know what that was about. Thankfully my brothers are loving and kind and caring and were happy to be ushers. The plan was for my dad to walk May down the aisle and give her away. It was going to be beautiful. Well, as it turns out, May’s family of origin, who she hadn’t seen on over a decade, were granted visa’s and were going to make it to the States in time for the wedding.
I remember it being a late afternoon wedding and my parents taking us all, dressed up, to a McDonald’s on the way. It was going to be a while until dinner and it was going to be all Vietnamese food and we were a family of at least 6 at that time, 6 kids that is. They had to do something to ensure we didn’t starve. Then we went to the wedding. I felt terrible for my silly stance and wished I was there next to my big brother helping guests to their seats. I might have even asked if I could, but I probably didn’t.
What happened in that wedding was beautiful to me and still is to this day. My dad, May’s American dad, walked her down the aisle, stopped at the front pew, and released her where her dad who hadn’t seen her grow up from a young girl to the young woman she was now, but who moved heaven and earth to get back to her, took her the rest of the way to ‘give her away’. Like watching the movie Glory, or speaking in public about acts of selflessness or my family, whenever I tell this part of the story it makes me well up and brings me close to crying.
I don’t think my parents would ever say they were intentional about being inclusive. They would never think to. If you asked them they might say yes, but it wouldn’t cross their minds to think about it. But they were. They were intentional. Right from the time my mother told that Nun that she wished it, there was intent to be inclusive. To integrate their lives.
I want to give my kids the same experience. A life soaked in differing perspectives unified by the common thread of shared experience. I want them to know that differences are to be celebrated. That seeing someone that may appear slightly differently, who might speak another language or have different traditions is nothing to be threatened by, but rather is something to feel excited about.
I can’t say that I’m without bias. I can fully say that I want to be. I can say that if I’m ever to catch myself I immediately, consciously work to alleviate bias. I fear that the events that have transpired are the result of segregation. I worry that we as Americans, as white Americans have come too easily to accept that this separation of large parts of us is due to organically occurring circumstances and that we shouldn’t think about it. That if people wanted to move in next door and go to the same schools as our kids and live in the same town as us all they’d have to do is choose to do so. We have well maintained roads, good schools, ample security and we assume it is the same for those in areas we choose not to live in.
It’s not true. No less than Newt Gingrich, scion of the Republican revolution said as much. He said that after long conversations, ones where he acknowledged he was not informed and in which he had, for a long time denied the reality that he now was sharing. That white Americans, many of us, can’t possibly know what it’s like to be black in America.
It’s hard to see what you aren’t exposed to. It would be nice if the default that we all fell to was empathy. It would be nice if we all reverted to a position of identifying with the despair of others. We’ve all felt despair. But it’s starting to be made clear that is not where we default to. Not all of us. When confronted with these humans, these people who have different pigmentation, some of us see first with minds that are fueled by fear. Fear of the different. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other.
I don’t want this for my children. I don’t want this for their friends. I don’t want this for children and freinds having a different experience than ours. I want so badly to be intentional about diversity. But I am failing.
Of all people, I should know better.