Saturday, September 24, 2011

Finding Forgiveness

I had so much to think about this week. The family of James Anderson, the black autoworker who was beaten and then run over and killed by a group of whites looking to perpetrate a hate crime, asked that the man who ran James over not receive the death penalty.  Anderson’s eighty-five-year-old mother was behind the unanimous family decision.

Due to a similar crime, white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, was put to death this past week for the fatal dragging of James Byrd in Jasper, TX, in 1998. Byrd’s sister was quoted as saying about Brewer, “If I saw him face to face, I’d tell him I forgive him for what he did. Otherwise I’d be like him.  I have already forgiven him.”
I finished reading The Help this week. More detailed than the movie, as most books are, I completed it with the same sadness I felt when saw the movie. What was different, though, is that I understood that despite the social lines drawn and solidified by law, some bonds between maid and family were equally strong, and loving, and respectful. I would wonder if it were just the fact that I was reading fiction, but I have a white friend I’ve become close with since moving South. She speaks of the black woman who raised her, Timmy, with love and appreciation. Timmy ate at the dinner table with the family and was considered part of the family. She used the single bathroom in the house along with everyone else living there. My husband Ronald told my friend, as she talked about Timmy, that Timmy “was one of the lucky ones, treated well and loved.”
Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help says, “Regarding the lines between black and white women. I am afraid I have told too much… I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray.”
People are not black and white; they are many shades.  More importantly, the diversity of emotions between hate and love is nearly as infinite as the power of forgiveness.
Finally, this week was special because Cara and Mackenzie are performing (the second concert takes place in less than two hours) in Cara’s first faculty concert. I’m trying to write an essay about motherhood, and I am struggling to find the words to describe the love I feel for these two beautiful women. It is infinite.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Cara and Mackenzie, four years of age, each took one of our hands and led Ronald and me to the sofa.
“Sit down and watch our show,” Cara said. They had been in their room all morning, heads together, giggling.
They sat on the floor before us with their twin African-American Raggedy Ann dolls, made by Maxine, and choreographed them in a synchronized dance routine. The dolls flopped, flipped and turned in unison. They played air guitars and beat invisible drums. Ronald and I watched, sitting close on the couch, my leg resting across Ronald’s lap. We held hands and laughed, looking at each other in delight over our beautiful, witty girls. Cara and Mackenzie navigated through life's many permutations in polyrhythmic harmony.
One day I would write a poem about them as I remembered them on that day, sitting on their bedroom floor, heads touching, giggling and planning. They used it in their first dance film Folding Over Twice. They were young adults, fresh out of the dance conservatory, starting their own duet dance company: Cara directing, choreographing, Mackenzie cleaning the movement and making it aesthetically pleasing.
We would sit through many performances over the years: piano recitals, dance recitals, dance performances at the conservatory, and then their own productions and dance films.  We went to New York City to watch Mackenzie fly on fabric that was suspended from the ceiling, secured with giant carabiners. She spun in graceful circles. Then she scaled the fabric twenty feet up, twisting and turning it around her body, the long fabric tails flipping through the air.  Near the top she released her hold and spiraled downward, the fabric unwinding as if she were a spool and it the thread. Just as it looked as if she might not stop, she did, the fabric flexing bungee-like, her back arched, her legs and arms hanging backward toward the floor, looking like a spider in a web.
Ronald was featured on percussion in their second dance film Two Downtown. Cara and Mackenzie remembered listening to Ronald play drums in the basement, right under their bedroom, sometimes for hours. Cara would later tell me she found it comforting, knowing Ronald was there, feeling the vibration of the bass drum, feeling safe.  Mackenzie would tell me all the music in our house made her want to live a musical life.
Ronald and I had more ideas about what not to do in childrearing than what to do, but we managed to enjoy parenthood. I brought two strengths to my parenting technique: total, unconditional adoration and my imagination. Ronald brought stability, music, and creativity. We both retained our strong childhood curiosity. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Healing from Hate

I wrote the following article for my professional association’s newsletter as president of the local chapter. We were to have a lunch meeting on 9/11, but what we did instead was stand together in the bar at the hotel and watch the horror unfold on the TV. We cried unashamedly.
I went back to work after a while, but I still cried. I felt shocked and heartbroken. I reached my daughters, away at the dance conservatory. We had only dropped them off two weeks before. They were seniors in high school. They were 700 miles away. We cried together on the phone, grieving over the day’s events and mourning our distance.
Ronald was at an international firefighters golf tournament in Ohio. We only had one cell phone back then, and I kept it in the glove compartment of my car in case the car broke down. I could only reach Ronald by calling his hotel. I left him a teary message. He called back to tell me he was okay. Others had been called to go home, and they rented cars and drove. He would not have to go to NYC because he was a first responder not an EMT, and they still thought they needed search and rescue teams.
The fright and shock continued over the next several days, and as I stood outside with the dog, I was frightened by silence. All planes were grounded. When I heard F16s flying overhead the next day, sounding so loud I thought they were on the roof, I panicked then ran outside to watch them.
This article appeared in our October 2001 newsletter. I think it is as timely today as it was ten years ago, particularly in its plea not to hate. Hate stems from fanaticism and fear. We see it here in America every day. People hate others for sexual orientation, religious views, skin color, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, but what it really is, is fear of what they consider different or a threat to their “way of life.” The Tea Party rose from the ashes of 9/11 and grew emboldened by the election of our first black president, and their fear and hatred are pervasive. Changes and events demand that we accept a new vision of America, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that celebrates our strength in diversity. There is room for all of us, even the Tea Partiers (maybe they can have Texas – but I grow flippant).
By the way, I quoted Paine below, not to call for arms and war (I’m a pacifist), but to call each of us to the service of our country and its people, and it is true now as then. Our country needs us to be present and helping in crisis, not hiding behind fear, rhetoric, and hate, but engaging in real dialog and solutions.
(President’s Message, ARMAil, Vol. 11, No. 2, October 2001)
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of men and women."  Thomas Paine, 1776
On 9/11/2001 our lives changed. No longer will we look at a plane flying overhead in quite the same way. The skyline of NYC is forever changed.  The image of the 2nd plane crashing into the tower will replay in our minds as if it were the first time over and over again. The faces of countless rescue workers, police and firefighters, overwhelmed by the loss and devastation, will stay with us. The loss of life, both of the innocents who were just going about their daily routine and that of the rescue workers who were there because of their sense of duty, is devastating. The area where the World Trade Center complex of buildings stood, the side of the Pentagon and the field where the 4th plane crashed look like war zones. Our very psyches are scarred.

This will not be the first or last time the souls of humankind are tried. Life is a trial. We can’t anticipate this kind of colossal devastation handed to us by nature or mankind, but we can buffer the shock and pain by remembering that acceptance will help us heal and become stronger. Acceptance will help us not to react irrationally but with calm and deliberate action. Acceptance will help us look inside and define our true intentions.

I’m not a proponent of war; however, I realize our government must and will do something. I hope for justice rather than retaliation and the loss of more innocent lives. I think the one thing I wish for in the healing of our country, our people and for the whole world, is, that we, as individuals, become kinder, gentler and more introspective. We need to examine our priorities. We need to think about what is truly important. We need to dispense with selfish motives and support the well being of our communities and the people who live and work in them.

At the moment of the crisis were you thinking about your work, your finances or what you wanted to buy next? No. You were thinking about the people who were on the planes and in the buildings. You were thinking about your families and your loved ones. You wanted to hold your loved ones. You wanted to reach out to help those suffering emotional and physical pain. You wanted to DO something to make it better. 

You realized you love this crazy-quilt country we call the United States of America. You recognized the freedoms we take for granted and may have, in fact, lost. You understood that some of our daily complaints and inconveniences are insignificant. You saw the ugliness and devastation hate could cause. You wondered if your heart could hate at such intensity.

As these events continue to unfold before us, no one can predict the outcome. The only known factor is how we will cope with this particular trial that has come into our lives. Because this enemy of our freedoms is so elusive, it is easy to target someone else. It is easy to profile anyone who looks Arab and funnel all our feelings of hate and anger at that individual. But it is wrong. It is as wrong as the government was in WWII when it forced all Japanese Americans into internment camps. It is as wrong as the police pulling over African Americans because they fit the ‘profile’ of someone who would commit a crime. Yes, there are certainly some terrorists living amongst us – at least one had a white face, and his name was Timothy McVeigh, but we didn’t suddenly become suspicious of every white American male we came in contact with after he committed his terrorist act. The face of a terrorist or a murderer is not one face or one ethnicity, but many. No true religion would support the killing of innocent people, and the Islamic religion is no different. We cannot believe that one person’s fanaticism represents all who share his religion and ethnicity, so accusations based on emotion and bias are hurtful, dangerous, and, in some cases, deadly.

We are grieving this tragic turn in our lives. There are seven phases in the grief process: shock, denial, anger, guilt, depression, acceptance and growth. Many people are now experiencing anger, guilt (why did I live and others did not) and depression. If we can each move through the phases to acceptance, at our own pace, there is hope for a positive outcome from this devastation.

Maybe then we will remember the way we pulled together, and how we remembered to tell our loved ones how important they are to us. Perhaps we will understand that hate is evil and is not an emotion most of us will ever feel fully at its true and destructive depth, but love is boundless and can heal the most gaping emotional wound. We will appreciate the great diversity of the citizens of our country and the world. We will remember many people came to this country to escape oppression in their homelands.  We will understand that one way is not the only way, but respect and equal, dignified treatment need to be universal and present in all cultures. We may realize that our materialistic ways and our determination to fill every minute and hour of the day with sometimes meaningless tasks have numbed us to our real emotions, and, just maybe, we will actually take the time to just be.

From there, the last phase, growth, will take hold, and we will all be better people and help create a better world because of this trial we have endured. Let us not forget 9/11/2001.  Let us accept its inevitability and learn from it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fighting Fires

Where were you on 9/11/01? It is a day that many of us won’t soon forget.   I particularly remember the overwhelming fear, sadness, and dread I felt as I watched the firefighters. They were the people running into the World Trade Center buildings where death and mayhem reigned. Over three hundred of them would die that day, others in the years to come, and many others would suffer permanent physical, mental and emotional damage. I worried that Ronald, a Syracuse firefighter, would be called to go down to New York City for the search and recovery work. My selfishness was only exceeded by my fear.
I read an interesting article today on ( titled Firefighter PTSD, Depression and Suicide – Helping the Helpers. It talks about the high rates of PTSD, depression and suicide among firefighters, mostly not recognized or acknowledged before 9/11. I know about this intimately. Ronald, now a retired fire lieutenant, was exposed to constant death and danger on the job for twenty-five years, unimaginable for most of us. As one of the first black firefighters in Syracuse after a federal consent decree ordered the department to align hiring practices with city demographics, he was also exposed to the closed and racist culture of firefighting, where outsiders were not welcome.
I respect the work firefighters perform for us. It’s a call of duty and service for many, Ronald included. But I know this, firefighters are human and they suffer the attendant failings, fears and weaknesses of all of us. That they still put their lives in danger so that we may be safe is not only astounding, but we forever owe them our gratitude, respect and understanding.
What you read next may make you wonder how I can feel that way, but believe me when I tell you that we humans are a complicated, perplexing bunch, not easily described in black and white but in many shades.
(Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Ubiquitous They, Shades of Tolerance)
The Syracuse City Fire Department had a history of being staffed with white firefighters. Prior to 1981 blacks constituted less than one percent of the force. The department was mostly made up of Irish-American and Italian-American men whose fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and grandfathers had been firefighters. The U.S. Justice Department and the city of Syracuse filed separate actions in 1978 for non-representation of the community demographics on its force. In 1980 a consent decree was issued to align hiring practices of blacks to reflect the community racial makeup. The department demographic was to consist of at least 10 percent ethnic minorities. By 2004, two years before Ronald’s retirement from the force, the percentage of black firefighters was at 16.5 percent while the community was 25 percent black.
 Two white men filed reverse racial discrimination claims in 2005 that stated the department hired from two lists, a white list and a black list. They purported the department had passed them over for recruits selected from the black list who had the same scores as the two white men. White firefighters posted the test scores of the new black recruits on the official fire department bulletin boards in every station. They supported the reverse discrimination suit. The court dismissed the claims in 2010.
The facts above are about faceless men and percentages, but Ronald would become one of the first black firefighters after the consent decree was issued.
He decided to take the firefighters civil service exam in 1980. He had talked about becoming a state trooper, and I told him I thought he might get killed in a job like that. Then he talked to a state trooper to find out when the exam was scheduled, and the trooper told him they did not want recruits like him. Ronald knew he meant blacks were not welcome on the force, so he signed up for the firefighters exam. The irony of his wanting to become a firefighter after I expressed my fear about the danger of being a state trooper was not to be lost on me, particularly after the fatal fire near the university just two years before.  His longing for this kind of dangerous job surprised me at first. I saw him as the artist and musician, not the alpha male type, but Ronald’s complex nature fascinated me.
Ronald scored well on the statewide exam and was selected for the July 1981 class of firefighter trainees. The class, the first selected after the consent decree, had thirty new firefighters: fifteen white men and fifteen black men.
During training one of the chiefs told Ronald that he believed Ronald might very well become the first black fire lieutenant in the history of the department. He told him he was impressed with his skills and how quickly he learned. Ronald was skeptical.
The chief was wrong. Ronald would become the third black lieutenant, resisting the pull to be first. I always told him it was because he knew, deep down in his gut, the other firefighters would have made it impossible for him to become the first.
What Ronald came to experience was that the chief’s enthusiasm for his future on the department would make the white firefighters, who had brothers or sons or nephews waiting to join, resent him.
He was assigned to one of the busiest stations in the city, Station 8 on the south side. The chief had indicated that the experience he would gain working at such a busy station was critical to reaching his potential as a future officer. Ronald stopped over a few days before his first shift, and the firefighters on duty were aloof. He quickly toured the station and left.
On his first day, he pressed his uniform with its newly sewn on patches. He buffed his black steel-toed shoes and pinned on his badge. He was firefighter number 429 – it would take us twenty-six years to realize that Cara and Mackenzie were born on the same day, April 29th, as his badge number. We noticed one day as we walked toward the car, two years after he retired, and saw the vanity plate with the Maltese Cross, the universal symbol of firefighters, and his badge number. He would think of the coincidence as simple serendipity.  I would believe it was a sign of predestination, even if we had taken so long to notice it.
When he arrived at the fire station, Ronald reported to his officer. Lieutenant Andy Schaffer was the kind of firefighter who figured if he did not have time to put his air mask on, so what? It was just smoke. He had a large horse-like face, cratered and pocked skin, and thick gray hair that raged all over his head. He was referred to as touched, but then again, a lot of the old “smoke eaters” were touched. Ronald had heard stories about them during training.
“You know you niggers can’t help how you are,” Lieutenant Schaffer said to Ronald at the breakfast table after the morning equipment check.
“Really?” Ronald asked.
One of the other firefighters put his beefy arms on the table, stared at Ronald, and tipped his crew cut toward him.
“We don’t want you niggers here,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure you don’t make it. I’m a union steward, but I won’t represent you ever.”
Ronald left his first day angry and discouraged, but he also knew he would not let anyone stop him. He bought firefighting manuals and studied them on his time off. He memorized the pocketbook of city street names and maps. At the station, though, he read Drum Magazine, a magazine dedicated to professional musicians. He did not want the other firefighters to know he was studying.
Within a month of Ronald being at Station 8, Lieutenant Schaffer started calling him his “little Brillo head.” He would pass behind Ronald, place his arm around his neck and rub his knuckles across the top of his head.
Firefighting is a fraternal brotherhood. Oftentimes when off duty, each station shift hung out together, playing sports, drinking, socializing. If a firefighter chose not to engage in activities outside of work, he was looked upon unfavorably, as if he might not rise to the occasion if one of his brothers was in imminent danger. But things got worse when Ronald joined the Fire Department Bowling League. I went with him one night to watch him play, the only woman at the alley.
As I sat at the table behind the lanes, I shifted under the stares, my cheeks feeling warm.
“I don’t think they like me,” I said to Ronald.
“It’s me they don’t like and us,” he said.
The atmosphere degraded as the evening progressed.  The firefighters became unruly, drinking one beer after another, leaning in to one another, making comments while staring back at me, then laughing. A heavy set middle-aged firefighter staggered up to the lane when it was his turn to bowl. He picked up his ball off the rack and swayed with the weight of it. He turned toward the pins, his elbows bent, the ball centered at his chest. He bent slightly and his pants fell to his ankles, boxers and all. The men all laughed and turned to see my reaction. I had turned away.
“They’re all pigs,” I said to Ronald.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance)
Ronald heard more insidious remarks about our daughters and me at the fire station: jokes about how I’d “figure it out one day,” and run off with a “suit,” one of the white male mangers they imagined I worked with; they joked we would never need a babysitter because all we would have to do is wet the girls’ lips and stick them to the wall; they called them zebras; and then there was the officer who told Ronald he should have stuck our two-year-olds in a cab and gotten his ass to work the day Ronald’s car broke down on the way to the babysitter and then the fire station; another white firefighter got angry that Ronald called him to let him know he would relieve him by official changeover at six p.m. but would not make the unofficial relief time of four p.m. because he was driving his daughters to a summer dance program in another city. “Tell your lazy kids to get up off their asses and stop inconveniencing me,” the firefighter had said.
“He might as well have said ‘black asses.’ I know exactly what he meant,” Ronald said in the car as we drove back to Syracuse. He arrived at the station well before six, pulled the firefighter aside, stuck his face close to his, put his finger on his chest, and said, “Don’t ever talk about my daughters like that again. You don’t know anything about them and you don’t have a right to an opinion.”
Sometimes he retaliated. “You better watch your daughter,” he told one white firefighter. “White girls love black guys, and she might come home with one.”
The seeds of Ronald’s depression were planted in childhood, and they would thrive at the fire department.  Facing a litany of jeers, racist remarks, disrespect and pranks meant to make him look bad, I wondered how he didn’t blow up at the lot of them. He did, about six years into the job, soon after he was transferred to Squad, an elite and coveted placement that served as a steppingstone to becoming an officer.
One of the officers there wore a swastika on his uniform collar; the other firefighters asked him daily if he was ready to put in his voluntary transfer papers since they did not want him there. One night Ronald lost his temper and picked up a firefighter by the throat, held him against the wall even though he was a head taller than Ronald, and warned him what would happen if they took it out to the parking lot.
“I might not beat you,” he said, “But you’re gonna feel me and regret it tomorrow.”
Ronald picked up a trashcan and heaved it at his lieutenant during another heated exchange. Many years later the lieutenant would be promoted to chief and he would lie about a fire scene as a way to stop Ronald from successfully completing probation as an officer. He told some of his cohorts that he would make sure Ronald didn’t pass probation. One of the other black firefighters overheard him and told Ronald to watch his back. The chief reported that Ronald had not handled the supervision of the fire scene properly. His deception was discovered, though, after a few other officers at the scene gave their assessment and rated Ronald as fully competent. The administration was forced to investigate. Soon after, Ronald’s probation supervisor told him the chief would no longer be a problem. Then the chief announced his retirement, and Ronald passed officer probation.
While he served on the Squad, Ronald and I decided that if he put in his transfer papers, he would never earn the respect due him, and that he would stick it out until the administration put him on the mandatory transfer list. I said, “We’ll stay together through this, no matter what happens. If you put in for a transfer, they win.”
The five years he remained at Squad would be some of the most difficult years of our marriage, both of us thinking that his time there would be the thing that finally drove us apart.  I remember telling myself that relationships moved along a continuum between love and hate, and it was okay if we were leaning toward hate, because we’d swing back the other way. It comforted me enough to get through the bad days, months and years.
I was traveling for my job as a manager on a special records project at Bird Library in 1988, a few years into Ronald’s tenure at Squad. Across the country in San Jose, I was out of touch for most of the day. On the nights Ronald worked while I was gone, Cara and Mackenzie stayed at their Nanny and Papa’s. On his second night in, Fire Control issued a code 99, working fire. Squad and Rescue went to every working fire, along with the station in the fire district, so they responded to the call. As the engine pulled up to the curb just minutes after the alarm, the night sky glowed deep orange. The fire was fully involved, meaning it was blowing out the windows and spreading very quickly. The firefighters watched as an elderly couple, trapped inside the house, framed by the picture window, perished before they could reach them. No one would ever know why the couple waited so long to call 911, but the delay killed them.
The officer in charge, devastated by the loss of lives, ordered the roof crew up the ladder, perhaps hoping the building could still be saved. Ronald was on the roof crew. They are the men who carry large chainsaws and axes up a ladder, hook themselves to the roof, and cut ventilation holes, the fire raging beneath them. Ronald ascended the ladder and assessed the roof visually and by touch. He climbed back down.
“Can’t do it. The roof is spongy. It’s about to go,” Ronald reported.
“That’s a direct order! Get the fuck up there,” the officer yelled.
“No,” Ronald said.
“I’m citing you for insubordination!” the officer said, but Ronald would not hear the words, only see his lips move, because the crash, as the roof crumbled and descended into the conflagration, drowned out all other sounds.
Ronald told me about the incident the next day on the phone as I sat in my room at the Ramada Inn. I could hear the hurt in his voice that the couple had not survived, but I also heard relief that he heeded his gut.
 “Look,” I said, trying to steady my voice, imagining a different kind of phone call, “it’s great you take care of me and the girls the way you do, but if you ever get into a situation again where you think following an order will kill you, walk off the job, right then, right there. Promise me. We’ll figure it out later. And, remember, your gut never fails you.”
 “Hey, does Dianne know you hate white people?” one of the white firefighters asked him at the breakfast table a few weeks later.  He smirked and looked for approval from the other firefighters. Ronald had heard the question hundreds of times over the years.
“You’re right,” Ronald said, staring back at the firefighter, his eyes narrowed and dark with disgust. “I don’t like white people, but Dianne isn’t white. She’s Dianne.”
I knew what Ronald meant when he said I was not white and that he didn’t like white people. I didn’t feel white, not in the sense they did, as if white was better, but the firefighters probably did not understand him. They thought he was a “crazy nigger.” Ronald was not black in my eyes either; he was Ronald. His skin color was there, but it was not all of him. When I focused on his skin color I only saw how it looked against mine, warm and complementary, the way an artist uses color for shading and contrast.
Soon after he hefted that trashcan at his officer, the administration transferred him to another station. One of the chiefs pulled him aside and said, “I have to transfer you. You got that, right? But just between you and me, sometimes you have to kick a little ass.”
Ronald knew how to kick ass.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hidden Dirt

Why does racism still occur regularly and with frequency, but many people deny its presence or question the victim? Because then, as a society, a cultural collective, we don’t have to deal with it. We’ve swept it under the carpet, easily hidden it, and the room looks clean. But the dirt is still in the room. Racism still exists. It’s the dirt under our carpet.
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
I’ve experienced this fear of not speaking up about racial injustice.  Once Ronald and I went to an athletic shoe store. We were there for about half an hour as Ronald tried on shoes. He selected a pair and told the white salesman that he wanted to purchase them. He filled out a check that was preprinted with our address and phone number, and he produced his driver’s license as proof of address and identity. The salesman refused the check. He had looked Ronald’s name up in the phone book and didn’t find the number listed under his name. I told the man I was Ronald’s wife, and to look under my name in the phone book. I pulled out my driver’s license to prove it, but he still wouldn’t take the check.
We left the store angry and humiliated. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper and complained about the treatment we received. The evening after the letter appeared in the newspaper, we got an anonymous phone call.
“You got exactly what you deserved,” the male voice said before the line went dead.
Racism hasn’t died. It’s gone into hiding, and interracial relationships draw it out.
Right after Ronald and I moved to Winston-Salem, NC, in 2008, we had a different experience shopping for shoes. I had picked out two pairs of shoes at one of the department stores and was at the counter paying for them, Ronald at my side. The white saleswoman kept staring at us.  I began to feel uncomfortable until I saw that she was crying.
“How long have you been together?” she asked. “You look like such a nice couple.”
“More than thirty years,” I responded.
“I’ve been with mine for eight,” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. I knew she meant her husband was black.
“Has it been hard?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, her voice halting. “My son stopped speaking to me, and my sister is kicking us out of the condo she rents to me.”
We stayed and talked with her for about twenty minutes before she was called away by other customers. She was a woman in her fifties, had served a distinguished military career, and was divorced with grown children. She still met opposition from her family.
A year later, after inviting her and her husband to dinner several times, I stopped seeing her at the store. She never took me up on my invitation, saying her husband was suspicious of meeting new people. I wondered whatever happened to her, and found out in 2010 right before Cara’s wedding. She was back in the shoe department.
“I missed you,” I said when I saw her.
“I’ve been out on stress leave,” she said. She explained how she ended up in court battling her sister for the right to stay in the condo; how the neighbors had yelled racial slurs; how she and her husband had been at odds about how to proceed; how she had a breakdown and had taken leave; and how she had lost the court case and was forced to move. The store had given her back the position in the shoe department when it became available, and she was happy to be there.
“Call me. We can have lunch, just the two of us, if you like,” I said, leaving her my home phone number. But she never did.
I understood her sense of isolation. I’ve felt it myself. Sometimes it just feels too much like work to make friends, trying so hard to find people who can picture Ronald and me together and not feel uncomfortable about it. Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with us, something that doesn’t have to do with race at all. Maybe we are just unlikable. But I know that’s an excuse, a glossing of the truth to make it more palatable.