Saturday, January 24, 2004

...and whom shall we say represents "normal" in this cautionary tale?

After having spent the years from six to twelve at a fine Summerhillian private school in the Alhambra Valley, it was time for Dorian to move on. She'd spent the years relatively happily, but she was the only mentally-handicapped child in this small progressive school, and as the children she'd entered with grew older and intellectually more capable and less tolerant of her deficits she tended to seek friendships with younger and younger children. I was convinced that she was becoming grotesque to the littler ones and now needed a different educational environment in which to continue to grow at her own far slower rate. I'd learned about a fine school in Marin County that might better serve her changing needs. I think that experience colored my feelings about mainstreaming such children. Dorian needed a place where it was she who was at the higher end of achievement scales. Something I've never regretted.

The Cedars was a boarding school, heavily endowed, obviously well-run, and recognized and supported by Lanterman funding (State of California). It was a reasonable 35 or so miles from Walnut Creek, in Ross, and therefore practical for us, though extremely difficult to think about since it was to be our first separation. Our family was defensively close and I wasn't sure how to prepare the boys for this next step in Dorian's move toward whatever independence she could achieve before I die and leave her in the world without our support.

I'd noticed from the first newsletter that no surnames were used when reporting on activities of the residents. This should have been a tip-off that -- despite outward appearances -- this was a people bank in which to deposit embarrassing relatives. This was my first brush with the mentally-handicapped community since Dorrie had never been exposed to that world, nor had we.

Also noticed that -- on my every-other-Sunday visits -- I rarely ran into other parents. I did become acquainted with several of the young staffers and volunteers who were students at Marin Junior College. They quickly became accustomed to my more frequent visits and could be counted on to see that my girl was content and cared for.

When Dorian was about fourteen, she struck up a friendship with 17 year-old blond Larry, a very sweet and well-mannered youngster who appeared far younger than his years. On our visits she and I would take walking tours along the marina, visit downtown San Rafael or Sausalito, attend any public event we might happen to run across in the Sunday papers, sometime go to church together, etc. After her innocent friendship with Larry began, I would include him in our visits, with consent of the staff.

One day Joylene (young staffer) called me at home to say that Larry's parents were coming from Portland, Oregon, the next weekend on their annual visit. They would like permission to take Dorian to dinner with them at that time. They'd obviously heard from Larry about his new friend and (I'm guessing) were grateful that he'd matured to the level where he could have such a friendship with its signal of approaching manhood.

After talking with a very excited Dorrie, I agreed to bring a new dress for the occasion the very next day, and would postpone our next visit until a later time so that she could tell me all about her "date."

The day came. The phone rang late in the afternoon. It was Joylene with a hysterical Dorrie! It seems that the staff had neglected to tell Larry's parents that his new friend was not white, and that -- though his father had arrived with a bouquet of roses for Dorrie -- his wife refused to get out of the car. She was outraged and wouldn't budge! Dorian was left waiting in her new dress and first heels -- with a bouquet of roses -- and Larry was sent off with his parents without her... .

As was almost always the case in the lives of our children, the institution did not protect her. This was the pattern that mystified and enraged me over the years. Where it was surely not possible for the institution to either foresee or prevent such racist atrocities by individuals that so damaged others, the "institution" does have a responsibility to protect and defend those individuals who are the victims of such misdeeds. There was a responsibility to the institution to not acquiesce to the tantrum of Larry's mother, but instead of confronting her, they were embarrassed that it hadn't occurred to anyone to warn her in advance, therefore an acceptance of the rightness of her position.

It gets worse.

I'd tried to comfort my distraught daughter by phone, but she was not to be consoled. Some hours later, when Larry had been returned to the Cedars by his parents, he avoided contact with her. He'd explained to other residents to the best of his mentally-retarded ability that his father told him that something was terribly wrong with Dorrie's mother's skin ... which poor little Larry obviously read as something physical, physiological, and probably contagious! Upon hearing this from others -- Dorrie became frantic -- thinking that something awful had happened to her mother since we'd last been together! She could not be consoled until -- after another call from Joylene -- I drove the long drive to the Cedars so that Dorian could actually see me and be comforted that I was just fine and that my skin had not turned green or purple or scaly!

That may represent the absolute lowest point in the saga of the struggle with racism.

I have no idea what I'd say to that mother were I to meet her today. There are no words. That may make a nice epitaph for my tombstone ...

There are no words ... .
The demons will out!

Since the big event on Monday I've had scarcely a moment to get out of my paper hat and quiet down enough for the significance of what has happened to surface. Held it all together until last night. This was the long-anticipated opening night of the Henry J. Kaiser exhibit attended by Kaiser family members, museum patrons, foundations, individual funders, city and state officials (Loni, of course), historians, and me. It may seem strange, but I'd completely forgotten about it until around three in the afternoon when I was reminded by another staffmember that it was on my calendar. I was to staff Loni for the evening. And I'd not yet told Loni that my image and audio strip were a part of the exhibition. No accounting for such a slip, except that it was an extraordinary week in my extraordinary life.

Getting to sleep each night this week has been more and more difficult. Seeing old friends on Monday had served to churn up memories -- both joyous and painful -- with each crowding out the present and replacing it with "mini-documentaries" that played out in the dark against my closed eyelids, often only to be washed away by cleansing tears. Would that this had happened long ago. My pride had robbed me of the chance to rid myself of the pain, even during several years of psychotherapy. Admitting that such things were happening to us somehow made them the more deadly. I'd not even shared such things with my family or childhood friends who lived within driving distance of no more than 30 minutes -- across the hills. Not even my hard-working young husband knew what some of the days were like in our new life among hostile strangers. The catharsis of Monday cannot be overstated.

The image of my poor dear Rick looms large in these playlets. His early onset alcoholism was marked by the fact that -- when under the influence -- anger would rise in him that was terrifying! He was a slightly-built teenager, but could hardly be contained at such times by his father who outweighed him by 50 pounds.

Let me describe just one incident in his troubled life:

For Christmas one year, Mel's gift to me was a beautiful beige Mercury stationwagon with the simulated wood side panels and a ski-rack on top. It was -- until the year before when he'd give me a magnificent Martin concert guitar -- the most extravagant gift of my life.

On an afternoon, two days after Christmas, I gave 17 year-old Rick the keys so that he could drive to his friend's home about 3 miles from ours -- such a thrill! His drinking was still well hidden, and only occasional until much later. He was a good driver and an otherwise responsible youngster. We had a loving relationship, and this was -- after all -- the new "family" car. He'd been driving my old one for some time.

When he reached Kevin's, and before he could get properly parked, a man rushed out of the house next door with a hammer held high and hurled it at Rick! It crashed against the side panel beneath the window on the driver's side (missed Rick), and made a huge dent in the paneling. All the while the brute was yelling "Nigger get the hell out of here!" Rick was terrified both of this wild man and -- of course -- at how he could face his parents.

A few hours later my phone rang and Florence Pierson's voice on the other end said, "...Betty, Rick is here with us. He's afraid to come home." She then explained to me what had happened and put him on the line. He had no words, only sobbing. There was nothing he could say. There was no way for me to explain or for him to understand. It was all totally irrational. It was another of those times when reaching down inside my mother-self to be helpful yielded nothing. My mouth was as dry as cotton. I simply told him to come home and that I loved him, and that we would talk to Dad together.

Then there was the impossible question of explaining to the insurance company ... and then just quietly paying the deductible and moving on. I believe now that the "moving on" may have done more to harm my children than anything else might have done. Life forced us to learn to cope and to become complicit in our own psychological devastation because there simply were no rational responses to the irrational. My children probably learned from me to stifle their responses in quite the same way, so that over time, I ceased to learn of such things -- except when they were too agregious to contain, or those rare times when such incidents were funny enough to afford a good laugh. We learned to share the ironic more easily as they grew older and wiser.

Then there's the inexplicable story of Dorian and her first date ...

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Somewhere in an earlier post ...

I'm sure that I've entered the lyrics to this song. However, since the MLK Day speech I have received a number of requests for the words. I used this as a closing:

To Each of Me ...

To each of me
to love within the reach of me
and if this love could teach to me
why each of me, in turn,
should torture so the soul of me
and tear apart the whole of me
within life's play, each role of me
must speak to me, must learn
that blackness and the white of me
  are just the day and night of me
are not the wrong or right of me,
can't you see ... there's got to be
some answer to this planet's pain
my microcosmic world -- insane!
if only I could make you see
it's here to see
just look at me!
there is within me all of you
from distant lands the whole of you
the dreams, the heart, the soul of you
if only you would see
that black and white are part of it
my brown is at the heart of it
and blending was the start of it
and someday it shall be
that blackness and the white of us
will be the day and night of us
and not the wrong or right of us
the weak or might of us
then we'll be free!
Betty Reid Soskin
copyright 1969
never published

It's been an eventful week. Not sure that I'll be able to respond to those who've sent words of caring and best wishes, but surely sometime this weekend I'll be out of my paper hat enough to write sensibly about all that's happened.

Probably the most important is that today there was a message from the reporter who covered the Martin Luther King celebration informing me that she is planning a series on racism and diversity for her paper in the near future and would like to use parts of the original interview. That such a conversation has begun in the Diablo Valley is far more than I'd have imagined. I couldn't be more pleased.

But I've just returned from the kickoff party for a young man I've been working with as a mentor. He is a candidate for the Richmond city council in November, and is someone I'm so very proud of.

So much is happening. If I only had another couple of decades to complete the work ... .

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Shouldn't really take this on tonight,

but if I don't -- much will be lost in the accumulation of busyness that's already pushing the events of yesterday to the back of my mind ...

Spent much of Saturday writing my speech for MLK's celebration. Pulled together a number of pieces from my blog with the intention of doing a cut and paste. Really thought I'd done enough musing and writing to be able to connect it all with a bit of re-writing.

Had to interrupt the process to attend David Pierson's memorial service -- and what a beautiful ceremony it was! This remarkable family had come together from Spain, Switzerland, and several other points around the country to honor their father and comfort their mother. I would have expected no less from these loving people. This death -- as others before it over the past two or three years -- are slowly closing a chapter on my own life that tells me that -- for all the evil things that happened to us in the Diablo Valley, love triumphed over all. I could not have found dearer friends.

After ten years of suffering the gradual deterioration from Alzheimers, David's daughter, Joan, read in her statement that -- as his ability to speak began to diminish from the ravages of the disease, he gradually lost all of his words except terms of endearment. "I love you" were the last words to disappear. He died peacefully in his sleep.

Fresh from the experience, and by the time I drove back across the hills to Richmond, I'd lost the rage that was re-surfacing to drive my speech, and a new direction hadn't surfaced yet. Went to bed not knowing where to take this.

On Sunday, I drove in to pick Dorian up for our weekly trip to the supermarket, and returned home to prepare to drive to Oakland for the annual MLK Concert at the Calvin Simmons Auditorium. Gospel choirs, jazz choirs, a children's choir, with brief film clips of Dr. King at pivotal moments in his career. All in a packed house filled with the greatest diversity imaginable. The city of Oakland has it all. How sad that one only hears of the murder rate. Inspiring!

When I reached home at the end of the evening, I walked into my den and trashed everything I'd written, walked down the hallway and looked around at my gallery of historic family portraits and made a decision. I would go with the Love Legacy of Martin Luther King. I would gather up the portrait of great-grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, the two large binders that held my family history, a photograph taken at Dorian's christening with Mel and the children and me taken at one of the temporary little cottages that our UU church had used on its way to full churchhood, two documents (the marriage license of great-great-grandmother Celestine (slave) and her slaveowner husband dated July 1865, only days after the Emancipation Proclamation was declared and greatgrandmother Leontine's christening certificate). Fairly sure that there would be no more than a couple dozen of the stalwarts there to hear my little presentation, I would just share my history and ad lib my speech.

Just before going to bed I went to the kitchen to drink a glass of milk and listen to any messages that may have collected on my answering machine. There was one of particular interest. It was the voice of Theresa Harrington, the Times reporter who had done the interview. She sounded really distressed. She was giving a long apology for the article that was appearing in the paper on morning edition. "I want you to know that I turned in an article that my editor altered drastically. He removed all of the positive things you said, and printed only the negative, and cut the article severely. I also write for another journal and would like to have your permission to submit the article to that editor if I could." I had no idea what that meant, but decided to not read whatever it was before speaking.

On Monday morning I showered and dressed casually, drove out with plenty of time and my box of papers and photos to share. Arrived at the Civic Center and entered a large room without noticing that there was a Channel 5 truck in the lot. Had no idea what the agenda was, or with whom I was sharing the program.

Was delighted to find a friend from my everyday world sitting in the front row. I hadn't known that he would come. He'd read the article. Then others began to arrived and as the room filled -- several people came up to say that they'd read the article and wasn't I courageous??? There were many friends arriving -- from my old life of 30 years ago -- come to lend support and to share the celebration of Dr. King's day together. As the room filled, it was clear that this was a big thing! It was important. My vision of sharing my pictures and family history documents -- and "winging it" -- was hardly appropriate to the occasion. But it was too late to do anything else. I'd trashed my speech.

The mayor spoke. The head of the InterFaith Council spoke. An African American gospel choir shook the roof with singing! The Native Americans did a ceremony of peace. The Buddhists in traditional dress performed a blessing. I was only one part of something very important to this community.

I'd invited my son and his children to attend. It was the first time in all the years that David had returned. Bob wasn't able to make it, but had sent his blessing.

As the keynoter, my "speech" followed the other elements, and there was time to grow tense -- but, surprisingly -- I didn't tighten up. Felt welcomed and "at home."

On cue, and without panic -- I stood up at my introduction and began to speak. I finished at some point (felt about like the allotted 15 minutes) when it seemed natural to end, and there was a spontaneous heartfelt standing ovation that shook the rafters! No notes, no preparation. Just memories and the introduction of my David and his brood.

I eventually saw the article. David picked up a paper for me near the restaurant where we lunched. The piece pretty well blasted the town as having not changed a whit despite years of national change. In 1952 when we moved in as one of the first non-whites to dare to do so, we were pioneers. While trying to write my speech I'd learned that the census figures give the African American population in that city as 1.0% -- in a city that has grown to be at least ten times what it was when we knew it. The reporter was quite right. The article had been sensationalized, but there was not one word in it that I hadn't said, or that was untrue. I could see that she'd done a good job, despite the editing. I stand by my words.

It was also true that as people began to arrive, they were smiling and congratulatory about what they obvious saw as my courageous ability to "tell it like it is!" David (who had read it before driving out from Berkeley) may have had it right. He met me grinning with, " and the kids figured we better get out here and watch Grandma's back! As we all sat at lunch together, 17 year-old grandson Rhico said, "grandma, I watched the mayor while you were speaking. I'll bet he was hoping you wouldn't come back here again." But it was all said in fun, and I could sense the pride in them all as we at our pancakes and glowed in the "coming home" that the day had provided.

There were so many hugs from so many old friends, that served to remind me that what we'd all lived together had been so much more important than the dreadful things that our little family had endured over those years. I fell asleep last night remembering that they'd been there with us through it all, and that Dr. King's work had given us all permission to cross the great divide of racial disharmony. I hadn't been alone, after all.

I'll try to tell you what I said. I'm not sure that I can since it was stream-of-consciousness. However, I know where it led -- and I know that it turned out to be an important statement that I wish someone had taped. Isn't that always the way?

Maybe tomorrow... .

Photo: Greatgrandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, the year before her death. She was enslaved until 1865, the year of emancipation. She was 19 when freedom came with the Emancipation Proclamation. She died at the age of 102 having lived from 1846 to 1948. I was 27 when she died. Slavery for me is not an abstraction.