Sunday, April 27, 2014

It was the afternoon of Easter Sunday ... .

... and David called just before noon to invite me to dinner -- my first visit with granddaughter, Alyana, since her trip to interview at Irvine for fall entry into the university -- as the first in her (our) family to do so.  Alyana, our beautiful granddaughter who'd earned a 4.12 GPA after years of studious dedication to fulfilling all of our dreams.  It took generations to get here, but -- finally -- one of us would legitimately walk through the gates of the Academy fully qualified .. and with a full scholarship.   Oh, it's true that I would later "marry" my way into it, but that's another story.

Oh, David would still have to come up with about $10,000/semester, in addition, (with her younger sister, Tamaya, following by only one year), but we'll take it just one day and one daughter at a time and hope for the best and blessings from the college fairy!

Had the country only seen fit to pay those reparations for slavery in the form of free education through graduate school for every qualified young descendant of the enslaved, how different the entire nation may have become as the result.

I've so often wondered just how different my own life would have been had such expectations existed in earlier generations.  For my parents college was only anticipated for girls who were looked upon as having possible difficulty landing a husband, the ultimate formula for female success in our time.  Those of us who were pretty (and their three daughters were surely that, and quite possibly more).

But I digress:

Just before leaving to meet David and Alyana I looked into my jewelry box and found it lying there in a small gold net drawstring bag -- my simple necklace of graduated pearls -- a luxury in those times.  I'd planned to pass it along to Alyana as a graduation gift, but not until I could write its history to go along with the presentation.  Were it to be put off until I was no longer here, one could never tell how meaningful they'd been during my life, or even that they were not merely costume jewelry -- a mere imitation of the real thing.  This is where legacy comes in -- it must be honored.  I didn't need college to be absolutely certain of the truth of this.

The little necklace had been given to me as the "groom's gift to his bride" by Mel on our May 24, 1942 wedding day.  I remember how thrilled I was to receive my first piece of "real" jewels, and they raised the level of that simple homemade cotton wedding dress to full "satin brocade" elegance!

However over the years of struggle in establishing a small business in South Berkeley under terrible odds; after building a house in the suburbs under ever more stressful conditions -- this time fueled by vicious racism; after giving birth to a special needs child with challenges to be faced as the wife of a hard-working, philandering handsome man who was having unshared successes on the "other side of the hills" in the world I'd left behind -- our marriage had hit the skids and we were hopelessly lost in the weeds of life.

It was the summer of 1964 and I'd become fully invested in the Black Revolution at a time when the nation was polarizing around the complicated issues of race.  I would be caught in the impossible chasm between the black and white worlds at a time when I could least afford it.  I'd recently suffered a mental break and several years of recovery.  I had four children who needed at least one functioning parent, and that role fell to me by default. 

It was spring of that year and one of my Unitarian friends, Don Sanford, a widower raising 3
daughters alone -- called to invite me to dinner with a handful of other family friends, that would serve as the goodbye event for his 18 year-old daughter, Susan, a college student who was leaving the university next day to enter Freedom Summer of 1964 as a volunteer teacher in a Canton, Mississippi, school with a secondary responsibility of helping put forward the registration of black southerners who were seeking to vote, and sacrificing life and limb to do so.  Oh, how I wanted it to be me!  But I had a plan:  I'd brought along my little pearl necklace -- all of the meaning was now drained out by life and they'd lain in the bottom of my jewelry box for years, rarely ever being worn.  It is said that pearls die, eventually, if not worn on the body.

I found a moment just before leaving to make my presentation.

"Susan, for reasons that explanations won't satisfy, I want you to wear this under your tee shirts as you work this summer.  Never take them off except to shower.  They'll keep you safe.  Return them to me with a far deeper meaning when you return."

It worked.  Susan was one of the young white SNCC workers who struggled alongside African Americans struggling for equality -- along with those who lost their lives at the hands of the KKK that summer.   Susan experienced at least one near-miss street corner bombing as I remember, but lived to return when that work was over and returned my pearls, deeply imbued with new meaning.  I've not seen her since that time, and often wondered where fate led her after that fateful summer.

While Susan was gone, I wrote a song based upon letters she'd written home, and that her family shared with us.  I performed it all summer, and eventually recorded it.  Its title:  "Voters registration song".   (You can probably enter the title into the search bar and bring up those lyrics.)

Now the little string of pearls belongs to Alyana, complete with its story.

... I wasn't really certain that I could part with it ... but in the end ... it seemed important as a part of my immortality -- the only kind I truly believe in.

... but the most important lesson of Freedom Summer 1964 was the realization that -- though the Sanfords (Susan and Don) were Scottish (I believe) -- and that I,  a polyglot of races, identifying as African American, we were truly bonded by the iron but delicate wires of moral principle, and would have lived that summer no differently than we did regardless of racial identification.  We could have been Swedish or Polynesian or Sicilian Italian; it would have made little difference.  I've not seen them since that time, but we are forever bound by that history in common.  I don't recall ever being in their home except for that one fateful spring evening.

In our Unitarian-Universalist congregation of that time, we'd somehow managed to transcend all that, and that fact is probably at the root of my survival through decades of social tumult and upheaval.  I'm not certain that we were all aware of what we'd accomplished over time, but my own journey has traceable roots and the clarification and direction so crucial to my personal survival started that summer and has been on a continuous journey toward full equality since that time.