Our PROMPTuesday assignment is: So where were you when history was laid down? Was the TV playing Nixon in the background while you ate an innocuous chicken dinner? Were you born the day Kennedy was shot? Did you watch the falling Challenger from a classroom full of fifth grade students like you?
The first thing that popped into my mind when I read that was a memory that troubles me. I'm almost ashamed to publish this - but dammit, it's the first thing that occurred to me when I read the prompt. Race in America is still a complicated thing, and intolerance or insensitivity can bubble beneath the surface. We teach children things we don't realize. Let's do our best to cut off the secret tendrils of hatred that may root in our hearts.
This is a history-making day. I am so joyful that our nation has elected Barack Obama to be our President.
My father was born in the south, and his feelings about race were complicated. He respected people who worked with their hands, and like many Southerners, he was a courteous man. Unlike many of his peers, corporate businesspeople he worked with where we lived in the Northeast, my father cared to learn the names of the custodians, the laborers, and the people in coveralls who served the people in suits at his company.
Yet my father was politically conservative, and throughout my childhood in the 1960's he raged at the television; at the protests, the freedom marches, the unrest in our country. His rage became a regular feature of our pre-dinner hour, in the family room, as I sat on the marigold-colored Naugahyde couch, watching the pictures move on the TV screen.
The protesters were presumptuous. They wanted handouts. They didn't believe in hard work - as he did. The activists who came down South from the North were troublemakers. When Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on TV, my Dad fumed. Dr. King was stirring things up in our country that should be left alone. I heard this kind of talk day in and day out
It was spring - April. When Dad came home, he took the martini Mom made for him, and sat down in his chair in the family room, and turned on the news.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot, and killed.
I turned to my Dad and started to say something - I don't remember what. But it was something about how wasn't it a good thing the man he hated so much was now dead?
My father looked at me. His face was stricken. I felt the smile shrivel on my face, mirroring the chill on his. "No, sweetie," he said. "No. This is a terrible thing. Killing a person is wrong. No one should ever kill another person." Suddenly I felt ashamed. I threw myself into his lap and started to cry, and he put his arms around me.
My father did not experience a life-changing epiphany after that. He remained a complicated and sometimes angry man, and in my teenage years we both sniped at one another, I sassed him and he shouted back at me, up and down the stairs of our home, about race in America, about politics, about Vietnam, about everything.
But I will never forget his look on that evening - the sense of disgust at what I'd said, and the sense of shame knowing he was responsible for it. And I think he took that shame, and owned it, and showed me how wrong it was, while still loving me.
I forgive him for planting - unawares - the seed of hatred in me. I'm grateful to him for pulling the seedling out before it fully took root. But like bindweed, noxious roots can sometimes sprout anew from the tiniest fiber or snip that remains in the soil. Give me the grace to cultivate something nourishing and good instead.