Wednesday, May 6, 2015

My Mother, My Heroine

Nǐhǎo. This is the English spelling of "hello" in Chinese. I learned this while I was graduate student. My class was comprised of 33-38% international students, and the  department was comprised of approximately 65% international faculty members. It was an invaluable experience for me. 

Let me relate stories of my life that involved diversity. Trust me, it will all lead back to my mother.

Where I was raised and where I now live - two different states - do not have a diverse population base. When I was young, the town I grew up in had two Black residents. My mother was in an adult ice-dancing class, and Mom often skated with Charlie, one of the two - the other was Charlie's wife. 

I have two cousins who were adopted from Japan. To me, they are just my cousins. No big deal. I have two other adopted cousins; they are Caucasians. To me, they were just my cousins. No big deal.

My father worked out of town for a little while when I was about age seven. He came home for a weekend bringing his friend, Peter, with him. He was either Black or Latino, I cannot remember. What I do remember is how special he was to me; I must have been special to him, too, because he sent me a beautiful angel for my Christmas tree. I was heart-broken years later when it was no longer among the Christmas ornaments. I have no idea what happened to it.

When I was in 6th grade, I lived in Puerto Rico for two months. It gave me the opportunity to have a unique perspective when, years later, I lived in a 40% Portuguese-speaking town and was a member of the Community Advisory Committee on Education. I was the only member, born in America, who had the experience of going to school taught in a language I did not understand. 

When I was in junior high, an international student games event, similar to the Olympics, but for college students, was held in town. Members of the team from Spain came to dinner. My step-father was bilingual, and the team was staying at the resort he worked at as the chief electrician. Some members were bilingual, and it was a great experience to be exposed to the conversation. 

In junior high and high school, there were students of several other races who lived at a group home for inner-city youth who were in some kind of trouble where they lived before being sentenced to time at "Camelot." Camelot was an affectionate - or maybe not-so-much - name for this minimum security juvenile detention center. The town was prejudice enough that dating one of the Camelot boys who was not white was looked down upon.

My high school had a foreign exchange student each year. The ones I remember were from Mexico, Brazil, and Guatemala. I was friends with Nancy from Guatemala. Actually, thanks to Facebook, we were able to continue our friendship. As a matter of fact, she is the person who took this picture of me at age 15:

The first college I went to, at age 17, was 75% African-American. I was asked by friends from home if I was scared. I was so naive, I did not understand that they assumed, since I was in college in a city, that I would be afraid of my college mates. Silly me, I was naive enough to try out for the basketball cheerleading team. The squad turned out to be 80% African-American, and I was one of the white girls on the squad.

About 10 years ago, I took my Brownie troop to an overnight at a museum several hours from home. Coming out of the parking garage, one of the girls said loudly, "Look! A Black person!" In this instance, she was not afraid, just surprised. It had not occurred to me to speak to the girls before heading out to the city. I squatted down to explain that the city had people from many backgrounds and the overnight would be diverse. Young ones are cool with it unless someone teaches them not to be.

About eight years ago, I was acquainted with an elderly man here; he is deceased now. Dick was a veteran of the Korean War and had bunked with "those people." He was about to undergo surgery, and he was worried he might accidentally be given non-white blood. Oh, boy! He was horrified to learn that blood banks sort by blood types A, B, AB, and O, both positive and negative, but not by Caucasian, Asian, etc. Although it led to a short biology session, I am still not sure he actually believed me when I told him all blood was just blood.

What are people so afraid of? People are different. So what? Spending most of my lifetime in places without diversity, how is it I am so accepting? The answer: my mother. 

My mother is a heroine of mine. He father, my grandfather, was a racist. He was so narrow-minded that he forbade my grandmother from speaking French with her mother, my great-grandmother. They married when Gram was 18, but she did not speak English until she was 13. His presumption was that they had to be talking about him if they were speaking French. 

When my mother was 19-years-old, she made friends with a co-worker named Mary. Mary happened to be Black. When my grandfather learned this, he told my mother she could no longer be friends with Mary if she wanted to continue living at home. My mother moved out that night. (I wonder if he realized my father was one-quarter Native American.)

When I was old enough to understand all this, I was amazed that my mother stood up to her father and left. It was 1950 or 1951. I am so grateful for her open-mindedness as I remember her with Mother's Day just a few days away. Her openness in a racist area opened me up to appreciate diversity as it comes into my life.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.