I may be bad at gentle, but I’m good at believing. The White Queen’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ is nothing to me. I believe in world peace. In faeries (really). In other universes. In public education. And at least two more things I forget. Daily.
There’s a national movement, inspired by the sainted Edward Murrow: This I Believe. It asks Americans to submit short essays on what they believe in. I’ve thought a lot about this. If you go to the website, you can see that people believe in everything from their sisters (me too) to jury duty. A pretty big span.
I believe in kindness. I wish I could say, like the Dalai Lama, that it’s my religion, but I’m not that devout. There are times when I flare up – does that make me a non-believer? Times when I go off on the latest political lie, the tragedy of the day, the ways in which the voiceless are made to suffer by the powerful…
When I was eight years old, we lived in a villa in SE Asia. Once a young woman, really only a girl herself, stood one side of the iron gates while I stood on my side, looking out at her. In her thin arms she held a baby, as frail as she was. And somehow I understood even then that this was not fair or just. She had done nothing to deserve her poverty. I certainly did not merit my fortunate birth. That moment saw the birth of my social conscience.
When I was about 14 – 8th grade, however old that is – we lived in a house on a corner that was a bus stop. At day’s end, exhausted African American women who had ridden in from Northside to work in Southside houses stood like wilting flowers in the heat. My grandmother and great-aunt Bonnie both were cleaning ladies – they worked for $400.00/ month each, cleaning one floor apiece at two downtown banks.
You need to understand what I had seen: over & over again, during the months my mother and three sisters and I lived w/ Grandma & Aunt Bonnie, those two wonderful blue-haired old ladies would limp in from my mother’s car at 1 a.m., after she had picked them up from their 4:00 – 1:00 shifts. Wearily, they would unroll their old lady stockings from their grey-blue garters, and put their legs – ropy w/ blue varicose veins – up on the footrest of their reclining chairs. They would lean over to massage their swollen feet, their toes curled from arthritis. Each worked into her 70s ~ how else would they live?
So when Mark Stephens began to yell at the stooped black cleaning lady on the corner, waiting in bent exhaustion for the bus to stop and ferry her home across the classes to Northside, I snapped. That was a grandmother out there – someone’s beloved Grandma, or Aunt Bonnie. I grabbed a broom and ran out to him, thwacking him on his head and shoulders, yelling and (I seem to recall) crying – I was just sooo angry.
I have no recollection of what the lady did. I only remember that Mark hightailed it home. When my mother returned home from errands, I told her what had happened. I also don’t remember what she said to me.
What I do remember is what she said when she received a call from his mother. Your daughter beat my son up, Mrs. Stephens told Mother accusingly. I don’t think I would tell people if a girl beat up my son, my mother responded.
And she hugged me. We love our grandmothers in my family. And we believe in them.