My brother and I didn't meet our grandparents, our dad's parents, until I was eight. It was the summer of 1982 and our parents had just divorced. Our mom is black, our dad is white.
My dad had seriously disappointed his white, upper-class, Texan parents when he joined the Civil Rights movement. They were completely alienated and enraged when he decided to marry a black woman in Chicago in 1970. I think he saw them only once or twice after this until he and my mom divorced. My mom's family was much more accepting. My black grandma came to help my mom with me right after I was born, and I grew up visiting my mom's side of the family regularly.
We drove from Chicago to Houston to meet my other grandparents. They were kind to us, happy to meet their only grandchildren. They let us go out shopping with their housekeeper and she got us whatever we wanted. My granddad gave my dad money to take us to Six Flags and Waterworld. We sat in the den with him and listened to him tell stories as he smoked cigars. His easy chair was full of holes from cigar ash that fell when he got too sleepy. He had a deep throaty chuckle and loved to tell jokes. I also enjoyed asking my grandma questions and listening to her share about her life. I wanted to love them, and it wasn't difficult. I saw their care for my dad and his love for them.
I was shocked and hurt though, when my granddad told a story about a "nigger." He didn't seem to be at all aware of what he'd just said, or at least how it sounded to us. My jaw dropped and I turned to my brother for help, whispering "Did you hear what he just said?" All three of us bristled, and I think granddad kept to "nigra" or "colored" after that.
About three years ago, my dad and I attended a 21-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Sangha in Vermont. My granddad had died ten years earlier. One day I was doing sitting meditation in the gymnasium turned meditation hall. Thich Nhat Hanh, also called Thay (The Vietnamese word for "teacher"), had been giving teachings on Touching the Earth, a practice in which we connect with our ancestors to heal the suffering in our relationships and to strengthen the goodness they have passed on to us.
Often as an adult, I had reflected with bitterness on my grandparent's racism and their refusal to accept their only grandchildren for at least eleven or twelve years (my older brother's age when we first met them). They rejected their own son and missed out on most of our childhood. I hated that my dad wouldn't have brought us to meet them if he were still married to my mom. In their eyes, the divorce was an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that they had been right all along. Only under these conditions could we come into their lives.
I meditated on my granddad, and began to look deeply into him...
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