Friday, December 17, 2010


When I was seven or eight I rode a bus downtown with my great aunt Mary. Another child on the bus loudly said, "Hey, look at that lady," while staring at my aunt. His mother shushed him. 

Look at that lady? Look at my great aunt? I looked at her for the first time. She was small, maybe under five feet tall. She had sharp features. She wore suits, perfectly tailored custom-made suits and silk blouses. She walked tall with extreme dignity. And she had an enormous hump on her back. It stuck out a good four inches from her thin frame.

When we got off the bus I walked behind her. She looked weird. I saw other people turn their heads to stare at her as she passed. I couldn't walk with her.

She knew I had seen her, knew why I was keeping ten feet behind her. We walked that way for a while, and then she stopped and had a little talk with me. I can't tell you exactly what she said, but I know it was about how she felt when people stared at her. It was about judging books by their covers.

I don't think I've ever been so ashamed.

This was the person who shared my bed and bedroom. She was the one who took me downtown to Hudson's to have lunch on the mezzanine and shop month-end sales. She taught me good manners. 

She was a talented milliner. She taught me to sew. When I cut the center out of a wedding veil she was making for a client, she didn't kill me, but I think it crossed her mind. 

We had tea at bedtime in china cups. When the tea was finished she'd turn the cup upside-down on the saucer, turn it around three times, and read my fortune. The tea leaves always said the I'd marry a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. I married two of them, probably because the tea leaves said it so many times. 

She told me stories when I couldn't sleep. When I dreamt that the house was burning down, she was the one who comforted me. She held me together while my parents were slip-sliding apart.

My great-grandmother (her mother) and her two single siblings lived in a flat near 13th Street in Detroit. She moved back in with them after my parents divorced. Over the years the neighborhood, mostly rentals, had changed. All white (before my time), then Hispanic, and when the neighborhood was basically shot to hell the black people got to live there... except for the enclave of whiteness in my family's flat. 

My great uncle Bubs (Rob to the grownups) whom I dearly loved, didn't love anyone who didn't look like him. When Sammy Davis Junior came on the tv, blam, the tv was turned off. He used the "n" word and said that "they" shouldn't be allowed on tv.

One day he and I walked to the corner store. He held my hand. It was very cold out. A rat ran behind a garbage can in the alley. The apartment building across the street had cardboard in the windows. I saw a kid, younger than me, no shoes, standing on the porch. We stared at each other and I felt pain in my chest.

My mother told me that the prejudice was about job competition. Immigrant Scots competing with blacks for jobs. I think it was about the "hump", the judging of  the external without knowing the internal.

In 1967 I was married to the first of the two handsome, dark-haired men and living in Massachusetts, when all hell broke loose in Detroit. Riots. 12th Street, the epicenter, was a block away from the flat my senior relatives had fled from more than a decade before. I thought of cardboard windows and bare feet in the cold, of people judged, seen but not seen.

My President is Black. People in my country judged the man, not the cover. Thank you.

Happy Holidays.


Note: There are folks out there who didn't vote for President Obama for purely political reasons (race wasn't the issue). There are some who voted for him in reaction to G.W. Bush (race wasn't the issue). And I guess that's my point. Mostly,
race wasn't the issue. Oh, sure there are the birthers and "the people who want to take their country back". But again, in 2008 race wasn't the issue. And it's about time.


  1. lynn.....i loved this, thank you. best wishes to you and john this holiday season. with love....jennifer shirshun

  2. This thoughtful and tender essay brought me closer to tears than I have been in several years. That's a very good thing.


  3. Ann, Every time I reread what I wrote (checking spelling, punctuation, etc.) I felt teary too. I thought it was because I was back in those moments that were personal for me. I am very touched that you had this reaction.

  4. Grandma, I really appreciated this story, very heartfelt. I read it several times, it was so good.
    See you soon! :)


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