Sunday, August 19, 2012

Despite herself

My elegant grandmother, a relic of an age gone by with the Old South dripping from her accent and syntax, never saw my sister’s fiancé. 

“Now Sweetie Pie,” she had crooned to me across the breakfast table when I was about twelve, “what would you think if your brother came home one day and said, ‘Hey look y’all, I got married!’ and had a colored girl on his arm?”

The scenario confused my tender, adolescent brain, and after staring stupidly at her regal poise that awaited my response, I stammered the only reply I could articulate for this outlandish hypothetical.  “Well...” I hesitated, “I’d be really upset that he didn’t invite us to the wedding.”

There was a delay in Gramma’s chortle before she finally seemed to determine that I was joking.  “I mean, Doll Baby,” she winked good-naturedly, “what would you do if your brother wanted to marry a colored girl?”

I still blinked my innocent confusion, not feeling like I had been given enough data to determine a response.  “Do you mean,” I asked again, “without us getting to know her first?”

Finally Gramma seemed to determine the conversation would go more smoothly if she simply told me what she wanted to say.  “No, Baby Girl, I am just trying to point out that it is wrong for the races to mix.  There are many lovely colored people out there, and they should marry each other and have other lovely colored babies.  If the races mix, pretty soon there won’t be anymore races and we’ll all be a bunch of mongrels.  You wouldn’t want your brother to have a bunch of mongrel babies, would you?”

Dumbfounded, I had honestly not realized this was still a thing.

But my grandmother never saw my sister’s fiancé.  Oh, she met him several times in the past year before she died; she laid her frail, dignified hand in his caramel fingers, she interrogated him with regard to his life goals across the breakfast table, she offered him her litany of proverbs interspersed with her ever-changing anecdotes form her own life.  Essentially blind for the past six years, she could drill her sharp blue eyes into his sepia face without ever suspecting the nice young man to whom she spoke was one of the mongrels she had feared we might all become. 

Gramma’s blindness tortured the last years of her life before she died this summer, and in no way do I suggest that it was a good thing or that she deserved it.  Nevertheless, there was a bit of a poetic justice to the fact that her agonizing debility gave her access to a relationship that would have been barred otherwise.  Because she couldn’t see his face, Gramma could recognize him to be a nice young man for her granddaughter to marry.

I like to think that my perception of the world will become clearer as I age.  But until my heart is healed of its hardness, it is good to know that my debilitations can break down the barriers I have put around it.  I welcome the healing, even when it must come through ailment.  May we all find healing despite ourselves.

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