America, Root Beer, & Racism….. and grace

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It’s July 3rd. Last night I went out and purchased a few bottles of a quality root beer. I chilled one to just shy of freezing and sat outside with my dogs – trying to convince Bailey, the abused pit bull that was dropped in our neighborhood a few months back, that the crack of fireworks didn’t warrant her crawling behind the washing machine or otherwise completely freaking out!

“Calm and assertive!”

She did…. okay.

As I sipped the root beer, I reflected on why I LOVE AMERICA, our grand and questionable past, my father’s death, and his sweet mother – and her racism.

FYI: I’m going to use it, that word…. the “n” word. Stop here if that’s going to offend you! But, there is context too…. and grace & redemption.

Nostalgia and Patriotism

I can’t recall when I started drinking root beer for July 4th. I think it is relatively recent, but it feels nostalgic – like drinking from a garden hose, but sweeter.

We really have an amazing country. People love to complain! One side of the political spectrum or the other. We’ve become too liberal! We’ve become too conservative! We have too many freedoms – no restraint! The government controls everything in our lives!

Eh… I don’t see it.

I believe in singing The Star-spangled Banner and saying The Pledge – with my right hand over my heart. I believe our system of government, a Democratic Republic, is pretty ideal.

I believe, as a nation, we do SO MUCH good in the world!

We’ve really screwed some things up

By the way, we’ll keep screwing things up. Every country does…. we just warrant more press.

Slavery???? WTF!

For a nation whose founding fathers extolled the the ideal of human dignity and the divine right to life and liberty – WHAT WERE THEY THINKING! (hint: on this point, they weren’t)

Ben Franklin owned two slaves and he is my favorite founding father. Although, some credit due, he freed his slaves and promoted the abolishment of slavery before he died.

“We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace”
– DC Talk, Colored People

We do have a history! I have a history!

My Grandma, The South, and The Benefit of Looking Back

We look at the sordid history of the South, the civil rights movement, the brutality of slavery, and racism today – and in our not so distant past – and we think, those people are awful!

And… I suppose we are right to do so.

But, we also have the benefit of looking back. This is especially true in Southern California – Los Angeles.

We like to believe that we would have, regardless of time and place, stood apart from the strong pull of the society and fought against racism.

But I believe we are relying too heavily on viewing history from today’s lens. It gives us way too much credit. While I’d like to believe that, I am glad I live in the time and place I do, I don’t want to face what I – and I believe any of us – could be, if I had grown up in a different era and area.

Granny Moran was a southern woman. Born in or near Charleston, South Carolina. She was an orphan – and oh yeah, there is some pretty seedy history here. You’ll have to wait for the book, but it involves adultery, politics, and payoffs. God!!! I love dancing with those skeletons!

She was adopted by a wealthy family and raised on their “post-slavery” plantation. Never accepted into the family, she spent much of her time with the family’s black cook!

At 18 (or thereabouts) the family paid for her to attend nursing school and sent her away with a “Do not return and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

She ended up marrying and moving to Southern California – West Los Angeles – where she would remain, working as a nurse until her retirement. Then after breaking her hip and having a heart attack, she moved in with our family!

And oh, the hilarity that ensued as she devolved into dementia and more frailty.

Don’t judge our family on the hilarity part. I’ve already explained that my mom always says, “I’m laughing so I don’t cry!!!” Insert that sentiment here.

Dementia led to things like Grandma believing the following:

  • That I played for the Dodgers. She was quite proud of me. She loved the Dodgers and had met Vin Scully – being one of the nurses when at least one of his children was born. She would tell me, “You tell Mr. Scully that Hermione Moran says hello!”

    I used to protest, but she wouldn’t have it…. so I simply told her I would. It made her happy!
     
  • Then she believed I was Gay. You can thank my friend, Mike Quinn, for this. On my birthday he took a shower at our house after we played basketball or something. My family started singing happy birthday to me; then Mike, not wanting to miss that, came out of the shower with just a towel and sang to me.

    Grandma left crying – convinced I had Aids. Mike was unhelpful, ensuring that any time he came over, he would inappropriately put his hands on me. Thanks, Mike!!
     
  • She believed that my sister used to dance naked on our pool table for my dad and his friends. I don’t believe this occurred but.… hey, I don’t know.
     

And a myriad of other stories.

Grandma wants to be useful

Grandma Moran folded clothes and made cornbread and lemonade. It’s crucial for the elderly to feel wanted and important. We ate – and gave away – a shitload of cornbread during those years. She made it EVERY DAY!!! And there is only so much cornbread you can eat.

And she got the mail! Here is where the story gets a little uncomfortable.

My grandma’s health and mobility continued to decline, but preventing her from making the trek down the driveway to the mailbox seemed impossible. She would scurry down with her walker – she cried if you didn’t let her. It was horrible to watch.

The Mailman brings mail…. and more

One day, however, while going to get the mail, our mailman saw her struggle and said he would bring the mail to her. For some reason, that was permissible. We couldn’t bring it to her but Clarence, an African-American man of about 60, could.

Everyday, Grandma would wait on the front porch. She would have a plate of cornbread, a pitcher of lemonade, some ice, and glasses.

Clarence would bring her the mail, eat (or at least nibble) cornbread, and drink lemonade. He visited with Grandma Moran. And when he left, he took a bag of cornbread home. Cornbread for days, people!!!

I’d never officially met Clarence until one fateful day!

That day, I happened to be leaving the house just as Clarence arrived on the porch with the mail.

Grandma was pretty pleased to introduce me to her friend. She said, “Matthew.. I want you to meet Clarence. He’s our nigger mailman.” (shit!!!!)

Yep…. that’s exactly what she said.

I was mortified. I felt my face get red. I was embarrassed, angry at grandma – as much for putting me in this position as for what she said, and unsure of how to respond.

If I shake his hand, am I confirming what she said? Am I showing agreement?

I took Clarence’s hand, leaned close to him, and said quietly, “I’m so sorry!”

He stopped me immediately. And what he said and did is an affirmation of hope and the goodness of people.

—–

“Matt! She has no idea! She was raised a particular way and that is how she relates to the world – especially in her condition. But, she is the only person in all my years doing this job who waits for me with cornbread, lemonade, and friendly conversation. She’s just fine.”

—-

That’s grace! Grace, and the mail, is what Clarence brought to the front porch that day! That’s a man who, given his age and race, has seen some stuff in his life.… I’m sure of it!

I recently wrote about my father’s death, playing banjo, and lessons he taught me. But last night, sipping root beer, I thought of his mother & Clarence – and I was nostalgic about that awkward meeting.

It’s a good memory to me!

I wonder if any of us would be that gracious when confronted with the prejudice of others. Do we see, in the bad, something that can be redeemed! I know I typically do not!

I LOVE AMERICA! I’m a patriot! I love what we stand for. And I know about those skeletons from our past. They are a part of my family history! You probably have some, too!

We are colored people and we NEED a holy grace!

—-

Oh…. there are some reading this who might think this article is about racism. It’s not…. it’s about root beer!

Happy July 4th!!

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