Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Calling on the Ancestors

My mother was in her early 40's during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Having three children ages four, five, and almost seven , she piled stacks of National Geographic's onto our basement floor so that if we needed to survive there for any length of time, she would at least be able to educate us. Decades later, she told me that during that time she also tried to teach us to recognize trees by the shapes of their shadows, so that if we were ever imprisoned and unable to look out of a window, the shadow of a tree could help us preserve our sanity. When I was a teenager and some idiot legislators try to dilute the impact of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, she found me in the bathroom crying."Martian Luther King didn't cry", she said.  "He got to work fighting."

My maternal grandmother was born and raised in Georgia. She did not leave the state until she was in her early 20' s, the year the Navy sent my grandfather to live in Haiti. My grandparents also had three children. My mother was two, my aunt was one, and my uncle, if he was even born yet, was an infant. Left largely to her own devices, my grandmother, who did not complete college, ordered the curriculum with which she educated each of her children so that they successfully passed tests and met state requirements every year until the curriculum ended and they left Haiti in order to enter High School.

My great-grandmother Minnie was a widow.  She was a single parent long before anyone ever acknowledged there were such people. She had three daughters. When her husband died, she renamed her youngest daughter Albert, after him. Once when she saw a bill collector coming down the road to her house, she brushed her hair, smoothed her apron, put a smile on her face, and went to the door to meet him with dignity and grace.

My father's stepmother, Mildred, the woman I knew as Grandma, watched the father she cherished die when he stepped in front of an oncoming car to save the life of his profoundly intellectually disabled wife, my grandmother's mother.  Seventeen-year-old year old Mildred instantly became responsible for raising her two younger siblings, both of whom she eventually put through college. Mildred grew to become a woman who insisted that her grandchildren move through life with class, manners, and decorum. I don't think I fully appreciated that until recently.

Helen Gilchrist, whom we called Jingle, was a close family friend. I don't remember a word she ever said to me.  But I remember her black dresses and pillbox hats; her angular face, her firmly set jaw, the worn wood on the top of her cane, and the white-knuckled death grip with which her hand held it-- a grip I know only too well. I remember the occasional streaks of gray on her artificial leg. Like wrinkles in flesh, they told me she had lived, and endured much. And I remember that she drove a car.  In the early sixties. When people with disabilities didn't do such things. To my four or five year old self, she was an image of strength. Of the strong woman I could become.

Helen Keller was the child I got sick of.  Who people constantly talked about--The  pathetic, inspirational, "handicapped"  child whom Annie Sullivan turned into a human being. The child who "overcame" her disability like I was supposed to overcome mine.  Today I know that she became so much more:  An advocate for people with disabilities.  A suffragette. A radical socialist, and a founding member of the ACLU. I didn't like her then, but I'm claiming her now.

These are the women who have nurtured me. They made me who I am. They survived dark and difficult times.  And because they did, at least one child was able to survive and thrive.  By blood or by circumstance, they are my ancestors. And I am calling on them now--To hold and inspire me; to breathe through and empower me.  So that at least one child alive today can survive and thrive into tomorrow .

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