There is a certain beauty in getting older; you remember things clearly, things you thought you had buried or forgotten deep in your childhood. In one sense many of the things I remember are tributes to the way I was raised. I was encouraged to explore, to climb cliffs, to go off for an entire day with my brother to hike the nearby woods, to sit by the creeks behind the Fellows barns and come out at their horse pasture. I was encouraged to ride horseback, to swim in surf, to climb the fir tree behind our home. And even the smell of that tree comes back now, the stickiness of the bark, the way my hands smelled of mint for hours after I came down. Whole scenes from Woodbridge are coming to me now when I pass by a lilac hedge or see the sun rise over a wooded view from the river walk we take each morning. And then with visual remembrances, come the auditory memories of my father’s voice, or my mother’s smile, the way the bells on the door to their kitchen rang as someone came in to deliver eggs or to have a cup of coffee.
While I received the message that women were not expected, in my culture, to take on major careers like law or medicine (unless they were nurses, of course) or corporate management, and while my father, a test pilot for Chance Vought AirCraft, was horrified by women in the cockpits of airplanes, I was still expected to do well in school, to go on to college and to graduate. This expectation, combined with the luck to grow up in the sixties, with the political and sexual upheavals of that time, gave me confidence and a belief in my own possibilities.
I have heard that those who suffer from dementia go back into their pasts, that they live there in a state of disconnect from the present. I know of one woman who believes she is in Auschwitz again, a place she survived during World War II. I have heard of another woman who grew up in a southern home where she heard racial epithets all her life, spoken daily in an offhand and casual manner. She later became a civil rights worker and progressive activist. Yet in her increasing dementia she began using those derogatory terms again, the ones she had not heard since she was seven or eight years old.
And this has given me pause. It has made me wonder how much we keep of our earliest years, of how we were raised and of what is forever embedded into our view, our lens, on the world. If I can, with gratitude, begin to experience the music my father played in our basement the nights he could not sleep– not just the memory of it but the very sound of it, the muffled jazz through three floors to my bedroom, the feel of the quilt as I listened– then I must still hold within me the N-word he used, the comments he made about those who were African American and worked in our home or pumped gas for our cars. If I can hear the sound of rain on a tin roof and immediately remember the night we huddled in the basement as a hurricane raged over us when I was five, how can I not carry within me the subtle, sounds and sights of racism in my early life? If I believe in the persistence of memory, then I must acknowledge the persistence of all that comes with it. I must own the possibility that I cannot erase what was engraved in my cells, in my psyche, for those years in Connecticut before I left home.
It would be so lovely to own simply the righteous parts of my growing: the fact that my father understood poverty in a way many around us did not, given his upbringing in East St.Louis, Illinois to a single mother. It would be easy to be selective and remind myself that my mother worked hard for Planned Parenthood and in a center for the elderly, volunteering countless hours in these places. And I will take those with me. I will claim the sweetness of knowing he raised us in a way that permitted us to question everything. He raised us, much to his chagrin, to become five, independent thinkers, who came home year after year to challenge his racism and his sexism. I will keep this with me. Yet I cannot settle here. I must acknowledge that I absorbed, through my very skin as he held me, through my ears as he raised his voice in anger, through my eyes as I saw him disparage those of color with a shake of his head, all of what he imbued in me.
Because ancient memories are so powerful, I know I keep somewhere deep down, my parent’s whiteness, their supremacist assumptions. If a civil rights worker can revert back to racist slurs as she loses her ability to live in the present, then the slurs have always been there, stubborn in their tenacity. So knowing this, knowing that I walk a world in a body that was raised in the beauty of a hilly and challenging place, and in the body that was surrounded by the sounds and assumptions of racial superiority, I become more vigilant, more convinced that we cannot eliminate entirely the racism that is in each of us. The love and wildness of my growing exists paired with the darkness of a worldview that places one race above another.
We view the world through a white lens, no matter how much work we do to change this single fact. Yet knowing this fact can make us more open, less judgmental, more careful and patient and willing to listen. More important it can make us less sure of ourselves. Once I accept my organic connection to memories of racial language in my father’s voice I can go from there. I will make mistakes and stumble, tricked back into the place where I was raised, instead of the place I work to be in the present. None of this is easy, and none of it is comfortable. Memory is a two headed creature, bringing new appreciation for the sounds and sights that brought me up; while at the same time hovering in the shadows with the power of its dark influence.
All I can do, is stand between the two, as I approach seventy next month, turning one way, turning the other. All I can do is see more clearly the patterns of my one single life, and how complex is the weave of love and joy and shame and mistakes. It is all any of us can do who begin with the desire to make right the wrongs we have perpetuated, unwittingly, unconsciously, and with ignorance. This desire will be the beginning to an uncomfortable reconciliation. It will be the beginning of righting the tragic flaw of racism that runs through our country’s very bloodline. We are just beginning this work. At seventy, I was so sure we would be further along. And I grieve how far we still have to go.