Sylvia and I stopped for a late breakfast at Denny’s before going to an afternoon play.
Across the dining room, we watched a family having their meal: a mom, a little boy, and four nearly grown sons, with the papa at the head of the table. They were having a great time eating, laughing, and sharing affection.
“Like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Sylvia observed.
I remembered growing up in a large family where there was often mirth at mealtime, with my dad as the ringleader. This dad saw me staring at his family so I smiled and nodded to him, and he returned it.
Something about them pulled at me.
“I wish had the money to buy their breakfast,” I said impulsively.
“I’ve got some,” Sylvia said, “You want to?”
Yes, I did.
I found their waitress and asked for their ticket.
“Um, sure,” she said. She printed it up and handed it to me. Then she went to the dad to tell him that their breakfast was paid for and pointed me out.
He turned to look at me, and I gave him a quick two-finger salute. I went over to meet him. I told him that it made us feel good to watch them and we wanted to do this for them. He accepted our gift with a gracious thanks, a handshake, and finally a hug.
“Thanks, babe,” I said when I got back to the table. She’d been watching from her seat.
“Life with you is fun,” she said.
We went on to see the play. As usual, the Shakes Theater did a wonderful job. The title of the play was “Sweet Water Taste,” written by Gloria Bond Clunie, and it addressed racial conflict with humor, courage, and sympathy.
It was about two ornery old men: one black, one white, who found out that they were related to each other. The black man visited the white man’s house to demand he and his family be buried in the private family cemetery where only white folks had been laid to rest.
In the beginning, the white man appeared to be a gracious southern gentleman. But then he was presented with this request, and he became a blustering fool.
“The family is not ready,” he protested. “You’re asking too much too soon.”
“It has been 300 years and you’re still not ready!” said the black man. He spoke of working hard to earn his fortune and struggling all his life to be recognized as a man. He decided this was going to be his last fight.
The play was well written and brought out the hidden prejudices and resentment we still struggle to recognize and reconcile. I saw a great deal of my own racist culture in the old white man.
I’ve heard his protestations all my life: He’d supported black people when he could. And he’d always been a friend to “the coloreds.” But he’d be damned if he would allow a n—-r to be buried in his cemetery no matter how much evidence proved they were related, and no matter what the courts might rule.
The play shows how we have much further to go in the healing between cultures.
As we drove home, I thought again about the family at Denny’s. I had asked them if they were in town for vacation.
“We came for football camp for my sons,” he said.
“They’re certainly big enough to play football,” I smiled.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t get to go,” The father said. “I was arrested when we got into town because I was profiled for a crime that had just happened.”
Oh yeah… did I mention this was an African American family?
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” he said, “I’m doing what I can to salvage the weekend and show the family a good time. Thanks again for your gift.”
When it was time to leave, he had his five sons file past the table where Sylvia and I sat and they each thanked us. The youngest son shook my hand.
The mom came last.
“So… all boys,” I said. “How do you manage that?”
“I can’t even begin….” She said and shrugged without finishing the sentence.
She walked past, then turned and said, “But they make me feel safe.”
It’s her that I think about now. I’m glad she has her handsome sons to protect her. But how would it feel to worry about them and their father every damn time they walked out the door?
We still have so much further to go.