(if you’re here for the first time look at Blogs 1 -13 in earlier posts )
At every moment he findeth a weighty matter, in every hour he becometh aware of a mystery…
The Seven Valleys
John was sitting at his desk trying to concentrate on studying for his prelims but his mind drifted back to his visit to Montana over Christmas. For some reason he couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was almost as if he were afraid something his mother had said had rubbed off on him, tainted him.
“The things that go on nowadays,” she had said on Christmas Eve, as they drove past the movie theater letting out its patrons after the ten o’clock show. Main Street still had the same theater it had had since the fifties, despite the newer Four-plex at the mall.
John glanced back quickly to see what she was looking at. “What, Ma? The movie they were showing?” He didn’t think the Starlight would show anything too objectionable.
They had pulled up at the corner waiting for the light to change and he noticed her eyes following a couple crossing the street in front of them. They seemed a little exuberant but not too rowdy. And then it hit him. The girl had long frizzy blond hair, and the guy had skin as dark as coal. His mother sat rigid in her seat, solemn, as if she were witnessing some indecency.
“Ma, what are you talking about? You’re not talking about that couple?”
She didn’t answer.
“Ma, I know you don’t think that way.” She kept staring ahead. He was becoming more exasperated as he drove down the straight blocks of neat homes, the brittle snow crunching under the tires.
“Ma, you got your friend, Mrs. Jones down at the bakery, you’ve been joking and talking with her for years. I remember from when I was a boy–”
“You leave Mrs. Jones out of this,” she interrupted, “she’s a decent woman,” she stressed the adjective.
“That’s right! I know you raised me to treat everyone the same. So where’s this coming from now, huh?!”
“John,” she spoke patiently, “there’s certain things that’s just not right. That family, the Jones family have been the only co…black family here for a long time. They were always hard working, decent people. But you should see that bunch that’s moved in lately, to the apartment housing they’ve put up on Pitcairn Road. Huh!” She subsided into silence, her arms crossed over her middle.
John drove stunned, trying to take in what seemed like a total reversal in a mother he had always thought so benign. He felt like the foundations under his feet had started to shift. He looked at the frozen branches on the trees going by and felt the cold of winter despite the fact that the heater was blowing hot air out of the vents.
“You remember Mrs. Nelson down the street?” his mother started.
“Yeah, old man Nelson, I remember him and his bad temper.”
“I will never forget the embarrassment, the pain of that woman. God, I felt so sorry for her. Her daughter, the one that went off to a job in Chicago, came home last year and brought a boyfriend – a black man!” She sat speechless for a moment, only shaking her head, then went on. “She couldn’t lift her head in this town after that. She stopped coming on bingo night. You never see her out hardly any more. I think that’s the cruelest thing I ever saw a daughter do to her mother. And Mr. Nelson, thank God he wasn’t alive anymore. ‘Cause he would have had a fit.”
“But Ma, what the hell is wrong with it? If that black man was a nice man, then what difference does it make?”
“What difference does it make?” She looked at him incredulous. “It…it…I don’t know, it’s just not right, that’s all.”
“Why is it not right Ma? Tell me,” he pleaded.
“Because…Well, white people and black people…they just shouldn’t mix it up. And don’t tell me it’s because I’m racist that I feel this way. I don’t think all black people are bad. I know there’s good and bad in both. But…people should just…stick to their own kind. That’s all.”
“Why?” He continued to probe.
“Oh John. I don’t know. I told you already.” She replied exasperated, refusing to look deeper into her motives.
The conversation had been such an eye opener that for the rest of the vacation he had been acutely aware of his family in a way he had never been before. At the Christmas dinner at his aunt Martha’s the following day, during the football game on television, old uncle Jim had said loudly “Look at that nigger run!” as he slapped his knee in pleasure. No one had protested his use of the word, even though it was said in front of some of the children. John realized then that he must have heard the same word slip out in these family gatherings when he was growing up. But he had never really heard it before.
Further analysis revealed that the thread of racial thinking ran through the entire family, but in different forms. It was only voiced in that crude fashion by old uncle Jim. That word was never uttered by any of his aunts. Their racial prejudice didn’t surface until something negative happened involving a black person, and then it was as if it confirmed some dormant expectation.
After Christmas dinner the women were in the kitchen washing up the dishes. He had wandered over to the sideboard for another cup of coffee to go with his last mouthful of cherry pie and heard his cousin Elsa reply to aunt Martha’s question about her job at the new Wall-Mart.
“Oh, did I have a pesky woman at the customer service counter yesterday.”
“Really? What happened?” Aunt Martha was putting Saran wrap over the leftover dressing.
“It was one of them, you know, from the Section Eight housing on Pitcairn Road.”
“What did she do?” Great aunt Millie was asking, the face was eager.
“Oh, you should have seen her, Grandma. She was so uppity. Wanted a refund on this pair of jeans, ’cause she said it was too small.” She dried another dish and set it on the table to be whisked away and put in the cupboard by John’s mother.
“Well, didn’t she try them before she bought ’em?”
“She had the nerve to tell me she was in too much of a hurry the day she bought ’em to try ’em on.”
“What did you say to that?”
“Oh, I wasn’t about to let her get away with it. I said I had to talk to the manager about it. I left her cooling her heels at the counter.”
“And what happened then?”
“We made her exchange it for another pair.”
“You didn’t give her the money back then?”
“Nope.” She concluded as if the outcome was something to be proud of.
“Serves them right then,” Aunt Millie said in the overloud voice of the hard of hearing, “if they’re too lazy to try on their purchase, it serves them right. It’s typical; they want special treatment. They already got everything handed to them by the government, then they expect more.”
“Uh-hum…” Some were nodding their heads as Aunt Millie closed the conversation.
“What would you have done Aunt Millie, if you bought a pair of jeans that didn’t fit?” John was compelled to enter the conversation from his vantage point in the doorway. The women looked up at him in surprise, because he was a man in the kitchen. His mother looked apprehensive.
“What’d you say Johnny?” Great Aunt Millie barked.
He spoke up louder, “I said what would you have done if you’d bought something that didn’t fit? Wouldn’t you have taken it back?”
She looked perplexed, then barked back: “I wouldn’t have bought the damn pants if they didn’t fit!”
A cackle of laughter broke out among the women. Sometimes Aunt Millie was a character.
“You never bought anything that you had to return?” John insisted.
“‘Course I’ve had to return a few things. What’re you getting at, boy?” She seemed to be getting agitated.
“Let it go, John,” his mother put in, in a low voice.
“Well, I just thought, Aunt Millie, that people return things all the time. It doesn’t mean they’re lazy or looking to get a handout. That’s all.” John felt he needed to make his point, even if she was too dense to understand it.
The women fell silent and continued their various tasks; a few of them had gotten the message. John intercepted a look from his mother that said, Alright, you’ve done enough, now go back to the living room.
The last thing he heard as he turned back to the living room was Great-Aunt Millie asking plaintively, “What did he mean by that?”
Now, reviewing the event in his mind he was slightly ashamed of the mildness of his intervention. He hadn’t done much to explain to aunt Millie the fallacy of her thinking or to take his cousin Elsa to task for her attitudes towards black customers. What was I supposed to do? he asked himself. Trying to reason with his elderly, half-deaf great-aunt would have been like pouring water over stone. And the rest of the family had no clue, either, that they were racist. They thought of themselves as fair-minded.
The dichotomy was puzzling to John because he knew them to be kind, charitable people, at least to each other and to other whites. Suddenly, the image of Maddie Hawkins came into his mind, and he imagined her standing at the Wall-Mart counter, being made to wait and demeaned by his cousin Elsa. His feeling towards his cousin became harsh, because he realized that her actions, multiplied a hundredfold, could make life for black people a living hell in a small town like his. He wondered what Maddie’s experience had been, where she came from.
His mother, with her black friend, was somewhat unusual, he knew, different from the rest. She’d never allowed him to use the word nigger as a boy, and as an adult he’d taken that to mean she wasn’t racist. He’d been secretly proud of her and instinctively known not to talk to other family members about her visits with Mrs. Jones. He’d also known she was different for working in the bank, when other mothers waited tables. A steady record over twenty-five years had now elevated her to a position as a manager. Mostly, though, he had known she was different because she didn’t have a husband, like other women. At least, not after his dad had left them when he was two years old.
Not having a father had left a hole in John’s soul, an ache that nothing seemed to fill. He remembered his great curiosity as a child, to know more about his father. But it was impossible to get any details because no one would ever talk about him. He was twelve years old before he ever saw a photo of him, and that by accident, because he had found an old picture of the football team at the county high school, with a date and the name Henry Pitts on the back. He had searched the faces until he thought he detected a familiar one. When he’d asked Aunt Millie if that was his dad she had said only “Put that away, boy.”
He wondered, for the thousandth time, whether he would ever know anything more.
Hey! I’m really interested in your comments.* Please join this global bookclub discussion by leaving a comment below (in the comments box)
QUESTION 14: Can you relate to John’s experiences?
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I’LL POST SOME MORE OF “THE HARVEST OF REASON” TOMORROW. IF YOU CAN’T WAIT THAT LONG TO FIND OUT WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN YOU CAN Buy it here