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The Death of Racism: An Essay
© 2013 by B.L. Bierley
I’ve never been particularly close to my father’s family. That’s not my fault. My father and mother’s relationship was one of rebellion and stubbornness that should never have made it past a third date, though I am thankful they hung in there for five years until I came along. My father promptly left my mother before I was old enough to miss him. This essay is about my father's mother, my grandmother, and how dementia changed our relationship and her character in the most unexpected ways imaginable.
Holding On to the Past
Despite never knowing my father or having a conscious meeting with him until I was seventeen years old, I had a relationship with my father’s family throughout my childhood and adult life. I was closer to my grandparents than I was with any of my father’s siblings or their offspring. I fact, my aunts, uncles and cousins all seem to have done their best to pretend that I don’t exist until I do something miraculous or amazing that makes them look good. This is not as heartbreaking as you might imagine. Still, I have always tried to maintain contact with my grandparents on my absentee father’s side.
Now that the years have passed, my grandfather has since passed away. My father and I have a minimally invasive relationship, sterile and superficial and mostly continued through chain emails he sends telling me how he feels about conservative politics or Jesus but never a word about the daughter he barely knows or why he’s never given her one good reason to love him. My grandmother remains and is the only member of the family that I genuinely miss or will mourn with equal sincerity when she is no more.
It’s unfortunate that my life has taken me so far from my immediate family, but I do try to see them as often as I can. I’ve had very little contact with Grandmother in the last three years. She moved from her home into assisted living and essentially dropped out of my life. I noticed the curious absence of calls and cards, but whenever I would try to phone I always got no answer.
The Ides of March
This past weekend I made the three hour drive to pay her a surprise visit, even driving through snow flurries (which in Alabama are treated like a sign that the Apocalypse has arrived). Right away when I walked into the assisted living facility I should have known that something was off. No one spoke to me or even offered a friendly greeting. When I gave my name and asked to see my grandmother, the staff looked indignant or perhaps disapproving. I realized that to them I was a stranger, an interloper who might cause trouble in their quiet little bubble beyond the security-coded doors.
I asked Aunt Nana, who was with me and my children on this visit for moral support, if she had been in to see Grandmother recently. Aunt Nana works for one of the local florist shops and often delivers flowers to the residents of the facility. Aunt Nana replied that my other family requested that she leave any flowers for Grandmother at the desk in order to avoid confusion. Aunt Sally, who is Grandmother’s daughter and my father’s sister, told her that if someone brings flowers to the room, Grandmother automatically thinks they are from whoever delivers them. For that reason, Aunt Nana said she hadn't seen Grandmother in quite a while.
As we moved through the hallway toward Grandmother’s room, an eerie feeling of foreboding crept into my spine. It was as if the walls and the people knew something but were afraid to tell me anything. As I asked for additional directions, I could have sworn I saw one of the women behind the desk smirking at me. This was peculiar indeed.
Finally, we arrived at the door. Grandmother’s name was in a plastic slide just below her room number. The door was firmly closed, so I raised a hand and knocked before opening it. As the room came into view I saw not my lively grandma with her always-lipsticked smile but rather an elderly African American man standing beside the bed. Right away I smiled and excused myself, thinking I may have entered the wrong room. But as I looked back to verify the name and number outside the door I heard my grandmother’s charismatic voice.
Who’s That Lady?
Turning back into the room, I asked for my grandmother by name and before my eyes she stepped out of the bathroom. It was indeed Grandmother. She looked better than I expected. Her hair was done in her signature style—curled, teased and sprayed by a skilled southern beautician’s hand the way only a small-town southern woman would claim. Grandmother’s makeup was in place, likely by her own unsteady yet familiar hand. Other than being at the healthiest weight I’d ever seen on her frame, Grandmother looked just as she had every time I’d seen her in my forty-some-odd years of knowing her.
Before my eyes Grandmother stepped over toward the man and extended a hand to him as she answered to her name, wanting to know who was asking. But something was obviously not quite right. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say it that way. Saying something wasn’t right implies wrongdoing. Something was out of character would be a more accurate depiction of the issue. And dementia was the root cause of all the little things I noticed in Grandmother’s room that day.
I must step back now and explain what it meant to see my formerly red-headed, Scotch-Irish, octogenarian grandmother holding hands with a mute, and likely equally senile, African American man. This was a senior assisted living center in a very small town in Alabama. Seeing my grandmother with this man was unbelievable! I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d opened the door to find the cast of “Modern Family” standing there!
It became clear to me as I spoke to her that my grandmother no longer knew me at all. It was also clear that she’d forgotten who she used to be as well!
Some Old Dogs Just Won’t Do New Tricks
During her lifetime in the South, my grandmother had been a lasting proponent of the “Separate but Equal” mentality. She wasn’t hateful like an average racist, but she’d been raised by an ornery southern man of mean understanding and self-righteous opinion. Her belief that “colored folks” weren’t like “regular” people was never in question if you knew her at all.
I remember the way she’d speak about African Americans who would come to her house to do work, cleaning her house or fixing an appliance. She’d use whispered tones telling me not to get too close or calling Granddaddy to come home from the golf course so we wouldn’t be alone with them in case they tried to meddle with us. The idea that hiring them to provide a service was a privilege to them was not uncommon among her generation, but in Grandmother’s defense she always treated anyone fairly and with what she believed was due respect. She never cheated the hard-working people she hired out of what they were owed.
Once I was old enough to recognize this subtle prejudice, I quickly learned that it was also futile to try and change such deep-rooted beliefs. You could argue for hours and give dozens of hundreds of reasons why such feelings were both inaccurate and archaic, but you would never change a closed mind.
Now in the year 2013, my grandmother introduced her friend to her unknown visitors with pride, offering us to him for hugs and saying, “He’s my fellow, my friend. He helps me out of the corners.” Her words made little sense, but I was more stunned by such a dramatic shift in her behavior. And it was bittersweet irony to know that dementia could bring about this difference in such an opinionated and strong-minded woman in such a painfully short yet permanent way.
Aunt Nana was even more shocked at what we witnessed there in that room. She was appalled on my grandmother’s behalf that her disconnected mind would lead her to this drastic change of thinking. Her opinion notwithstanding, Aunt Nana wanted to point to the situation as some form of neglect. But while I knew my grandmother would never have been friends with this man if her mind was still sound, I couldn’t be angry.
Expiration Dates and Evolution
I wish Racism had an expiration date, that one day it would be thrown out because it was not healthy or safe to use it anymore just like curdled milk or rancid cottage cheese. But racism isn’t always about hate crimes or discrimination. It’s a behavioral evil that is handed down through generations. It lurks in the opinions of people who refuse to let go of old sentiments and beliefs. Folks can believe that anyone who works for honest pay should get what they deserve, but that doesn’t stop them from harboring the distinction that differing races should never intermingle.
I cannot support this old-school mentality in my modern ethics, but there are those in the older generations (and sadly some in the newer ones too) who will never be moved to embrace diversity and unity in the same way. I was raised by people who experienced both segregation and integration first hand. And even though I’ve come to believe differently than what my parents and grandparents held to be true, I cannot move them completely to my side of the issue.
I love my family and respect them even when our feelings and opinions differ. I’m not saying they are hateful people. That’s not true. They have come a long way in their perceptions since the turn of the century. But there will always be that margin where they will not concede to the new-age way of thinking. But so long as we agree to disagree, I feel no anxiety.
I recognize the richness of diversity in larger cities today. Kids are being raised now with a variety of influences, and they are intertwined in a melting pot that focuses more on individuals rather than racial sections or groups as it once did in the past. I know that every race and ethnic background is unique. We are all human beings who deserve the respect we have earned. I also believe that who we choose as friends or who we love shouldn’t be exclusionary based on race, even though there are still segments of society who will always persecute and exclude those who cross the invisible boundary lines.
There is evidence that the old way of seeing mixed race couples is dwindling more and more with the passage of time. Old principles and teachings with regard to feelings about race are nearly impossible to fight in some cases, but so long as we continue to grow as people on this planet, I believe that behavioral evolution might lessen more and more of these prejudices over time.
As for my grandmother and her new sweetie, I won’t say that I wasn’t surprised about her severe dementia or the resulting character changes. I’ll miss her wit and the stories she used to share with me about my childhood visits to her house. She’d always share a story about how I’d loved her old Boston terrier whose name I couldn’t properly pronounce or the one where I cried at Aunt Sally’s wedding because I didn’t want to throw the flower petals on the ground. She always said I was a most dedicated flower girl and that I even added to my basket by plucking more petals from the various arrangements set out by the wedding florists. In the wedding photos there are a few shots of me bending over into the greenery trying to get a daisy.
My grandmother used to love to tell that tale to anyone who would listen. And when I married my first husband she gave me some sage advice: “Murder maybe, divorce never!” which luckily for Grease I completely disregarded knowing she was only joking in her candid way. And I’ll miss her love, for I know that when she remembered me she truly loved her first grandchild very much. I will not stop trying to be in my grandmother’s life. I will send her letters she may not understand, and I will send her a gift for her birthday in April—a nice pair of comfortable pajamas and some pictures of two adorable children she won’t remember that she knew.
I will respect and love her long after she is gone. And even though I know how out of character it is for a woman like her to even be friends with a man who is not Caucasian and that it really wasn’t a change of heart so much as the socially immune, color-blind cognitive reasoning that dementia grants to its victims, I will never mourn the loss of racism.