Wagons, Ho!

I’ve recently discovered a passion for watching old, black-and-white Westerns—not the movies, but the decades’ old TV series. The Rifleman. Wagon Train.  Rawhide. Have Gun Will Travel.  Gunsmoke.  Maverick.  These and several other shows have become a guilty pleasure in which I regularly indulge, watching them on the Classic TV rerun channels.

Never mind their asinine, inaccurate, and degrading depictions of Native Americans, nearly always played by Caucasian actors dipped in stage makeup. Disregard the pioneers with perfect teeth…the women with perfectly-coiffed hair, makeup, clean dresses, and even popped collars.  Ignore the rare appearance of dirt and sweat, pipes and chewing tobacco on the well-shaven male main characters…the healthy, fat and strong herd animals and horses (barely a mule or a burro to be seen!)  Overlook the extremely rare appearance of a black or Asian person (although Hispanics, all too often portrayed as cunning or criminal, seem to abound).  Never mind the Hollywood fiction of  bespangled saloon girls and the frequently wrong-for-the-era clothing of all the characters.  Yes, it’s all ridiculous.  And, yes, despite all the nonsense and bias, I still enjoy watching these old Westerns.

I grew up watching them, of course; these and several other shows were the common TV fare of my childhood, so there is a nostalgia connected with viewing the reruns. I was too young when I first saw them to now remember more than a scene or two, or a particular character, so I delight in the stories; to me, they are not reruns; they are brand-new.

But what strikes me most about many of these old Westerns are the strongly contemporary themes. The films may be black and white, but the subjects they were tackling were anything but.  Racism. Spousal abuse.  Bullying.  Controlling or brutal parents. Societal expectations. True courage as opposed to implied cowardice. Gun control.  Bigotry.  The way in which gossip, rumor and hearsay destroys lives. The use of religion to justify evildoing. The destruction of wildlife and the decimation of habitat. Kindness toward and acceptance of the different or disabled.

Characters in these old shows agonized over decisions in which they felt their ethics would be compromised. Every shade of grey in the human experience comprised part of the Western stories, and their conclusions were surprisingly contemporary—sometimes what we would now, scathingly, refer to as “politically correct”.  And although often simplistic, the answers provided in each 30- or 60-minute show were, above all, honorable and decent.  They exhibited complex interactions between main characters who held civility and courtesy to be their abiding principles, who genuinely believed that a man’s word was his bond. There was always an expectation that individuals who were proved wrong would admit their fault and be punished for it—and yet justice was often, unexpectedly, tempered with mercy.

My brother commented once that he realized he’d learned much of his understanding of morality from watching episodes of “The Rifleman”.  His comment made me wonder what the children of the current generation are learning from their diet of TV fare consisting of the carefully orchestrated unreality of “reality” shows, horrific crime dramas, and bloody fantasy programs.

It will be a long time before I’ve finished watching these old Western reruns. Even when I’m certain I’ve seen most of the episodes, I occasionally run across one I missed.  And I expect to go on enjoying them, despite the fact that many of the episodes are now reruns even to me.  Like a complex tapestry, the many threads that make up these decades’ old stories are carefully crafted and interwoven, and endlessly surprising.

Anger and Loss

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.

Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset.  I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too.  I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss.  But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely.  Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?

I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I?  Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality?  I didn’t think so.  I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans.  I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.

I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.

Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care.  She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.

I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.

I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort.  How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?

Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training.  My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant.  Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence.  Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off  hinges.  Faces were slapped; punches were thrown.  Obscenities were shrieked.

But not by me. Not by my siblings.

No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior.  And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.

I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently.  Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I  was driven to shouting at my husband.

None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.

Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing.  The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.

But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.

I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.

Customer Service…Or Not

Some time ago, I travelled into the city to a government building for what I believed to be a simple transaction, taking some paperwork to obtain a license. I’d already done all the initial preparation on-line, navigating my way through a frustrating website, trying to be sure I’d dotted every i and crossed every t.  I’d even fulfilled the requirement for fingerprinting and a background check which seemed rather ridiculous, since as a former government employee, I’d been fingerprinted and checked twice before; my information had to be on file somewhere.  But, so be it. I did it all once again.

Before starting out, I carefully divested myself of my usual weaponry (pocket knife, pepper spray, nail file, “keycat”, even my miniature flashlight that I knew from bitter experience would be confiscated due to its batteries). Having dealt with streets under construction and city center traffic and non-existent parking, after arriving downtown, I walked several blocks to finally arrive at my destination. I went through the charade of security, submitting my purse for scanning – twice — and then being asked to remove what they thought were tweezers (my reading glasses.  Deadly weapons, those).  After being questioned as to why I had so many sets of keys – uh, let’s see, my house, my daughter’s house, my father’s house, the home of one friend and the apartment of another — I was finally allowed into the building.  Thus it was that, already in a state of irritation, I wandered about looking desperately for a directory before finally, quite by accident, stumbling upon an information desk that was, of course, nowhere near the security entrance.

I waited patiently for the woman at the information desk to complete a phone call, and then asked for directions to the department I needed. I arrived there a few minutes later. Stepping inside, I waited for the desk clerk to look up and say something basic, such as, “May I help you?”  When not a word was forthcoming, I simply smiled, said hi, and began to explain my errand.

Checkmate. “They shouldn’t have sent you in here.  That unit is closed on Tuesdays,” she said.

I’m sure my face was a picture of consternation. “But…but it didn’t say that anywhere on the website,” I stuttered, dismayed.  She shrugged.  “They’re closed on Tuesdays.”

I shook my head and picked up my paperwork to leave and sighed,  “They really need to put that on the website.  They really do.”  But before I could even turn to leave, the clerk leaned forward belligerently and snapped at me, “Well, you can just march right down the hall there and tell them that!.”

I was flabbergasted. I’m sure I stood there staring at her for a full thirty seconds before I said quietly, “I’m quite sure my opinion wouldn’t matter to them any more than it does to you, ma’am.”  I turned and walked out the door.

Now, no doubt that young woman was weary of dealing every Tuesday with customers made unhappy by a situation beyond her control, a problem created solely due a failure of the IT department to properly update a website. But her insolence clearly illustrated a problem about what passes for customer service in modern society: that is, that poor service and outright rudeness are acceptable behavior.  The customer, once touted as “always right” is now never right and deserves not even a modicum of courtesy; the customer is merely an irritation to be swatted aside like an errant housefly.

In a government career that spanned 37 years, I spent much of my time dealing with complaints and trying to assist welfare recipients. (I even learned to call them clients, although in my viewpoint a client was someone who was paying for a service, not receiving payments and services for free.)  During those years, I was the target of many a customer’s frustration as they tried to navigate an unwieldly system with contradictory rules and overworked caseworkers. I dealt with men who mouthed obscenities and women who broke down in tears.  I was called filthy names and threatened.  I was shouted at and endured racist remarks.  Yet never once was I as rude to a those members of the public as that receptionist was to me.

There is simply no excuse for the mistreatment of customers by those entrusted with work on their behalf. Until and unless their own behavior makes it impossible to do so, one deals courteously with consumers who have just come smack up against a wall not of their own creation.

Had that receptionist sighed and said, “I know, I get that all the time, and I keep telling them, but no one will listen to me,” all my sympathies would have shifted on her behalf. I would have commiserated, understanding what she was up against.

Instead, when I returned a few days later, I asked for her name, and her supervisor’s name—both of which, shockingly,  she refused to provide me. Still, I went over her head and attempted the useless process of reporting the problems I’d encountered with the rude young woman.

That no one even bothered to respond to my report, I’ve thought many times since, just made the situation even sadder, since the effort to restore some measure of civility and courtesy to everyday interactions needs to begin somewhere. But it seems that, short of a viral video showing someone being dragged brutally down an aisle, no one truly even cares.

A Tale of Two Funerals

Like so many people, I often bemoan the lack of courtesy and etiquette in modern society, but never so much as during the past year, when I attended two funerals, months apart, and encountered vastly different experiences.

On the first occasion, I did not even know the woman who had passed when I attended her funeral calling. I was making the nod to kindness, in that she was the daughter of a distant acquaintance, and that she had died unexpectedly and far too young. I had already sent a sympathy card, but I felt it would be appropriate to offer my condolences in person, sign the guestbook, make the requisite and banal remarks, and take my leave.

It didn’t turn out precisely as I’d planned.

I arrived at the calling, and, not seeing my acquaintance, signed the guestbook and walked up to the coffin to murmur a prayer for those left behind, grieving. An inherently shy person, I am never at ease in a roomful of strangers, so I looked about, hoping to spot someone else whom I knew even slightly.  Having failed at that, I seated myself.  A few people in the room glanced at me, but no one spoke.  After a quarter-hour or so, I thought I might check the refreshment room and the chapel; perhaps my acquaintance was taking a break from the stress of the calling.  Still failing to locate her, though, I returned to the calling room;  again, a few of the family members and friends present glanced at me, but no one spoke or even smiled.  I had just nerved myself to ask one of these aloof strangers if my acquaintance was present when she finally arrived.  I waited patiently to one side while she talked with family members, and then, when she finally acknowledged me, I spoke to her briefly, extending my sympathy.  Although she thanked me for my condolences, she didn’t introduce me to any of the family members standing with her.  I found that odd, but  attributed it to her stress and grief.  Having nothing more to offer, I left, feeling as though the whole thing had been hardly worth my effort.

The second funeral I attended was so different that I felt I’d stepped off the Transporter. Again, this was the funeral of someone I barely knew—the mother of my daughter’s old friend.  I’d met this lady a few times, years earlier, when the girls were teenagers; her passing, too, was unexpected and sudden.

I was not looking forward to a repeat performance of the first funeral, but consoled myself with the thought that my daughter would be present at this calling, so I wouldn’t be quite alone.  This time, though, arriving at the funeral calling in the same manner, a stranger to almost everyone present, I was greeted.  A young woman, a friend of the family, stepped forward to acknowledge me, thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked me how I knew the deceased.  When I explained my tenuous relationship, she assured me that, although my daughter’s friend had not arrived yet, she would be so glad that I had come to pay my respects to her mother.  I was directed to the guestbook and to the photo gallery for the deceased, shown where I might get a cup of coffee; in short, I was given every courtesy, set at my ease in a roomful of strangers, and assured that my effort to be present at this sad affair was appreciated.

People sometimes bemoan the lack of decorum at modern funerals – the casual clothing, the inattention as individuals focus on their phones. And while those are very valid criticisms, they are but a few facets in the overall loss of courtesy, charm and kindness that seems to infest all society, but is never more noticeable than when people are cloaked in anguish and grief.

Charm, I once read, true charm, is the ability to set someone at ease by assuring them that they are wanted, and liked. Courtesy to a stranger is much the same thing: it is to demonstrate to that person that they are welcomed; that their presence is appreciated.

We should always extend courtesy to the stranger in our midst, for we never know when an angel might be walking among us. I hardly count myself an angel, but the young woman, unknown to me, but who made every effort to set me at my ease in a stressful situation, was most certainly one.

My Life in Photos

There is shortcut file on my computer desktop titled, “My Life in Photos”.

This is a fairly unusual file to be maintained by a person who is well-known among all her friends and family, to hide her face from every camera. (“Point that camera at me,” I have been heard to say, “and I will turn you into a frog.” And, if they persist, I instruct, “Start picking out your lily pad!”)

The simple truth is that I take horrifically bad pictures. Some individuals are gifted with just that flawless bone structure, that enviable arrangement of facial features, so that the play of light and shadow in the two-dimensional image of a photo results in loveliness. In fact, years ago when I lived in Charleston, I knew such a woman.  To meet her on the street, one would have said she was plain, even unattractive.  Yet in photographs,  even without makeup,  her face was striking and remarkable.

I am not such a woman. I’m as plain as the proverbial mud fence—except in photographs, in which I look like a bowl of undercooked oatmeal.

So for me to have a file representing the highlights of my 64 years of life through photographic evidence is not only unusual, but was damned difficult to assemble. Nevertheless, I put it together and am even now in the process of turning it into a PowerPoint show, a storytelling event, eventually to be (I hope, and when I’ve acquired a few technical skills now absent) recreated as a video slide show, complete with music.

But the important aspect of this project is the reason I am doing it: because, several times in the past years, I’ve had to hunt through my collections of photographs for pictures of friends or family members who have recently died. To do this is to be assaulted by mixed emotions—heavy feelings that are hard to bear when one is already grieving.  Each time, too, I’ve wondered if the pictures I’ve chosen were the ones that this person would really have wanted to represent her life.  Which of these, I pondered, would have been her favorite photo of herself?

Which might she not have really much liked?  Is this a photo she would have preferred had never been taken?  An event she wanted to forget?

And while the act of looking through old photographs was wondrous and painful, time constraints limited what might have been a nostalgic journey through another’s life. The photos had to be located and selected quickly to be prepared for a funeral or memorial service.  There just wasn’t time to pick the perfect set of pictures to represent someone’s entire existence on this earth.

2000 Rebecca Xmas Crop

And so, for my survivors, this job will be already done. The photos will be chosen, the stories behind each of them told.  The one photo of my adult self that I have ever truly liked will be there and labeled as such; the events that I saw as the highlights of my existence will be arranged chronologically. If others choose to add to those memories with photographs representing memories of their own, they’ll be free to do so.  But the difficult work of recreating the important moments of my life  will be done.

It will be a special and loving farewell to those I love best, demonstrating how much I cared for them: that there exists an album of photographs of the woman who, always and forever, simply hated to have her picture taken.

A Cultural Heritage

Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, the music, the foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.

The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories.  It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted.  She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”

I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of other races; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?

All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.)  I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim.  The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes.  I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer.  And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land.  Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.

In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.

But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?

I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-painted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes?  Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps?  Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?

If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.

The Slave Cabin

When I was in my mid-twenties, I first visited and then lived for three years in Charleston, South Carolina. There was much I loved about the city; always a history buff, it was wonderful to live in a place where so much of U.S. history was tangible in just  walk down the street.  Battery Park, carriage rides, ancient graveyards, the city market, and Fort Sumter; gigantic ancient live oaks, Magnolia and Middleton plantations, Drayton and Boone Hall, flower-sellers in the streets, hearing the lilting, deep tones of the “gullah” still spoken by the descendants of enslaved people…  For one who loves history, it was a glorious place to dwell.

But the darker history of Charleston, from the indentured servitude of its earliest settlers to the hell that was slavery, was (at least in those decades ago that I lived there) rarely on display, especially to tourists. In the 1980s, racism was still casually accepted and rife throughout the city.  The large insurance company for which I briefly worked had to be forced by the head office in New York to hire its first African American agent.

History, as is often said, is written by the winners. But the truth is still out there, if one is open-minded and willing to search, to look.  And the truth of Charleston’s history came home to me in one swift and sickening moment when I was still just a visitor to the lovely city.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I had gone on a tour of one of the larger plantations—possibly Middleton or Magnolia, I think, although I don’t now recall precisely which one. Entranced, we moved from room to room in the mansion. I recall comparing in my own mind the luxury of modern, expensive homes to this gem from a previous century: admiring the beautiful, hand-crafted furniture and ceramics, the jewel-toned carpets on polished wooden floors; marveling over the cloudy, bubble-filled antique glazing of the windows; cringing over the lack of sanitation and the primitive facilities for preparing meals.  Our tour guide was a wealth of detailed information, and I was enjoying every minute of sightseeing until the moment when she took us through a door out into the nearby grounds of the mansion.  There, with a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the adjoining cabins—the homes, she explained, of the house “servants”.

Slave cabins.

Side by side with the main house, just a few steps away so that (one assumes) the occupants could quickly to enter the mansion each morning, stood a row of rough, log-walled, earth-floored shacks.

Coming from the relative luxury of the plantation house, the dichotomy was shattering. I felt physically ill as, separating from the tour group, I walked to the door of one of the slave cabins and looked inside to the gloomy darkness.

Never had the ugly reality of American slavery been brought home to me more forcefully then it was in that moment, standing in the dark doorway of a slave cabin on the plantation grounds. I reminded myself that in the unspoken caste system of slavery, the house slaves considered themselves a cut above the lowly field workers. But this—this was their reality.  A decrepit shack, smaller even than the log cabins of the first American settlers.  Four walls, a shake roof, a stone fireplace, an earthen floor. This was the home of the highest caste of slaves.

Each day, they walked from that degrading housing to the carpets and china and silver and glass of their owners’ mansion, to serve according to the whims of those lucky enough to be born Caucasian. Each day.

I’ve experienced many other sudden revelations of truth in my time on this earth—possibly, probably, just as vital, just as powerful, as that eye-opening moment of revelation of the unbearable ugliness of slavery.

But (perhaps because of my youth on that long-ago day in Charleston), few of those revelations stand out as powerfully, or as painfully unforgettable, in my memory, as the experience of standing in the slave cabin outside the door of the plantation manor.

The Best Revenge

Their names were (I think) Emily and Linda. Since the events that I recall transpired 50 years ago I may, perhaps, be forgiven for my uncertainty over the names of these two young women–especially as the only reason I have to recall them is that they bullied me—cruelly, continually, mercilessly, and without reason–throughout my first year of high school.

I no longer hate Emily and Linda, although achieving emotional distance took me at least 25 or more years. As adolescents, we are at our most fragile, most sensitive, and the distress induced by viciousness during that period is more telling, and harder to cope with, than it would be later in life.  As mature adults, we have usually learned wisdom, detachment, and survival skills.  Nevertheless, I’m sorry now that I wasted so much precious emotional energy on hating Emily and Linda.  Nothing I ever thought of them—none of my fury, none of my hatred—ever harmed them;  none of things I wished upon them (pain, anguish, failure) did anything more than keep me emotionally bound to my torturers.

And torturers they were.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” we used to chant as children when taunted by another child.

It’s a brave, wise shield thrown up in the face of unspeakable cruelty, but it isn’t true. Words hurt.  They wound.  They scar us, less visibly but just as deeply,  as physical assault.  And those wounds and scars can last a lifetime.

I began high school already at a psychological disadvantage, coming as I did from the household of a Borderline Personality Disorder parent.   I had begun developing acne at the early age of 11, and (although I was perfectly proportioned, as I now know from looking at old photos) was told repeatedly by my mother that I was fat.  Neither pretty nor ugly, I might have been called average.  But at 12 and 13, one doesn’t want to be average.  One longs to be pretty, and to be popular, or at least accepted, among one’s peers.

Added to the burden I would carry was the fact that I was just leaving an 8th grade in a parochial school where we girls wore uniforms; I needed all new school clothes.  This was during the height of the hippie era.  Clothes were “psychedelic”, in hot pinks and shrieking lime, and paisley; skirts were short, boots were “go-go”,  and dresses were A-line.  In the midst of all this very definitive and silly fashion, my mother decided to clothe me in my grandmother’s used Chanel knit suits. Those suits were the height of fashion—for a 40-something working woman.  On a 13-year-old teenager, they were the kiss of death.

Plain, covered in acne, in clothes that made me a laughingstock, I entered high school. And Emily and Linda, popular girls leading their clique of sycophants, made the most of it.

There is no point any longer to recalling the things they said, they did to me; the degrading tricks they played on me, the humiliation and mortification piled upon me. day after day . There is no longer any reason to recall how hard it was for me to hold my head up and pretend to ignore their bullying, nor the bitter, gulping sobs that engulfed me when I was alone, nor the many, many hours I spent plotting and visualizing terrible revenge and promising myself that it would happen.  There is no point to any of that, because I was fortunate.  In that era, the local school system considered 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to be “junior” high school.  Emily and Linda were a year younger than I.  When I began my sophomore year in the 10th grade, I was stationed across the street from them, in the high school building.  I no longer rode the same bus.  I moved on, and they were left behind, to torture some other sad victim.  And by the time they arrived at the high school, we were worlds apart, absorbed in a school of almost two thousand young people, in different classes, different rooms. I never saw them again.

Except that I did. For decades,  Emily and Linda lurked in the corner of my mind’s eye, at the periphery of my inner vision, undermining my confidence, dimming my achievements, continuing to torture me–but only, I understand now, because I allowed it.  Trapped in the memories of those painful days, continually rehearsing old grievances, I remained a helpless fly caught in their spiteful web.

Forgiveness, I have learned, does not mean forgiving what was done, but forgiving only the person. Decades later, I realized that Emily and Linda were, in a way, just as trapped in their own web as I was.  Frightened; angry as all adolescents are angry, they chose to victimize me in order to make themselves feel less vulnerable and more whole.

I wonder how well it worked for them.

I was able, eventually, to forgive Emily and Linda, and in doing so, I moved on. And yet I have finally had the revenge I promised myself all those years ago.

The best revenge, after all, is in living well.

You Dirty Wop!

Having read my post “And Speaking of Prejudice”, about his mother, my grandmother Marie Gregory, my now 88-year-old Dad called me with some memories of his own experiences with anti-Italian bias in the early years of the 20th century.  Unlike Grandma’s, though, Dad’s experiences were, shall we say, a bit more, hmmm, prosaic.

He recalled, for instance, a childhood incident in which a handyman walked into their home on Southern Avenue, chuckling. It seemed that one youngster frequently rode his bike past the house and, if Dad’s father, Charles Sr. (best known as “Pop” or “PopPop”) was out working in the yard, the boy would yell, “Dirty Wop!” as he pedaled past.

This time, though, the situation turned out a bit differently, as witnessed by the handyman..  “Kid,” he told Charles Jr., “your old man just picked up a brick and lobbed it and knocked that little snot right off his bike.”  (Pop was, after all, a fireman, and accustomed to handling heavy equipment accurately!)

Fortunately for my grandfather, it was a less litigious era. At any rate, the boy was apparently undamaged, since he scraped himself and his bike off the pavement and made his escape, never again riding by to scream epithets at PopPop.

Dad had his own encounter with anti-Italian prejudice when, as a sophomore in high school, an older boy chose to repeatedly shove him and repeat the “Dirty Wop!” sentiment. Consultation with his friends resulted in a possible solution to this problem.  It appeared that someone in his crowd knew Big Sal, who, for $25.00, specialized in handling these delicate situations.  In the mid-1940s, $25.00 was a ton of money, of course, but Dad was already working as a soda jerk at the local drugstore and had his own funds.

As it turned out, though, Dad didn’t need to divest himself of all his earnings. The next time he encountered Bully Boy, Dad explained that he was going to send Big Sal and his henchman after him.  Scoffing, the bully decried the idea that Dad even knew anyone named Big Sal, but Dad’s cohorts, eyes widening, backed Dad up. “$12.50 each, for Sal and his helper,” they explained, “and”,  jerking their heads in Dad’s direction, “he works,  he’s got the money.”  Dad further explained that Big Sal specialized in removing those body parts which would ensure that the bully would not be siring future generations of racist morons.

Apparently, this final threat did the trick. A coward, as all bullies are cowards, the moron backed off and never bothered Dad again.

Oddly enough, the druggist for whom Dad worked throughout high school–just as much a part of the Italian-American community as Dad–always greeted him with, “Hey, you dirty Wop!” Dad always replied jovially with the same sentiment–thereby proving (as if proof were needed) that it is not our words themselves that ever have any real meaning; it is the intent with which they are spoken.