Family Histories: LOSS OF A PATRIARCH

 Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today ANNIKA PERRY shares poignant memories of her strong but kind fisherman grandfather.

LOSS OF A PATRIARCH

The humid heat radiates around the room as the bright summer sun glares through the wispy cotton curtains. Sleeping bodies are sprawled on the beds, sheets cast aside or crumpled in a heap. The day has arrived. I lay wide-awake. Just thinking; thinking of the day and trying to feel. Trying to feel anything but hot. How pathetic on this day of all days to concentrate on my own selfish needs. I am alive and can enjoy the beauty of sensation, thought, sight. Yes, I am alive. And where is Morfar?

I remember him alive: his teasing, his laughter, the passionate discussions. The interesting chats about world affairs and events closer to home. The mealtimes that ended up resembling global conferences, punctuated with the occasional clanging thump on the table with his big hand as he emphasised a particular point.

fishingHe’d been hard at work for most of his 92 years. Fingers lately swollen and gnarled, but incredibly strong all the same and once in its vice-like grip, my puny fingers didn’t stand a chance. Rue the day the giant crab took Morfar’s thumb in its claw and held. You never had a chance Mr Crab! Morfar’s patience far outlasted yours and sorry, I am sure you were a most delicious dinner – for those who like crustaceans!

Slowly I stand up and pad about the room, take a quick refreshing shower and by six I am dressed in shorts and T-shirt heading outside. The beauty of the day strikes me immediately; it is so quiet, calm and just the right temperature. Everything is sparkling in the brightest clearest hues. The blue sea is still and peaceful. Walking down to the harbour I see a fishing boat heading back in. On many such mornings and many stormy ones too no doubt, Morfar steered his vessel into the harbour. Once he had off-loaded the catch, sorted the nets and cleaned the boat he’d come home for breakfast. Often I would just be awake and at the table munching away on Mormor’s homemade bread and drinking my chocolate milk. All bright and breezy he would come up via the cellar, washing first before greeting me with a teasing “Good Afternoon!” The conversation would be fast and at times incomprehensible as the morning’s catch was discussed; the number of crabs, other fishes, market price. I kept my fingers crossed hoping it had been a good day. After breakfast, as I sauntered to get dressed and ready, Morfar would be out fixing the nets.

I sit down on a bench looking out to the island where he had lived all his life. The blue bridge, which connects the oasis to the neighbouring island, now brings modern life and its opportunities as well as problems that much closer. On the untouched southerly point the rocks ripple in colours of greys and pinks with yellow flowers taking hold in the tiny cracks whilst heathers grow abundantly in the shallow dips, their purple a delicate and beckoning welcome. The two lighthouses guide the way to ships at night. How many times had I climbed those rocks? The same rocks my Mamma grew up on and the same rocks Morfar and his friends clambered.

Wasn’t Morfar just that? A rock: A patriarch to a large family of five children, 19 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren and increasing. He was infinitely wise, but always humbly so. Praise was only offered at one’s peril; unwelcome and brusquely brushed aside and a new topic quickly introduced.

These thoughts are going through my mind this summer morning, as anything else seems too grim in this tranquil haven.

I recall the smell of Mormor’s fresh bread filling the house, as I’d quickly dash downstairs to see if I could scrounge some before lunch. I shudder at the memory of the fish odour in the boat, the sight of crabs in the wooden boxes scrabbling to escape, the sensation of bile in my throat as the fishing boat bobbed slowly but sickeningly in the waves as Morfar hauled up the nets. Ever so slowly it seemed to me. Please hurry up, I’d mutter. He’d looked at me surprised, amused at the thought of rushing the act of fishing. I know I wasn’t a natural sailor, but thank you for showing me your world.

Thank you God for reuniting Mormor and Morfar; thank you for letting them be together again. A thought I cling to for the rest of the day, a phrase repeated by many and the only possibility that brings any sense to this madness. That Morfar is no longer with us. Even now, in black and white, the words are too nonsensical.

Morfar is here. He is at home, just back from the net-making factory after doing some work and having a good chin-wag with the chaps down there during morning coffee. Often he jokingly referred to these friends as ‘babies, well most of them were 20 years younger! Whilst eating the homemade cakes, Morfar would start discussions with “well, chaps, what arewe going to talk about today?” Later at the funeral, these warm kind friends brought me to tears as they spoke with such love of my Morfar.

Resigned that I could not stop the day, I head back to the hotel to get ready. Mundane life continues as we prepare to say farewell.

Outside the heat blasts like a furnace. At least in dresses and shawls, us women don’t swelter too much, the men in suits do, however no one complains.

In near silence we drive to the island, first across the bridge. This time the usual tummy butterflies of excitement fail to greet me, instead heavy dullness crashes onto my heart. Cope with this minute, then the next; that mantra is how I struggle through the day. 

The changes on the island are more striking than ever. The newly built houses and marina greet us where before the rolling rocks stretched to the water. The hill up and over to the centre of the island remains the same, as is the tree-lined lane up to Morfar’s house. We pass his house and home. We don’t stop. No, this is all wrong. So wrong. After what feels like an eternity, we finally arrive at the cafe by the old harbour. There is his boat. Not that he has been on it for the past year but it was his. The past tense angers me. Clip-clopping on our high heels we meander along the wooden quay. The sailing boats bobbing rhythmically, children running past playfully, a couple sipping coffee in the shade.  

Our dignified group takes a seat in the shade, the choir rehearsing in the cafe adding certain pathos to the day. The café which used to be a net making factory built by my grandmother’s father and where Morfar used to moor the big trawler and off load the nets, all spread along the wooden pier to dry before repair could begin. History, I’m surrounded by living history. Morfar, I know you are no longer with us, but oh, you are so very much all around us, inside us. Never gone.

The silent morning is broken by a few disjointed mournful utterances. Silence dominates. The crying air is deafening. What is there to say? A few practical points are addressed. Toilet stop. Shoes. Where best to sit. Sun? Shade? Then once again silence.

A smart group walks purposefully towards us along the quay and I realise it’s my brother and his family. I see the resolution in my brother’s eyes. I feel it. To get through this day and not to be too emotional or he will crack. I understand. 

Memories of our last visit to Morfar and our goodbye come to mind. Leaning against the kitchen counter Morfar once again said goodbye. Just before he had given my son the biggest longest hug. The two of them squeezing each other like there was no tomorrow. My son engulfed by this huge man and his love for his great-grandchild. My son who loved and respected his great-grandfather so much. His ultimate hero. Their greatness and goodness so alike. Holding him out, Morfar looked at my son and my little man returned the warm thoughtful gaze. A farewell hug to last a lifetime. Morfar hugged with me with strength and depth, yet I sensed his inner weakness, his frailty. It was not commented on, but definitely noticeable; his appetite was near non-existent and he seemed in constant pain. Subconsciously I wondered whether we would we see him again – a thought I immediately dismissed.

It was hard leaving him after our wonderful days together. We all had such fun, joviality and laughter and felt closer than ever. A journey of discovery had been undertaken and completed with a quiet resolution. Everything felt right.

The gleaming white church stands on the hill, towering over the park and gardens. The beautiful gardens created by the fishermen over 50 years ago and tended by them and their wives. A few years ago a moment of insanity drove the local council to rip up the fragrant border of pink wild roses and replace it with a plain white picket fence.

I walk towards my three fishermen cousins, who live on the island with their families and were particularly close to Morfar; they are already red-eyed and totally inconsolable. No words are exchanged. Just hugs. Us grandchildren are self-conscious and self-aware in our grief. Looking around I notice Mamma talking warmly to her siblings, father’s friends, to her cousins, sharing tears and hugs. So natural and right. We have a lot to learn.

The bright light outside throws the foyer into a gloomy darkness. Or is it just my soul? We wait. As always we are early. Then it time and the door to the main church opens.

A glorious warm light strikes us and I spot the beams up to the high vaulted ceilings. White and wood. Wood. There he lays in the light wood coffin surrounded by a variety of flowers with the anchor, designed by Mamma ,in white and blue flowers, resting at its feet. The coffin. The reason we are here and yet again I feel anger and a sense of finality. 

A single angelic voice radiates around the room and tears at our hearts. The first verse is the serene acappella of ‘Amazing Grace’ then the soft tones of instruments are layered with the voice and finally, the soul-wrenching choir comes in; it is heavenly and moving beyond words. Here is our release. Mamma, at last, cries her heart out. Most are moved to tears and beyond. It is as if the song never wants to end. No, don’t stop, I want to cry out. This is enough. Just let us sit here, listen to this ethereal infinity and feel. Alas the song ends, now we are all shaken to the core.

The service ranges from the everyday to the deeply touching. The talk of Morfar ‘going home’ seems fine the first time. I can relate to the imagery here. But the numerous repetitions drive me to distraction. “He had a lovely warm home,” I want to stand up and shout at the top of my lungs. A home built into the hard granite rocks that he helped blow up and haul by hand up the hill, a white wooden house with lots of steps. He had his chair right where it should be, in front of the TV and don’t you dare come and disturb him now, it’s time for the news. A home he lived in for 67 years. It is his home; rock solid, waiting for him, now so lonely and sad.

At one stage people come to the front and say a few words. At this point I collapse in tears as one of his friends recalls Morfar and some of their good times. He paints such a true picture of the man, his life and vitality that I expect Morfar to walk through the door with a funny teasing comment. Even his grand age becomes the subject of his wit as at lunch one day Morfar commented that he had been told he was now officially the oldest person on the island. As silence descended, everyone was unsure what to add, Morfar filled the gap with a sardonic, “And that is not always a good thing!”

 The choir consists mainly of Mamma’s cousins, singing some beautiful songs, some of his favourites and some I remember Mormor singing as she cleaned, baked, cooked.

Suddenly I am at their house, transported away from the church. Mormor bending down to the living room floor and giving it a loud couple of knocks with her knuckles. Ouch, that must have hurt. Morfar downstairs in the cellar, busy with the nets and as usual he’d failed to hear her initial call down the stairs that lunch was ready. She’d asked me to knock on the floor but was unimpressed with my quiet feeble efforts and so had come over to sort the job herself as usual; she was always so efficient and fast in all her actions. After lunch Morfar would lay down on that very same floor, just a cushion under his head and rest for 20 minutes whilst we, the grandchildren, would have fun jumping over him to see if he woke, or reacted at all, but to no avail.

The service is drawing to an end. Despite my earlier inner predictions that someone would faint from heat exhaustion we are all still very much alert.

The night before we had written little notes to place on the coffin. At the time we thought we might feel self-conscious leaving them there, but no, how wrong we were. We walk respectfully past, we all pause for a moment, place our notes carefully under some flowers or ribbons, bid our inner goodbyes.

Soon it is time to leave the church. With resolve my brother and five of my cousins move to the front and take their place by Morfar’s coffin. Eighteen years ago he was one of six to lift Mormor’s coffin onto their shoulders and carry her out to the hearse. Handles this time, but I wonder, what is he feeling? He is never a man to speak easily of emotions, if at all, I am troubled for my brother. He has, literally, had so many burdens to bear.

The bells toll ever so slowly, so mournfully and resonate with sorrow and loss; echoing the moment and all our emotions. Later, we walk towards the grave and see Morfar’s coffin laid out on slats, placed above the hole. My brother once again, along with our cousins, takes the weight of the coffin as the slats are removed and lower it slowly to his final resting place. I know this would soon be it, our final farewell to Morfar.  

A few more words are said by the priest – reiterating once again the phrase of  ‘going home’, a song is sung and people step forward for one last farewell. I have said mine and so remain back. My brother and his family step forward and I hear a gentle clang. Oh yes, the stone from the island picked by my nephew the day before. How perfect to throw it down and leave forever a fragment of the island with Morfar. Perfect cosmic balance.

I lift my head and gaze across the blue sea with its sparkling dance as ripples of diamond light reflect on the water. There you are Morfar. My eyes move to the rocks and trees. I can feel you Morfar. Quickly I glance up at the sunlit sky. Yes, you are there too. Not in that deep dark hole. Most of all, you will live forever in our hearts. Missing you forever, the earthly human contact now gone and mourned, but you are still here. Reunited with your beloved wife and lifetime companion, reunited with your long-lost parents, seeing your brothers and sisters once again. You are with them as well as with us. 

Hope the fishing is good Morfar, catch lots of crabs won’t you and look out for that thumb! Who knows, you might meet your match one day in the form of a very patient huge crab!

 

©Annika Perry

 

Judy Collins – Amazing Grace

 

Hungry for more? Here is a piece about Annika’s GRANDMOTHER

And another about the FISHERMEN of old.

 

 forget me not promo

Adoption

“The old time blacks,” wrote James Thomas, “never used to take much stock in the ‘Yaller’ Nigger. They called him ‘No Nation,’ ‘a Mule,’ ‘yaller hammer.’” *

Mulattoes under slavery were in a tight spot. Often times a master’s half-white children were brought in as house slaves. Some were educated and some were eventually given their freedom.  ANDREW WARD suggests in his book DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE that some women slaves submitted to their masters for the very reason that their children might be seen differently and treated better—but by whom? Their skin betrayed to all that tribal lines had been crossed.

Darker slaves saw themselves as superior blacks with pure blood.

They even admired their masters for keeping the races pure. We can only imagine what white mistresses thought about their husbands’ liaisons (or what fathers thought when their daughters eloped with black slaves).  Yet even light blacks expressed certain stereotypes. “Some folks say that when a ‘Nigger’ is so black he just naturally mean.”*

Ward tells of a Jubilee Singer’s lineage, one so full of halves and fulls, of slaves and whites, we are met with again the notion that race, color and stereotypes are never simple things.

We do judge books by their covers. We all do. I do.

This summer my (soon to be adopted) “low-functioning” daughter and I sat waiting at the station with my two “normal” teenagers who were taking a bus south (to New Jersey). A young man about twenty interrupted our good-natured bickering about money for snacks for the bus.

You know that feeling of slight annoyance when someone asks for change and they seem to be pouring on the gratitude a bit thick?

In truth we were looking for change for the vending machine and the young man in wrinkled clothes was looking for a dollar bill. We did an even exchange and after profusely thanking us he walked off.

The bus was late.

Saratoga Springs Station is a quiet place. I like eavesdropping and people watching. I’d made up my mind that the rough-around-the-edges young man now grubbing a cigarette from the obviously university educated man about the same age was the type to find trouble. I cringed at the way the university guy gave over a cigarette with faint disgust.

Yet something about the young smoker cursing up a storm now and pacing as he spoke on an old phone to a family member in Pittsburgh mesmerized me.

From what I could catch the young man was dead broke. He had a 24 hour layover somewhere west, and he looked rake thin. Maybe because I felt a tad guilty for judging him, after we saw my teenagers off, I slipped the smoker some money (I say this not to brag of my generosity for I’d just spent a good thirty minutes eavesdropping and judging). Now when this sort of thing happens my tendency is to never make eye contact. I’m shy and don’t like intimate encounters, but for some reason our eyes met and the young man cried.

I mumbled something about God loving him or something (I NEVER do this) but felt even though I was in a hurry to move on that he needed some basic inspiration and this is what popped into my head.

My girl and I walked to the car. We sat in the car mulling things over. The good thing about “low functioning” people is sometimes they just cut to the chase. My girl said, “You feel it too, don’t you? We should go back.”

I turned the key in the ignition. “No. What would we say? No, we did what we could.” We drove around the parking lot three times. I kept hoping the kid would be gone but there he sat, now with his head in his hands, shoulders shaking.

“God wants us to go back!” my kid kept saying with urgency.

I will admit that by now after having met the young man’s eyes my entire perception of him changed. As we lingered at the exit before a stop sign I was compelled to turn around, park and with pounding heart and red face walk up to the man who I now noted had a bruised face.

My girl looked up to me for words. I stumbled around a bit but finally said, “Okay, so you may think we’re freaks but something . . .” I looked at my girl. “Well, you see, we think God wants us to sit with you for a while.”

I waited for him to tell us to back off. He didn’t. He told us his life story. He told us his mother abandoned him to foster care where he spent days locked up in a room without food. My kid told him she’d experienced the very same thing.

Imagine a little girl and a full grown man crying over past hurts.

It was obvious from the man’s story that he’d made some mistakes in life with so little guidance and so little love. He’d moved from his grandfather’s house a while back for a good job in construction. After a falling out with his boss and a night spend drinking his unemployment news away, someone mugged him. Only moments ago he’d called his sister begging for her to meet him  somewhere only to be told his grandfather had just died but they’d had no way of contacting  him. The phone he had called her from had been borrowed.

Okay so some of you reading this may be thinking the guy was just a storyteller. But to me it was this incredible God moment. We prayed together (again, I’m pretty private about my prayer life but there was this compulsion—something beyond myself, beyond my girl, too). The man mentioned he read the Bible hardly ever (I mean, who really does?).

My girl, only a year from the mental ward where we were told she had no hope and that she’d spend her life a zombie, ran back to the car.

I had told her to bring a book to read in the car because sometimes she just talks and talks and talks. I get peevish when this happens. She ran up to us breathlessly and handed the man named William her raggedly little Children’s Bible someone had given her long before I knew her.

This man William  (I hope he’s doing well) was tanned from outdoor work. My girl was pale white from the hospital and group home and I was freckled. But for a brief moment we were all the same.

Quotes from DARK MIDNIGHT WHEN I RISE

Related: WHAT IT REALLY COSTS TO FOLLOW JESUS

  ADOPTING FROM FOSTER CARE

 

Testimony Farm

I shoot an envious glance towards this house every morning on the way to our foster girl’s school. The house has an elegant sign out front “Testimony Farm.” I can’t help but wonder about testimonies. The great thing about stories of calling or faith or redemption in public testimonies is that they have beginnings, middles and endings. Like this house everything appears tidy and finished. Of course it’s an illusion. Termites work, people die and houses crumble, but still . . . there is a longing for enduring testimonies that offer the assurance that one day we will be complete and all will be well with our souls.

Last night  our foster daughter (M) and I went on our bi-weekly sibling visit. M’s sisters were adopted only recently but we all knew it was coming and on this particular visit the sisters saw fit to make M feel how lucky they were and, by contrast, how sad they were for her. Kids do this to each other. One sibling emphasized the word “MOM” every time she spoke with her foster/new mom before turning to M to ask her if she was all right because it looked as though she might cry. M refused to be goaded.

As we sat in a quiet McDonald’s (because where else is there to take three young girls on a dark Monday night in Upstate New York) the girls repeatedly brought up their impending trip to Disney. “Wouldn’t you like to come with us, M?” one asked knowing it was impossible and seemed sort of gleeful about it. M let it slide.

As the adults chatted about watercolor paintings and anniversaries the girls laughed and joked. They sang made up songs to amuse each other until the youngest tugged her new mother’s sleeve and pulled her aside. “M said something inappropriate.”

I was pulled aside then. It seemed that M had made up a song about throwing babies in the trash. “Okay,” I said, “M often has a less than funny sense of humor and it’s usually related to anvils falling on people’s heads and car wrecks.”

The little girl peeked from behind her new mother. “M said she wanted to throw our new foster baby in the trash,” she whispered.

I didn’t believe her. Yeah, throwing a fictional baby in the trash isn’t a fantastic place to go with your jokes, but M spoke quite fondly of the new foster baby in her sisters’ family. I  went to M who sat watching the weather on the TV.

“Did you say you wanted to throw a baby in the trash?”

M said, “Yes. It was a joke in a song . . .” a look of panic flashed across her face as she glanced at her sister.

The sister’s new mom stepped in. “M, your sister says you wanted to put this baby in the trash . . .”

“No! She’s lying!”

The dinner ended abruptly, but as we walked to our cars the girls made sure to mention Disney one last time.

M stared after them as we pulled out of the parking lot and waved. They didn’t wave back. They didn’t see her.

I waited for M to say something. It came like a torrent. “Why do they get to go to Disney while we take care of stupid goats? I didn’t say I wanted to put a real baby in the trash and how come they look so pretty and I’m like trash? Everyone hates me at school and I try to be nice and they think I’m trash too. And my sisters hate my real mom and I love her even though she did bad things and why can’t you guys just adopt me already?” The talk went in long circles between sobs.

I said, “Well, M, I love you and don’t think you’re trash–it’s why I help you brush your hair in the morning.”

“Yeah, I know you love me, but no one else does!” More sobs. She settled down for a second. “But . . . when you get mad at me –when I do something–I think you might–you know–send me away and hate me–like trash.”

Trash was the word of the night.

We got home and M returned from her room after getting ready for bed. She was holding an mp3 player we bought her when she still lived at the group home. “I have this thing . . . and I’m afraid to tell you . . . but I recorded words I’m ashamed of and everyone’s gonna think I’m trash. The lady at the shelter said I should let out all my sexy thoughts–like what my mom did. I can’t get rid of the thoughts.”

“Wait, do you mean in your head or on the mp3 player?” I asked.

“Well, on the mp3 player which makes me think about it all.”

My husband sat reading about the CUBS. “Here, M, give me the player.” In about 2 seconds he figured out how to delete the offensive recordings. “All gone,” he said and tossed the thing back. ” Let’s just keep music on it from now on, okay?”

M nodded gratefully.

My husband of little words continued, “Oh, by the way. You do realize there’s no turning back. I spoke to your case worker and the lawyer. The adoption is a done deal–just waiting for the paperwork.”

M covered her face and went to her room with her dog eagerly at her heels. We listened as she goofed around with the dog before falling asleep.

Today was M’s last visit with the psychiatrist. “I don’t see any reason for M to come anymore now that she’s off the meds. I see a bright future for her. One that I never would have forecasted looking at her paperwork. I guess it was meant to be,” the doctor said. “Please let me know when the adoption goes through. M told me before you walked in that she loves you and your husband and that you love her so I’m done here.”

And there’s my testimony (for the moment).

 

 

Inducement: A Bedtime Story

“I was thinking about killing you. With a knife,” the little girl says.

“Really. Hmm,” I reply.

“NO, I mean I’m not really going to kill you. You’re a sweet person, but if I did kill you (with a knife) would you be in the hospital or dead?” she asks, flipping the pages of the story book we were reading.

“Well, first off, I’d never let you kill me, but let’s just say you did. I don’t know where I’d be, but you’d be in jail.”

Her eyes widen. “But kids don’t go to jail.”

“Yeah, they do. Juvenile detention is one place they go. So it’s really your choice. You could live with us where everyone loves each other or you could become a killer every time someone doesn’t give you a 5th brownie and land in jail with other kid killers.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, I would never kill you anyway.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so because then we couldn’t be friends–obviously. And you’d have no chance with Grant from Kid’s Bop because he seriously wouldn’t date a killer,” I point out.

The little girl mulls it over. “Adrienne, I think I see what your saying. Can we go to the library tomorrow and  maybe to Starbucks and I can get one of those cupcakes–you know the red ones . . .”

“Red velvet?”

“Yeah, because I really love them. Didn’t we have fun the last time?”

“Yes.”

The little girl flips the pages again (we’d need to work on her handling of library books). “My mom tried to kill my sisters and I had to protect them. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I heard something about it.”

“She kept our heads underwater in the bath tub and once she taped me to a chair and covered my mouth with silver tape and left me for days. I had to break free to go to the bathroom in the closet.”

I have nothing to say.

“So Adrienne, you know I love you and I would never hurt you. Did I upset you?”

“No, not really. I think I get where you’re coming from. But it’s safe here. See, we covered the windows so the wolves won’t get you, and there’s the dog lying there to protect you. Now what do you do if you’re scared during the night?”

The little girl sighs, plugs in her mp3 player and says, “I’ll knock on your door.”

 

**INDUCEMENT: With no words required, one person sets up a situation to make another person feel just what that first person feels.

Books I’ve Known and Loved

51HDcX+wyqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I sat across from a handsome and earnest white college classmate in an artsy cafe near NYU after our Minorities in the Media class listening to him struggle with his “white guilt” for if he didn’t struggle with this and express how terribly sorry he was for happenings hundreds of years ago or last year that he had nothing to do with the class would erupt as a mob to shut up anything else he had to say. We’d both witnessed the shout-downs when another braver student (also white and male) questioned the historical accuracy or the basic logic of some of the theories put forth by the professor and other students. We noted the almost gleeful look on the professor’s face when things turned ugly. So much for a safe place to explore ideas.

My friend actually said something like this: “You’re so lucky you’re a woman because you have an in with everyone else who feels victimized. None of my struggles matter because they’re not race or gender based.”

I probably agreed with him. I’d found the path to good grades–stick in the race and gender classes and avoid the history classes (too hard and lots of reading). At the time I will confess  my only real interest in college was to avoid work and meet handsome guys.

I’m glad I’m not a slave. Who isn’t? I watched the movie adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave through jaundiced eyes–it was Hollywood after all. I’d heard people rave about a certain whipping scene, but when it arrived on the screen I was already so uneasy about the movie that Patsey’s pain (and Solomon’s) barely fazed me and here’s why: the movie felt like nothing more than a dressed up “torture porn” extravaganza. There was not a single penetrating insight, not a single honest glimpse into the complexities of the characters or the time in which they lived. The actors tried very hard and I appreciated that but there was no soul. Watch Glory for soul and beauty. Anyone remember the mixed feelings, the horror and the humanity of that whipping scene?

But this is not a debate about whipping scenes in movies.

I don’t believe in collective generational guilt. If body shaming and gender shaming are bad then so is white shaming. Sorry MTV but I see through your transparent attempt at race baiting. It’s actually kind of pathetic and a distraction–as was 12 Years a Slave the movie. Should we still hold Jews and Romans accountable for the death of Jesus? Should we hold a young black girl from Harlem accountable for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide based on skin color? Have we Americans fallen under such easy manipulation?

Here’s why we need to look at heroes and read memoirs instead of watching corporate productions which rarely get things right:

Solomon Northrup’s memoir is alive with contradiction, nuance and humanity. He’s honest enough and sure enough of the wrong that has been done to him to not need to embellish. He doesn’t have to make broad generalizations. Solomon can allow for loving one master and hating  another. Solomon struggles with mixed emotions and shares even feelings we find almost impossible to understand today: “During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as fellow mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.”

In no way am I saying I condone slavery. What Solomon offers in his book is more than a laundry list of bad men doing bad things. He manages to capture the evil of a system without losing his ability to judge people as individuals caught in that system–some are basically decent  and some are horrible.

For centuries Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. What did that persecution achieve? Gas chambers. What does white shaming achieve? Picking at old wounds leads only to infections not cures.

As we watch young white boys and girls worry about how their lives offend everyone, real slavery goes on. Men are abducted and kept as slaves on fishing boats for decades, women and children are taken as sex slaves. THEIR STORIES are so similar to Solomon’s it’s shocking. 

220px-Robert_Gould_ShawI question the timing of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. Where GLORY offered an inspiring (and true) story about overcoming prejudice and sacrificing even life for higher ideals, 12 Years seeks to inflame indignation and hatred.

Wounds and pain exist for everyone on this planet. Only the rare person (and I’ve never met one) escapes suffering and struggle. Slavery is not a black issue only. It’s a human issue. Life and death, love and hate, forgiveness and whatever–we are human–even white kids.

“‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”

Books I’ve Known And Loved

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If you imagine, based on your high school American history class, that reconstruction was a bore-fest, think again. John William De Forest brings the reader on a trip to Greenville, South Carolina and introduces us to the colorful characters (black and white) he dealt with as an agent of the Freedman’s Bureau. There’s no whitewashing, no PC language, no modern sociological studying here–just one decent man’s appraisal of a bad (sometimes funny) situation. Here is yet another white man with compassion, intelligence and humor. It’s fun to see how a northerner felt about his southern brethren as well as some of the fairer sex.

Tasty tidbit.

Tasty tidbit.

As an interesting aside De Forest is thought responsible for the phrase “the great American novel.”

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