My own family, thanks to mom and dad, contrasted sharply with these experiences. Mom and dad weren't militant in any sense. Even during the civil rights movement in the '60s, they were quietly unprejudiced, but not really trying to change the world outside their family. But they were sure determined that their own children would not be raised as unthinking racists. We kids saw this through their actions. Some of mom's actions I remember:
- Gertrude Ames was the mom in the black family that were tenants on our farm. I remember mom swapping cooking tips and recipes with Gertrude, entrusting Gertrude with babysitting us (including my youngest brother as an infant), and just generally treating her exactly as she would any other woman. It's not so much that mom did anything special with Gertrude, it's that she didn't.
- One of my friends in junior high school was a classmate named Matthew G. who lived a mile or so from our house, along a back road. I had been over to Matt's house a number of times before he ever came over to ours. On that first visit of his, my mom invited him in to have lunch with us. Matt's family was Jewish, and they kept kosher at his home – so the lunch my mom had prepared, with sandwiches and milk, Matt knew he couldn't eat. He was very embarrassed, literally turning red. Mom gently asked him if she could call his mom to find out what he could eat, which made Matt feel better – and then she called Matt's mom and got the first lesson in her life on making a kosher meal. Her good-humored and open-minded approach soon had both Matt and his mom laughing, and it wasn't long before the mom's came up with an acceptable meal for Matt, served on paper plates and in disposable cups. We kids saw that mom didn't care if he was Jewish, that she respected his religion's beliefs, and had no problem with accommodating them to the extent she could. Something that made a particular impression on me was how easy it was to talk something like that dietary conflict out with an equally open adult (Matt's mom).
- When I was perhaps 7 or 8 years old, someone knocked on our door on Halloween evening. We didn't get a lot of trick-or-treaters, but we did get a few most years, and mom always had some nice treats ready. On the occasion I am remembering, when we opened the door there were three cute little kids in homemade costumes (the norm back then!) on the porch, and a teen-aged girl just behind keeping an eye on them. All of them were strangers to us, all of them were black, and when my mom opened the door, the girl immediately started to round the kids up to leave. Mom then said something like “Now which kind of treats would you like?”, making it clear as could be that they were welcome to choose some treats out of the bowl she was holding out. There was some hesitation, but then the kids came shyly forward and picked out some stuff while the girl looked uncomfortable and worried. Mom was being as nonthreatening, cheerful, and smiley as she could possibly be. Finally the kids left, and even the girl had a tentative smile. Mom shut the door, sat down, and started crying. My dad heard her, and came in to find out what was wrong. I remember her saying how awful it was that these little kids would think they couldn't come to our house on Halloween just because they were colored (that was the then-proper term). This incident sticks in my memory, I'm sure, because I started asking questions about what was going on – and both mom and dad tried their best to explain racial prejudice to me. That's a surprisingly hard concept to get across to a naive kid with no experience of it.
I'm so very thankful that I was raised by parents that set such a fine example of racial and religious harmony. My life would have been much poorer had I instead been taught to fear and loath those different than myself...
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