I have a picture from my childhood where I am on the front porch with my grandparents, who look as if they may be auditioning for the Beverly Hillbillies. The picture is hilarious in its own right, but my mom once joked that it looked like the Steve Martin movie, The Jerk, in reverse, which makes it even funnier. As a child, I loved visiting my grandparent’s farm. I didn’t really know that running around barefoot, shelling peas on the porch, and riding around in the back of my PaPa’s old, red pickup truck made us “country as a dozen eggs,” as my friend Sylvia would say. I also didn’t know that my grandparents, who seemed to think I hung the moon, were racists. I’m sure if either of them were still alive they would recoil at me describing them this way. The fact is, though, they liked that their small town, for all intents and purposes, remained segregated long after the Civil Rights Movement ended. And while there were many reasons for them to dislike my dad on his own merit, the fact that he was black was enough for them.
I never talked to my grandparents about race or my identity or how strange it felt to be non-white in a white family. I would like to say that my presence in their lives changed them in some way, made them more tolerant and accepting of others. And in some ways it did, I’m sure, but when I look back now, I think my race was overlooked more than embraced. My grandmother once told me about an encounter she had with a cute child in Wal-Mart. She told me the little girl was black, then she said, “No, she wasn’t black, she was about your color.” I wish I would have asked what she meant by that, but I think part of me was afraid to hear the answer. I was too afraid to ever ask either of them anything about race; I couldn’t risk hearing from the people I loved most in the world that there may have been something they found unacceptable about me.
This past week I was in Illinois visiting my cousin. We love each other to pieces, although our experiences of growing up could not have been more opposite. The thing we did share in childhood was our intense love for our grandparents, a love that was returned to us with such fervor that it almost feels like it couldn’t have been real. When my cousin and I are together, we can’t help but talk about our grandparents. We talk about how sweet and quiet our grandfather was and how our grandmother never stopped talking or cooking. We love laughing over the absurdity of our grandmother’s “green room” that was added onto their home, its sole purpose having been to provide space for her deep freezers, shelves for all of the food she canned, and her enormous collection of Harlequin Romance novels.
Just as I avoided discussing race with my grandparents, I don’t talk about it with my cousin. This time, though, it’s not out of fear so much as it’s feeling like I just don’t need to. My cousin accepts me wholly and completely and doesn’t care at all who my dad is. I am aware of how differently things could have gone with my family. They could have rejected me outright and I am grateful they were better than that. I like to think my grandparents could have done better on the racial front, but I believe they probably did the best they could and I suppose that’s what matters most.