For a few reasons, Thanksgiving was weird this year.
Our traditional Thanksgiving meal takes place on the actual Thanksgiving Day in Dallas at my husband’s brother’s house. My mother in-law Eileen died last year, and as a result, the dynamic of the holidays is different. Though my in-laws are still plenty loud, Eileen’s laugh is noticeably missing from the mix. The family dynamic has shifted, but what remains is an intimate gathering of people who are navigating life without the matriarch present.
Eileen was a phenomenal lady, and even in death was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. She willed her body to science, so after a year of being poked and prodded by medical students, a lovely letter of thanks and her remains were sent to my brother in-law. On Thanksgiving Day, Eileen, dressed in a classy velvet black bag, sat atop the end table next to the couch. We toasted her before we started lunch. It reminded me of when I was first dating Tim and his father died, and he returned home after a long drive from Florida and walked up to the house with an urn in his hand and said,
“Amy, this is my stepmother.”
I recall introducing myself, and then laughing because that was a very odd thing to do. I love that my husband’s family handles death in such a matter of fact way. It’s a good thing, because whether we want to believe it or not, we’re all going to end up underground or in an urn or sitting on someone’s end table in a black velvet bag at some point.
Pretty shortly after lunch in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, we hopped back in the car and headed to Tyler where my mother and stepfather live. Our rush to get to their house was to spend time with them before they hopped in the car to drive to Plains, Georgia to see President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School. This pilgrimage was a bucket list item for my mom and stepfather, so we were more than happy to squeeze in a Thursday night at their house before they left town early Friday morning. I love that my parents still share such a spirit of adventure and that when my mom summed up her need to make this trip happen, she simply said, “We need him to comfort us.” On the drive to Georgia, Mom and James drove the freedom road from Selma to Montgomery. For my parents, this is a particularly poignant trip given the current political landscape and the recent resurgence of racism and hatred in our country.
After spending time with my mom and stepfather, we headed to my father and stepmother’s house for a Friday lunch after Thanksgiving. The drive to my father’s house usually includes a lecture where I instruct my husband not to bring up politics. This isn’t easy for us to do, because we are deeply interested and fairly involved in politics in Austin. My husband Tim also enjoys rocking boats, and he loves going up to Dallas and Tyler wearing his big green shirt that has Obama written on it. Instead of it saying, “I heart Obama,” the heart is replaced by a shamrock. It’s a confusing, weird shirt that is basically Tim personified. People don’t get it on any side of the fence. Tim loves that.
One of the weirdest family dynamics ever is that my father and I don’t talk about politics. This should really surprise those of you who know just how much my immediate family talks about politics. When I do bring up politics with my dad, it’s one-sided, and I’m sharing an email with a picture of us with a politician and telling a story of phone-banking or volunteering, but it doesn’t spark a discussion on my dad’s side. The last time we discussed politics, it was my father who gave me the news that I was related to Wendy Davis by marriage. I was thrilled to hear this news because at the time, I was volunteering actively for Wendy’s campaign. Yet, during the course of this conversation, my father didn’t disclose whether he’d be voting for the Republican or the Democratic candidate.
At this point, some of you may be asking the obvious question, “Why don’t you just come right out and ask?”
This is difficult to answer. While I enjoy rocking boats myself, I don’t want to rock my father and stepmother’s boat, because they are people I love dearly. We are different in many ways, but they are my parents and we love each other. So I do some very strange assuming. Also, there’s plenty of other stuff to discuss. Typically, our conversations over the holidays focus on catching up, sports, hearing about my dad and stepmother’s annual road trips, and a lot of dad’s old army stories. Dad’s a terrific storyteller, and the kids love hearing him tell his animated stories about college and the army.
This year, I was determined not to bring up the “T” or the “C” word at Dad’s house. (That’s Trump and Clinton, for those of you following along). Partly I was worried about how much poking of the bear that Tim might do, but also because I just didn’t want to know if my dad and stepmother leaned toward the T side of things.
After lunch, we sat and talked about my parents’ latest road trip. My stepmother is doing some really amazing genealogy work on our families, and my dad began telling a story of being in search of a monument in South Carolina where his great-great-great-great-great grandfather was buried. This led to him telling us about finding the grave of his great-great-great-great grandfather, and during the course of that conversation, he mentioned that this relative was killed for potentially being a Union sympathizer.
This news stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Wait,” I said, “So we’re related to someone who was a Union sympathizer? Do you know if we had family members who owned slaves?”
There wasn’t a definitive answer on this question. I think we all understand that surely our family tree traces back to a time when our relatives owned slaves.
A quick tangent, as it’s important to this story. A few weeks ago, Tim and I went to see “Birth of a Nation.” We were unaware of the controversy behind the main actor, director, and producer, Nate Parker, but we found a remake of “Birth of a Nation” a compelling film to see on one of our rare date nights. Plus, we’re the kind of couple who goes to see “12 Years a Slave” instead of “Iron Man 3.” I won’t give away any of the film, and despite the buzz around Nate Parker, I would strongly recommend that you see it. It’s extremely heavy material, obviously, but once again, compels me as a white woman to consider my history and my position and place in race relations.
When the film ended, Tim went to the restroom and I sat in the lobby, stunned. The movie was the last film to end in the theater that night, so the main lobby lights were down and the concession stand was closed and the place was pretty dark. There are bistro tables at this particular theater, so I parked in one of the seats and began sobbing that kind of uncontrollable sob where you’re gasping for air. I was blown over by the power of the film and once again overwhelmed by the subject matter, just as I was after seeing, “12 Years a Slave.” As I sat, a tall black man walked up to where I was sitting. We were the only two people in the lobby.
“It’s okay, mama,” he said. “It’s okay.”
“I’m just so sorry,” I said through tears. “I just don’t understand how people could do those things. I am so very sorry.”
“We had to go through that to get where we are today,” he said.
I stood up.
“Could I give you a hug?” I asked.
We stood in a dark lobby embracing. Two perfect strangers in a movie theater, hugging like we were long, lost friends handling a heavy history together.
As we pulled apart, the man looked at me and said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” I said.
I know, I know, this is a very weird story. Except it’s not really that unusual for me to hug a complete stranger, and it’s not really even that weird for me to tell a stranger that I love them. I’m a soft, hippy dippy liberal lady. But this was one of my life’s most poignant moments. It doesn’t solve any of the world’s problems. It didn’t stop racism. But for that moment, a black man and a white woman hugged each other after a movie about slavery, and together, perhaps we both moved forward a bit. I don’t really know. What I do know is that for me, that moment was big.
Soon, Tim appeared from the bathroom about the same time the man’s wife (or date, I’m unsure) came out of the women’s restroom. There we were, standing there and I was sobbing, and Tim and the man spoke for a minute while I walked outside to cry some more. In the car on the way home, I told Tim the story, and we were both kind of dumbfounded at the power of the movie and the moments that followed afterwards.
At my Dad’s house, after I asked about our family and ties to Union sympathizers, we talked about slavery, and then my father told a story I had never heard until this weekend. When Dad was a little boy, my grandmother Dorothy hired a black woman to watch my father while my grandfather was working at his barber shop and Granny was working as a nurse. The woman’s name was Bernice. I don’t recall ever hearing about Bernice, but Dad said that one day, he was standing by the screen door and a black woman was walking down the street. Granny was nearby, and watched as Bernice picked up my father and said,
“What’s that out there?” motioning to the black woman walking.
My dad looked at the woman and answered, “That’s another Bernice.”
I think we can assume that Bernice was testing out what my father might say. As my father told the story, I was cringing, worried that my father might have referred to the woman as a number of the terrible words used to describe people who weren’t white.
This is why I describe my Thanksgiving as weird. There’s a strange coating that’s covering all of us following the election where we’re asking questions about racism and tolerance and how we all fit into the picture. There are days when I’m almost drowning in white guilt, especially after I watch a movie about slavery and wonder if I’m a descendant of a slave owner. There are days when I’m awkwardly struggling to talk about race with black women who are angry at white women for the outcome of the election. There are days when I want to become more involved, and when I think that my involvement thus far has meant nothing.
When we drove home yesterday, we stopped at Dairy Queen in Rockdale, Texas, where the black woman behind the counter looked at Tim’s weird green Obama shirt and said, “I Shamrock Obama?” And Tim’s eyes got wide and happy and he began talking about why he wears the shirt. Together, we talked about the election and racism and the white woman working there told us she came from a town where there were no black people.
“Imagine that,” she said, rolling her eyes, standing next to her black female coworker who was nodding in agreement. “But the problem nowadays is that if we keep dividing into ‘this life matters’ and ‘that life matters’, we’ll have a race war on our hands. And whatever we talk about as adults, those kids in the schools are learning it.”
I didn’t have it in me to discuss my thoughts on the BLM movement, because we still had an hour to drive and our Orange Julius’ were melting.
“We’ve just gotta keep talking,” said Tim as we waved goodbye.
The thing I’m the most thankful for this year: We’re still talking. I’m learning that I can have deeper political conversations with some of my relatives than others, but that this year, we moved the needle, if only just a bit. My goal for the remainder of 2016 and moving into 2017 is that we keep on talking. I hope you’ll join me.