Whenever I see someone being racist, one of my first thoughts is always, “Where is this person’s mother?”
I have my mom to thank for that. When Sister and I were kids, Mom had three big rules:
- Don’t lie to me
- Come home when I tell you to
- Treat everyone with respect
Mom allowed a bit of wriggle room with the first two. As a proper southern lady, Mom knew that there was lying and then there was simply telling people only what they needed to know. As the mother of two headstrong kids, she also knew that curfew was best treated as a matter of negotiation (though, once the negotiation was had and the time set, god help you if you were even forty-five seconds late). But treat anyone with disrespect? It was never up for discussion. You simply did not do it.
I remember when “Roots” was on TV in 1977, Mom made Sister and I discuss each episode at the dinner table. She would ask questions about what we had seen, why we thought things were ever that way, and she would explain that things still weren’t as they should be. Always, she would end by saying, “Do not ever let me hear of you treating anyone with disrespect. We are all the same.” Now, I imagine some people might focus more on justice or equality or fairness. Mom believes in all those things, but to her, fundamental to everything, is the idea of treating everyone with respect (note to the president: I don’t think Mom is an antifa agent).
Over the years, I have watched Mom live her words. Sometimes by being subversive, like when she used to routinely scoop all the anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-anyone-but-straight/white/Republican/Southern Baptist propaganda off the welcome table at her church. Sometimes by just walking away, as she eventually did from her church and her friends who, Mom painfully came to realize, had no intention of living up to her creed. And sometimes by taking on a cause that seemed too impossible, like when Mom took it upon herself to change the racist ways of her good ol’ boy, ex-cop, very racist second husband. “It took me about eighteen years,” she told me when he died,”but I was determined that he would not die a racist.”
He did not.
Mom still lives her words today, even from assisted living.
Last year around the holidays, I got a call from Sunrise, where Mom lives. It was the director of assisted living.
“Miss Barb had an altercation with another resident,” she said.
“Mom?” I said, “Are you sure? Mom’s not really the ‘altercation’ type.”
“Well,” the director continued, “apparently during lunch just now, your mom didn’t like the way another resident was treating staff. She thought the resident was being disrespectful.”
When I heard that, I knew. “Oh,” I said, “yeah, treating people with respect is kinda a big deal to Mom.”
The director continued, “Well, apparently the resident kept calling one of our staff members a not very nice name. When Miss Barb heard it, she looked over and said, ‘You need to close your mouth now.’ When the resident asked Miss Barb what she had just said, your mom pushed her chair back, turned to face her and said, ‘You know exactly what I said. Don’t make me come over there and repeat it.'”
“How do you know this?” I asked. “Were you downstairs for lunch?”
“Oh no,” the director explained, “Miss Barb came up and told me herself. I tell you, I’ve never seen someone use a walker to push a door open so hard. I talked to her, thanked her for telling me, but explained that she can’t go around policing other residents’ behavior. I thought maybe you could talk with her, too.”
“I will,” I said, “but I gotta tell you, Mom doesn’t like it when people are disrespectful to each other. If you don’t get this handled, she’ll do this again.”
“That’s exactly what Miss Barb said,” the director confirmed. “She told us we had til dinner to fix things.”
Why am I telling you this story?
Because as America once again erupts in simultaneous rage at and denial of its racist roots, I think a lot of us can learn from my mom. You see, not all of us are protesters. Not all of us are going to go to a Black Lives Matter meeting or even share #BLM on our social media feeds. Not all of us are going to sign up for campaign to defeat Donald Trump or go to a community meeting on police reform.
But all of us can take action where we live. Whether it’s the church where we worship, the dining rooms where we gather or the dining tables where we raise our kids and share our marriage.
All of us
Can treat each other
Because it’s the right thing to do. And because my mother says so.
The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.