There is more to a person’s legacy than diamonds and pearls, although seeing those valued trinkets passed down the generations does warm my heart. My mother’s real legacy is her reminder to stand back up after one has fallen into tough years, and not with her words, but with her actions through all those tough years. It is easier to reminisce about carefree summers on the beach or raising a hopeful glass on New Year’s Eve than admit to harsher seasons, but recalling how my mother navigated with 4 teenagers plus 2 younger children, a husband who was intently searching for a way out of his own angst, all amidst the turbulent 1960’s, those years show what tough really looks like. We didn’t have an easy time of it. She most of all. Family photos reveal more about the unseen than anticipated. But never did she stop believing that we would make it through to a sunnier day.
The jumbled 1960’s and even the ragged 70’s have been glamorized by films and novels beyond recognition, but in our household, those two decades turned everything my parents previously believed into something radical. Something broken. There were no benchmarks on which to rest during those years. Every word was challenged, in our homes and along the sidewalks, in office buildings and places of worship, anywhere people gathered for discourse. Strife ruled our front pages. Children questioned facts. Dissidence filtered celebrations. Change a constant. Thankfully voices emerged to guide us out of the darkness. A few bright lights within a fast and furiously changing world. History sparked each day into the text books, but for the living, those years brought only more questions. Where were we headed? Who would we be when we arrived? Within 6 short years dreams were born and shattered while a King led us.
1963: Martin Luther King writes “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; National support for civil rights roused after police attack; Alabama demonstration led by King; Civil Rights “March on Washington” attracts over 20,000 demonstrators while King delivers “I Have A Dream” speech; President Kennedy assassinated.
1964: Malcolm X founds Organization of Afro-American Unity, officially splitting with Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslims; Three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi by white segregationists, setting off Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer”; King wins Nobel Peace Prize; 24th Amendment ratified, outlawing poll tax used to limit black suffrage; Congress passes Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Economic Opportunity Act; Sidney Poitier wins an Academy Award for “Lilies of the Field”; Cassius Clay wins heavyweight boxing championship, subsequently converts to Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.
1965: King leads the March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; Malcolm X assassinated in New York City; Watts riot is most serious single racial disturbance in U.S. history.
1967: King announces opposition to Vietnam War; Worst race riot in U.S. history in Detroit kills 43; Major riots in Newark and Chicago; Thurgood Marshall becomes first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice; Supreme Court overturns law against interracial marriage.
1968: King assassinated in Memphis; Senator Robert F. Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles.
Try as my parents did to maintain, the system was cracking around us. Heroes were slain. Collectively we asked, what happens to a dream deferred? I have, from time to time, tried to capture how that political turmoil filtered into my own home, as hinted at in the following except from my memoir based on the years with our nanny, Corrine:
“Nothing in this decade rolled as smooth as the glass that surrounded the relics of the past. Everyone’s expectations clouded the stumbling blocks to understanding why. Everywhere was a question where before lay a solid statement. The soup in the cupboard became art. The well-fed kids at the dining room tables across America became antagonistic to the very ones who worked to keep them well fed. Plaids were worn with stripes. Here, in this midst of chaos, the assertive nineteen year old girl brought up from Goose Creek, South Carolina, ruled the Irish Catholic family who demanded ironed linens on the dining room table, and never permitted a bottle straight from the fridge, always fluids in a pitcher, mostly because of the large bay windows that opened on to the street and the neighborhood’s eyes. In the darkening night the golden light from our dinner candles illuminated and revealed our family tableau to all on the other side of the large glass portal.
While Corrine appeared subservient to the household idiosyncrasies, in actuality we bowed under her command. My father responded to the era by cracking into a few too many fragments for one man to harmonize and was hospitalized until they could once again guarantee wholeness. My mother bolted to the sanctuary of her childhood home but soon returned under the sign of the cross and the promise of a hopeful light. My brothers scornfully wore socks instead of ties around their necks and gave up their football scholarships for sit-ins and brought home sleepy looking girls who claimed mono for the reason they lay together on the couch during much of the day. And yet Corrine ruled us and kept fighting with us, and for us, and kept us safe when questions replaced statements.”
Like many families we were blood but more than blood: we were constructed; and through additions like our nanny were helped along the way. Sometimes a cousin who needed a room while in college, or three boarding school students from Venezuela who stayed over vacations, once or twice a homeless family, and countless other combinations moved into our yellow colonial. We adapted along the way. My parents kept at it. My mother kept at us. The door kept open. Her phone calls to us never stopped while we went beyond. Her idea of community exceeded any limits. When it was toughest, she wasn’t dissuaded. She reached out. And in mimicking her gesture we learned to stand and navigate our own, sometimes thorny, sometimes smooth, path.
This is her legacy. Standing, again. To trudge onward with grit and perseverance. Viewing each person better than they perceived themselves. At times maybe her church doctrine and community helped, other times a second glass of chardonnay and a big laugh, but always, eventually, she stood back up on her two feet. Had fun. Found joy. I don’t think I will get through my next years without tripping face down from time to time. There will be days that pity causes me to linger, but I do hope, as I navigate around all the chaos and uncertainly the future holds, that I stand again into the warm sheen of a hopeful light. With determination. A legacy of diamonds and pearls most surely.