the gifts that live

Today would have been our silver. Twenty-five years ago, Chris and I got hitched at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Washington, Conn., a pretty stone church that my mother liked to call Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.

Three priests presided. Music was provided by one violinist (my mom), one trumpet player, two organists and a gospel choir. A friend snapped photos. My brother-in-law ferried us in Chris’s old Corolla to the reception, which was held in a church basement down the road that we rented for 60 bucks. The meal was pot luck. I’m not kidding. Pot luck. For entertainment, a buddy of ours played guitar. Stout-hearted friends took control of the kitchen, and washed, and washed, and washed.

I think of that day and wonder how we did it. How we managed to fall in love so wildly, so quickly, with such conviction. Four months after our first date, we got engaged. Again I’m not kidding. Four months. Six months after that, we were married. Who does that? How did we know it would stick?

I think of that day and marvel that Chris and I were ever so young. That so many now gone were still alive: my parents, Chris’s parents, my sister Lucy, my best friend Pam. And Chris! How alive he was. How his heart rumbled inside his chest. The man stood so straight he almost fell backward. He hugged me so hard I almost cracked. He smiled with his mouth, his eyes, his whole sturdy person, rocking on his heels with the rhythm of delight.

I think of that day and swell with gratitude. Chris gave me so much. He gives me so much still, his gifts growing with love long past his death. He gave me our three beautiful children. His dear, kind sisters and brothers, their husbands and wives. My three fine nephews. My new great-niece, an angel born three weeks ago.

Chris gave me my home: Had I not married a reporter for the Times Union, I wouldn’t have moved to Albany. He gave me all of my life here. All of my friends and coworkers. All of my neighbors. He gave me the Adirondacks. Camping. Stewart’s Ice Cream. Downhill skiing, which I would never have tried without him.

He gave me the lingering effects of his green thumb. The apple tree at the front of my house. The gardens, front and back. The spider plants, upstairs and down.FullSizeRender

Most of all, he gave me his love and all its light. That lingers, too. He gave me faith in the long-term bond between two people. He gave me an understanding of love as a deep, enduring and sacramental fact, as a truth forged together but greater than the both of us, as something worth fighting for every minute — because the minutes, if we honored them properly, could amass into decades.

And so they did. Twenty years I had with my good, strong, loving, constant husband, a brilliant man whose giant heart roared with the joy of living. He died, but his gift goes on forever.

whiteness

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Like everyone else in the country, I can’t stop thinking about last week’s events. I can’t stop trying to figure out a way to comprehend them — first the senseless deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, then the senseless deaths of Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith, Lorne Ahrens and Michael Krol. Somehow, we’re compelled to make sense of the senseless. We know we can’t, but we also know we have to try. We have to talk. We have to figure out some way to discuss race and injustice, guns and hatred, police and people of color, fear and sacrifice, and the abrupt, outrageous victimhood of everyone who dies at the end of a barrel in these inflamed and disunited states where we now live.

But how do we start? How do we even talk about race when anthropologists tell us it’s a social construct? When our best selves believe that it shouldn’t even matter? Well, here’s how white people can kick things off: by admitting that it does.

Like most Caucasians, I never thought much about being white. Whiteness always struck me as a negative state, a bleached racial canvas defined by what it wasn’t. As a kid I knew I wasn’t black or brown, and I knew that people identified by their blackness or brownness suffered terrible prejudice — but what this meant in terms of my own whiteness, I couldn’t tell you. I knew that my dad was Italian, my mom was English-Scottish-French-German, and I was a mash of both. But white? That meant nothing to me. My parents discussed racism with me and my sister in the language of sweeping moral imperatives and prohibitions: Treat everyone the same. Never use racial epithets or tell racist or ethnic jokes. Speak out when someone else does. But they never spoke to us about being white. If, as they assured us, everyone’s alike, then why bother parsing the differences? There weren’t any, right?

So when Justin Timberlake took heat for tweeting out a tone-deaf “We’re the same” in response to Jesse Williams’ remarks at the BET Awards, I cringed. He was no more oblivious than most well-meaning white folk, all of us adamantly believing and repeating the standard line on race that our well-meaning white parents taught us: That there is no difference. That we’re all alike. That we’re all brothers and sisters. That we’re all born and made of the same essential human stuff.

And so we are. In the eyes of our Creator, there is no difference. But it isn’t the Creator’s eyes (which are, at this point, weeping) that are causing the problem. It’s our eyes, the eyes of society, the eyes that see and pass judgment on a black man with a broken tail light and a license to carry a gun, the eyes that narrow with fear at the guy in the hoodie running an errand, the eyes that regard a brown boy with suspicion when a white one is viewed with confidence and calm.

This is where my parents were wrong. This is what has taken me, your Typical Clueless White Person, far too long to understand: Not everyone is the same. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to worry when I send my teenage son to fetch milk or ice cream in the evening, because his whiteness protects him after dark. My whiteness means that I’ve never had to sit him down for the talk that mothers give their black sons about safety on the streets and dealings with police.

My whiteness means that in every conversation I’ve ever had about race and the failures of our justice system, in everything I’ve ever read about mass incarceration and economic imbalance and the pernicious effects of institutionalized racism, in all of my sympathetic, heartfelt, horrified responses to same, I have never asked how I play into it. How I might be privileged, complicit and complacent. What my whiteness means. Which is, in its way, proof of just how privileged, complicit and complacent I’ve been. I still don’t know what it means, but I know that it means something, and I know that I have to question this something to change the status quo. And maybe that’s a start.

So as we grieve and object to the taking of lives last week, all of us — the whole spectrum of Americans — can hope and pray that more lives aren’t taken in reply. We have to, because we can’t let violence become the conversation. We need to talk, and we need to listen. We need to figure this out together.

handy

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I had a little epiphany the other day. Someone was chit-chatting casually with my son, and in the course of this casual chit-chat asked him if Mom was “handy.” He confirmed that indeed Mom is.  When I heard this, I was tickled pink. I was BEYOND tickled pink. I was tickled rose sunsets and bubblegum-flamingos-in-pointe-shoes. I was tickled despite the fact that my late husband, who had worked in carpentry and construction for many years before switching to journalism, HATED HATED HATED the word “handy,” considering it an infantile reduction of his skills.

But I don’t deceive myself. I have no skills. When it comes to repairing things, jury-rigging things, piecing things together and persuading things to fit and function inside my house, I am exercising neither art nor aptitude. Instead I am exercising my inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance. I am being the stubborn white-haired lady who might not believe she can fix a damn thing but is damn well going to try, anyway.

When the basement trap clogged and overflowed with toilet unmentionables, and I couldn’t reach the Sewage Dude immediately, I went down with a shovel and started to dig out. It was late at night, and it was disgusting. But you know what? As I shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and shoveled and gagged and gagged, I felt a crazed pride welling within me, as in: Yee-haw! I am one sick motha! I can shovel shit! Yes, I can!

The next day, Sewage Dude arrived. Standing by as his finished the job, I engaged him in casual chit-chat.

Me: Soooooo. . . ummm. . . when my husband died, I wrote a book about it afterward called Figuring Shit Out.

Sewage Dude: Really.

Me: Yeah. And this would have been a great chapter.

(Sewage Dude laughs.)

Afterward, it occurred to me that shoveling shit was something my mother would have done — and might have done, for all I know. I think a lot about Mama, a tough, wise, loving lady whose stick-to-it-iveness carried the family after Daddy lost his short-term memory. Exercising her own inborn propensity for Repairman Avoidance, she fixed furniture, plumbing, windows. She painted the downstairs. She built a shower upstairs. When the cushions died, she took apart the living-room sofa and rebuilt it as a simple wood settee. She repaired hings, jury-rigged things, pieced things together and persuaded things to fit and function inside her  house.

I’d always admired this about her, but I’d always assumed her handiness was innate, not acquired. I assumed it was something she’d brought to her marriage that I didn’t bring to mine. But when my son called me handy, the revelation finally hit me: I was just like Mama! Mama was just like me! She hadn’t started out with a hammer in one small fist and a paint can in the other. Life had turned her into a jury-rigger and handy-woman, a stubborn white-haired lady who did what she could to patch things together. She she became what she needed to become. She fixed what broke. She figured shit out, and showed me the way.