Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids

Tag: family

Why I Am Not An Ally

I know I was late to the party, but the first time I heard the word ally was several months ago when I saw a conversation on facebook that was alarmingly sexist. There were several people involved whom I know in passing, and I didn’t want to go on a rant to them. Instead I went to my own page and posed this question: If you see someone say something sexist, do you speak up? When, or when not? Then, to add another dimension to the question, I added, If someone says something racist, do you speak up?

Lots of my friends were eager to jump in and say that we must always speak up against racism. Be an ally, they said. My first thought was, oh yes, I want to be an ally. I like that word.

(Interestingly, not a single person expressed concern about being an ally of women by speaking out against sexism.)

Later I thought, wait a minute. I’m half Asian, though I sometimes forget it, because I was raised by WASPS, and where I live, there aren’t Asian people so everybody just assumes I’m some kind of tan white person. But I am a person of color. Am I not? I’ve been told that Asians don’t count as a minority. I have no Asian cultural heritage, can’t say that I’ve suffered for my olive skin, except that I look ghastly in neon green. Maybe I’m just racially confused. And when people start talking about cultural appropriation, it gets worse. Which culture am I allowed? Being adopted and of mixed heritage, I’m a mess. Am I an ally? Or in need of allies? I’ve grown gradually less enthusiastic about the term.

On Mothers’ Day weekend I went with my birthmom, Barb, to the John Brown museum in Osawatomie, KS. We were joined by Barb’s (white) husband; her (white/black) daughter, my half sister A whom I met when I was 22; Barb’s best friend N (white), and her best friend’s daughter S (white/black). This is Barb’s patchwork family, some by blood and others tied just as strongly by love and choice.

We all had a nice time, but one comment S made to me stuck out in my mind. She said that there are a group of people in the city where she lives who very much want to be allies, but they don’t really know what to do, and maybe they could organize a field trip to come down to the John Brown Museum. I was trying to read a plaque at the time, so, sadly, I didn’t give her my full attention. I just said, “You mean, they should be more like John Brown?”

“Well, maybe without the violence.”

It’s taken me three weeks now to figure out what I think about that. A field trip would probably be a great idea, and fun as well, but here’s what I would like to say to S: What white people need is to feel that racism doesn’t just bring down people of color. They need to understand that the losses are their losses, and feel the pain as their own. This is true because we are all connected. We live on one planet, we breathe the same air, we drink from the same well of compassion and when we sleep, our dreams mingle in the same empathic, morphogenetic fields. When we know that, and feel it, action follows.

This is why I choose not to call myself an ally: because it bolsters the belief that race defines and separates us, that that separation leads to some of us being victims and others of us condescending to assist them, when what we really need is to break down the walls and fully feel our humanness, our pain, our love, for, on behalf of, and with others and ourselves. We must own it all. My white half is not an ally to my Asian half. I am one.

Conversation and the Long Story

What does your family do when you get together? Our old standby would be a movie, but you could watch a movie a year with a person for twenty years and never learn a thing about her or him, or have a real conversation. I love a good conversation, but I’m not great at it, especially in groups, especially starting one up. I don’t see my birth mom Barb and her husband Ron often, so I wanted to make the most of the time we’d be together.

A couple years ago they gave us this great game for Christmas. Storymatic is a set of cards with characters and themes on them, and, like all the best games, there are a number of ways to play it, and it’s truly a game that spans ages. The one we chose this time was a variation on the old parlor game in which everyone writes one sentence (more or less) of a story, then passes the page to the next person to write the next sentence. As we go, we fold the page down, so no one can see more than one sentence previous.

As it turns out, we have some highly imaginative people in our family, so the game was even more fun than I’d expected. At the end, the kids requested that I be the one to read the stories aloud, because, according to them, I am particularly good at reading with feeling. But the conclusion of this story in particular had me laughing too hard to breathe, much less read aloud. Moreover, not only is it funny, it’s kind of like a conversation, albeit one in which no one knows what was spoken previously. Still, you can hear themes and meanings spoken across generations. Sort of reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner.

Call me self-indulgent, but I thought I’d share it with you all. I’ve got others, too. Will post them if you want more.

Character: long-lost relative
Setting: in the future
Theme: snowman

Old Uncle Joseph loved to garden, and one day he took a trip into the future, and found some seeds that when planted, produced corn stalks on the following day, in the winter time, right next to a snowman.

As the stalks grew they lifted the snowman high into the air, and below we found the remains of what would have been my future second cousin thrice removed.

Oh bittersweet day, my wedding as well as the funeral for a long-lost relative.

Her name was Spice Stiller and she was my great-aunt.

When she heard her Aunt Spice would be coming to see her, she panicked, trying to get the house ready for a visitor. If only she knew that appearances did not matter, it was what was inside that counted.

To her what was “inside” meant what was inside the house such as her furniture, doors and windows. She had no conception of such insides as the furniture of her moral fiber, the doors of her perception or the window of her soul. Her lack of insight would be fatal. The End.

Next time you get together with your family, be sure to do something that will draw everyone out to interact with each other. Happy New Year, friends.

Imagine a snowman in those clouds . . .

Imagine a snowman in those clouds . . .

The Disappearances

Stories disappear. Maybe if you went to gatherings of most families, you’d get a sense of stories being retold and perpetuated for generations. Mine isn’t like that, and even for those people, there must be countless stories lost for every one told, for every one which survives to the next generation. In our family, my Dad was unable to speak or write for the last twenty years of his life, and my Mom’s rickety mind was unreliable for the last ten or so, prone to such nonsenities as “There used to be a hill behind the house, but it’s gone now.”

One story she often told was about her mother’s funeral. Her mother, Dell (from whom I received my middle name, Adell), was an imposing figure, who Mom said might have been a social worker if she’d lived in modern times. Instead, she did the work informally. If people had marital problems, for example, they might send for her. She would tell her youngest daughter, Leona, to bring a book or toy, and they would go to the couple’s house, where Leona would sit in another room playing quietly while Dell would help them work out their problems. She kept a big garden, and she would take food to sick people. In the desperate thirties, when young men were often vagabonds, Dell would give some work and a meal to anyone who knocked on the door, and she would make them write a letter to their mother while they were sitting down. When cancer took her life, so many people came to her funeral that loudspeakers had to be set up in the yard for the people who couldn’t get into the building.

Leona was thirteen at the time. After the funeral, the family had a meeting in which they told Leona that she would have to take care of herself now, that her six living brothers and sisters (only one still at home) and her father loved her but would be unable to take the place of her mother. She would have to keep herself out of trouble.

I heard this story dozens of times. How much of it is true? I have no idea.

Once, when the light was dim, but she could still talk, I took her to a medical appointment. As we sat in the waiting room, I started talking about past-life regression, and how other lives one has lived relate to the purpose of the current life. I could do that in that period, because her critical faculties were weak enough that she would never make the judgments she would have made when she was in her right mind. Instead, she listened politely, then told me that her life had been unfairly easy, so much so that she sometimes felt guilty.

“But your mother died when you were young.”

“Well, yes.”

“How did it feel?”

“Well, it was hard.”

Tears began to well up in my eyes. It was the closest she’d ever come to expressing her feelings about this event, which had happened some sixty-five years previously. I had an insight, that even through dementia, healing can occur. She never would have said that when she had all her faculties. She was too much in control. Now her mind was so ravaged that she had no controls to hold back all the hidden thoughts and feelings. Then the nurse called her name, to take her to see the doctor.

Here’s a picture I found in my Mom’s dresser, in the drawer with the jewelry, the two-dollar bills, and the silver dollar from the year she was born (1925). She was still living at the time I found it, but her mind was gone. I don’t remember her ever showing me this, or telling me anything about it. But the inscription, “To Mother, Christmas,” tells that this was likely the last Christmas gift this smiling girl ever gave her mother. After her mother died, she kept it hidden for sixty-five years.

But there’s more untold story here. Why did I take the photo out of the frame? I don’t know, but I was surprised nonetheless to find another photo hidden behind the smiling girl, of a handsome, smiling, young man. Who is he? My sister and I guess that he was Mom’s eldest brother, Will Craft, who died before she was born, in the flu epidemic of 1918. We know nothing else about him. When I once asked Mom about him, she told me that by the time she came along, they didn’t talk about him much anymore. His stories were already lost, leaving nothing behind but possibly a tiny photo, hidden away for two generations.

%d bloggers like this: