In the year 1982, before my wife and I were to be married, we decided it was time to pay a visit to our folks and introduce our respective mates. It was quite a few years since either of us had seen our parents.
We left Atlanta to visit Magdalena’s folks in suburban Washington. We drove all day and arrived at their house in the early afternoon. We were greeted by her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, who cordially invited us in, with the warmest of greetings. As I viewed the house from the foyer, I saw her father sitting at the kitchen table with his back turned towards us. He didn’t make the slightest gesture of welcome. I started to consider how I’d react to his cold shoulder and seemingly obvious rejection of my presence. If he came towards me with malice, as I imagined, waving a broom and striking at me, I’d just fall on my knees to the floor and let him beat me. I would submit. After all, I was taking his daughter away.
After a very short time, which to me seemed like forever, he rose from the table and approached me with outstretched hand and a smile on his face, saying, “Welcome to our house!” He explained why he didn’t quickly come to greet us. You see, he was an amateur calligrapher, and he was in the midst of a letter stroke and didn’t want to stop for fear of blotting the ink. And I mistook the whole thing, as we often do. As I often say, we accept or reject people on the most flimsy evidence. Mr. Arkin remained exceedingly kind to me, and any difficulty he had, he kept to himself.
They set before us sumptuous fare. We had a most pleasant afternoon, and then started the drive back to Atlanta.
A few weeks later, we made the trip to visit my folks in the Missouri Ozarks. We arrived at my mother’s house on Thanksgiving day, and all my siblings were there, and a few other relatives, and random visitors who popped in for a plate. Later that evening, while we were having dessert and coffee, my Uncle Delmus and Aunt Ida dropped by to give a nod of approval to this girl that I had brought home. Delmus, a slight wiry man who never minced words, invited us to take a little drive with him in his 1950 Ford pick-up. Magdalena sat in the middle, a rare honor, because Uncle Delmus was quite discerning about who he hauled around in his truck.
After we had driven around for a while and returned home, parking in my mother’s driveway, Uncle Delmus turned to me and said, “Cat, you got yourself a good woman there. Sits there, keeps her mouth shut, acts like she’s got some sense!” Let me interpret: you have a good woman who’s not presumptuous and doesn’t have to put her two cents in on everything that’s said; she’s quite observant and conducts herself in a humble manner. From that point on, I knew that I had my uncle’s approval.
After we had a good night’s rest, my mother insisted that we visit our old relatives in Greenfield, Mo. We drove to the little town, to a long-forgotten neighborhood where Black people had lived since the end of the Civil War. It was known as Long’s Alley, after my great-grandfather, Robert Long, a Methodist preacher affectionately called “Bakker Bob” because he chewed tobacco. He was the son of a slave, and he remembered when, as a boy, he saw Jesse James, the famous outlaw, as his gang rode through town. Robert’s mother hid him under the staircase of a building on the town square. He and others were the formidable people I remember from my childhood – who helped me develop into the man I am today.
All that was left of that neighborhood were the tumble-down ruins of the stone masonry house that he’d built with his bare hands. On the very end of that street was a two-room clapboard house. My wife felt, as we drove towards it, that we were headed towards nowhere, as the little house was now surrounded by hayfields. I felt a bit of embarrassment, a feeling I hadn’t had for quite a long time. Here I was, taking my wife to the battered remnant of what I remembered as a vibrant community.
We knocked on the front door, and these two little old ladies in their ’90s, who were also children of slaves, answered. One was blind, the other didn’t see very well. We came in and sat on the sofa, and they were so happy to see me! I was from the generation that they had so such high hopes for. After we’d exchanged pleasantries and I caught them up on my life and where I had been, they offered us refreshments, which I quickly declined because I could see an open bag of Oreo cookies on the kitchen table of this house, that smelled of kerosene and chamber pot. But they insisted, and stood before me with a platter of cookies, smiling from ear to ear, knowing that these were something I’d surely enjoy.
As I took my first bite, the taste of lovingkindness, the acceptable gift, filled my palate with delight. I don’t think I’ve ever had a sweeter cookie since. I will always remember that wonderful day in the country, when I first understood that a gift given from the heart was quite precious. Sometimes we look at our neighbor and only see what we imagine, like my father-in-law’s hostility, or my old relatives’ poverty, and we miss the real gifts being offered to us because of our own judgment. Let me reiterate: We accept or dismiss people on equally flimsy evidence and miss the gift before us.