A couple of months ago, I wrote a BDN OpEd about race in reaction to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. I reflected on growing up adopted and mixed race and on parenting fair-skinned children. I referred to my Polish grandfather, who served over 30 years as a Boston police officer and who was outspokenly racist most of his life. He was our Archie Bunker, my beautiful grandmother his Edith, and it was no secret they did not approve of their daughter marrying an Irish man, then bringing me — an adopted, mixed-race child — into the family.
Since my OpEd ran, I’ve realized I was wrong to try to cull my experiences with race into 700 words, especially as it pertains to my grandparents. An important part of my black history is how I learned to love, respect and admire my grandparents. The word count didn’t allow for me to talk about everything they taught me, including that it’s okay for a dark-skinned person to grow to love racists.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s no sitcom sanitizing how bizarre it was as a small child to listen to lectures at the dinner table about how the “n’s are ruining Boston.” And there was that time my grandfather got all bent at me for saying I didn’t like watermelon, insisting, “but you people LOVE watermelon!” I’d be a liar if I said the situation didn’t contribute to my youthful angst and identity crisis regarding race.
More importantly, though, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say my grandparents were wonderful people who were so much more than just racist. They were the first American-born children in their families, they were bilingual and my childhood was a constant immersion lesson in that culture. My grandmother was a zen master of fussy babies, and I learned everything I know about soothing them from watching her.
My grandfather was a proud Army veteran, active duty in World War II, and had the shrapnel in his leg to prove it. Besides his military and civilian service, he lived to serve those around him. He was that neighbor, friend or relative who was there to help get the car started or to run the errand. He always had a second job to provide as much of the American dream for his wife and five children as he possibly could.
Filling his extra hours delivering fruit baskets and potato chips financed a move to the suburbs and a cottage a short walk from the ocean. Every time we pulled a Wise Potato Chip air float from the never-ending supply in the garage and dragged it down to the beach, we were reminded of my grandfather’s tenacious work ethic. He and my grandmother were methodical, hard-working, devoted Catholics.
When they did the polka, they were among the best. They became an intertwined, graceful, highball-induced mass of twirling, spinning joy. It’s like they experienced some kind of metamorphosis once the band started. Mental snapshots of those moments are my favorite memories of them.
A close second is the time my grandfather taught me how to gamble — probably also highball-induced. Looking back, he was quite purposeful in making sure I was the only grandchild he included in that activity. I was 8, but apparently corruptible. I bet on red eight on the roulette wheel, won and didn’t care about the morality of it then and still don’t.
The adult me understands the variables that contributed to their racism: Every generation struggles with the baggage it’s born with. No one is comfortable talking about how much eugenics influenced perceptions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early 20th century Boston wasn’t exactly a melting pot, either. Each ethnic group staked out its neighborhood and resented other groups, as each desperately grabbed for their piece of the American pie.
My grandfather continued to work into retirement. His last job was part time in a junkyard with three Mexican immigrants as co-workers. My mom said there was a momentary pause at his wake when those three gentleman walked through the door to pay their respects. No one knew or expected he developed relationships with them, but maybe we should have. My racist grandfather was a good man at heart. Late in life he just got better, leaving a lasting lesson for us all.
Trish Callahan is a mother and writer who lives in Augusta and does consulting work for a local nonprofit.