Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
by Terry Barr
“You can never reinvent yourself completely; at your core you’ll always retain some critical elements of your old self and you won’t get to choose them and won’t even know what they are until they reveal themselves to you, and whoever you happen to be around at the time: coworkers or dinner companions or a couple of ladies leading you on a tour of their town’s old cemetery.” Richard Rubin, Confederacy of Silence (New York: Atria Books, 2002), 387.
For me, it was a couple of months after my mother’s death. My wife, brother, and I were sorting the contents of her house: packing, readying antique furniture, Chinese figurines, and wall hangings for the movers who were arriving over that weekend. On this early October evening, as we were deciding what to pack, what to leave, and how we might manage to store all that we now possessed, the front doorbell rang: a caller who obviously didn’t know my mother well, for her friends always came to the kitchen door. When I opened up, there stood a neighbor, Edward, a man I didn’t know well but who had been in the same class with my brother Mike in high school.
Mike had spoken with Edward at the funeral, and told us, “He’s such a nice guy, and he really liked Mom.”
Edward handed me a package that he had been holding onto for weeks, a book I had ordered that had been delivered to Mom’s house while we were at our own, living with our grief, believing that the forwarding address I had filed at the Besse-mer post office would suffice.
I invited Edward in, and soon, we were all telling stories about Mom, how we missed her; how we couldn’t believe two months had already elapsed since her passing.
“Your mother was something,” Edward offered. “I really liked her even though I didn’t know her long. You know, the first time I came over and introduced myself after I moved into the neighborhood, she invited me in, served me cake and a Coke, and we talked like old friends!”
This didn’t surprise me. My mother learned the southern customs of graciousness and hospitality as a little girl. In her day, you just couldn’t turn friend, neighbor, or worker away without feeding them.
“Yes, I liked your mother from the very first. She didn’t see color. It didn’t matter to her that I was black. She welcomed me in as if we had known each other forever. She just didn’t see black or white.”
It wasn’t exactly that I felt like an imposter at that moment, and it wasn’t exactly like I didn’t know whom Edward was speaking of. I didn’t feign amazement or surprise; didn’t turn around to match eyes with Mike or my wife Nilly or look for the subject of Edward’s praise. Instead, I met his eyes, smiled, and said, simply, “Thank you Edward.”
While I didn’t know what else to say then, this is what I want to say now. And it’s not something that I wish I’d said then.
My mother did see black and white, but not in the nonracist way that Robin Diangelo explores in White Fragility. The distinctions of black and white shaped my mother and often confined her to a view of her society that at worst shamed me, and at best caused me to smile with so-called enlightened pity, intellectual condescension, and political “I-know-it-all” tole-rance. My mother was no Klanswoman, no George Wallace sympathizer. She was not a segregationist, and neither she nor my father ever countenanced the racial epithet “Nigger” being said in our house.
But my mother did see color in that way of our people who were born and raised in the 1930’s American South. While saying this about my mother only mildly distresses me now, it was enough to keep me from being honest with our guest that evening.
What distresses me more—which is why I have to reconsider this scene and so many others in my life—is that as much as I have learned and as much as I have reinvented myself from that boy who grew up so fearful under the cloud of 1950’s and 60’s Alabama racial hatred, I, too, see black and white. Unlike my mother, I do not say things like “these Blacks” or even “Those poor white trash folks.”
But sometimes, in her voice and in mine, I hear them. I think them.
Over the years of my adulthood I urged my mother to quit distinguishing between the skin colors of people she considered “no count,” “impolite,” or “lacking proper upbring-ing.” Every time she would say something about the behavior of “Those blacks” who “treated their home like city dumps,” I’d remind her of the white people we knew who said “Fuck” in public.
“Yes, there are trashy white people, too,” she’d always say.
After such urgings, I’d ask myself “What are you doing? Why are you trying? She’s not going to change. She’s too old to change.”
And this is where I went wrong. Was wrong.
We’re always changing, whether we can see the changes in ourselves and others, or not. Edward was wrong, too.
My mother was racist.
Neither one word nor one era should define us, nor can it define the complexity of any individual. There are no “Rose-bud” moments.
Yet I have come to realize that while my mother knew who she was and adapted over her life to changes that she might not have wanted or sought, I, on the other hand, have been telling myself a very convincing story of who I am, what I believe, and what my “tolerant” view of our society encompasses.
This, then, is my “reveal.”
My high school graduation class in 1974 numbered 273 students. We were a healthy mix of black and white kids—healthy in numbers but not especially in interracial acquaintanceships. By the time I graduated, the threat of a fight between black and white students had become an improbability.
The problem is, I have almost no memories of any black student friend or acquaintance from back then. If I had gotten close enough to a black guy to call him out, or had a black guy in my vicinity called a white girl “a bitch,” I can’t say what would have happened, but it would have felt like the impending threat of a funnel-shaped cloud. Something to ward off if I could; something to go inside to escape until it passed; something that if it struck might carry away a piece of my reputation.
One day in gym class, a black guy named Donald McCarroll did ask to see my new Christmas watch. I handed it to him, and he put it on.
“Thanks for the present,” he said, nodding at me as if he truly appreciated my gesture.
To that point, Donald McCarroll and I had never spoken over the three years I had seen him in various classes.
“That’s mine,” I said. “You have to give it back. Please.”
This went on for a few minutes—his saying “thank you,” my saying “give it back”—and I don’t know why or how, but he finally gave it back. Was he just fuckin’ with me? Was this a statement about our relative comfort levels and privileges? I never took the time to find out, being relieved that nothing further came of this: no fighting; no repercussions from the gym coach or principal, no urging by anyone black or white that we should fight, no need to confess to my parents that I had stupidly handed over my watch to anyone, much less a black guy I barely knew.
After this incident, Donald and I never spoke again. We were in the same year, so I assume he walked across the same stage at the football stadium on a pleasant May night with me. I don’t remember his doing so, but his senior picture is in our high school yearbook, so there’s that.
He didn’t show up at our five-year class reunion at the Ramada Inn, though. Nor did he appear at the ten-year reunion at the Green Springs clubhouse. I didn’t bother looking for him at the fifteen-year reunion, because by then, the classmates who generously used their own time planning these occasions couldn’t agree where to hold our next gathering, or what sort of music should be played, or on any other decision related to the event. There were several white and black people involved in the organizing, and what they decided was to part ways. The black former JLHS students would hold “their” reunion, and the whites would do the same for “ours.”
I wasn’t part of the planning, and though I’d like to think differently, even if I had been, and I'd had the courage to speak up, I doubt I would have convinced anyone of anything. So ever since that ten-year gathering, our graduating class has fallen along racial lines again, which actually seems fair given how we all felt about each other.
Of course, no one ever said publicly that we split because in our minds we still thought “whitey” and “nigger.” I suppose we all believe today that we don’t still harbor suspicions about or distrust each other. Or maybe I’m wrong and we all do believe that skin color confers familiarity, trust, belonging, and accept-ance. I’m still not part of planning these events, so what do I know about anyone’s heart and mind?
Terry Barr is the author of three books. His work has also appeared in Cleaning Up Glitter, storySouth, The New Southern Fugitives, Hippocampus, Call Me [Brackets], Under the Sun, Coachella Review, Flying South, and Eclectica. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his family.
I am, however, Facebook friends with many of my graduating class via a “Fond Memories of Bessemer” group page, a virtual space for friendships that weren’t even virtual forty-five years ago. One of my friends there is the former president of our senior class, Henry Scott. He seemed genuinely glad to hear from me when I “private messaged” him.
After we re-established contact, I sent Henry copies of my two essay collections, which included memories of my uncom-fortable place in Bessemer’s desegregation days. I asked him to let me know what he thought after reading them. I still don’t know if he’s read them, and if so, what opinions he might have on the jagged memories we were forced to share. I invited him to my book signing this past October at Bessemer’s finest restaurant, The Bright Star, but he couldn’t make it. He would have been the only black person there if he had showed.
Thinking about Henry and the gaps between those moments we shared, considering that the 45th anniversary of our graduation occurs next summer, I asked one of “our” reunion planners if we might invite a few other people this year. I mentioned two white grads, and I mentioned Henry Scott.
My friend responded: “I will extend the invitation to [the two white people], but ‘No’ to Henry Scott.”
When I told this story to one of my older Bessemer friends, he remarked that if he were Henry, he wasn’t sure he’d come if invited, given that he would be the only black person there. Right, I thought. If I were Henry, what would I do?
The better question, though, is that since I’m “me,” what will I do now, especially since some of the people at this “not-reunion” are people I never liked anyway? I had thought that with my mother’s passing, this reunion would be a reason to go back, a logical trip that I wouldn’t have to explain to anyone, particularly to my old friends back home who have wondered if I’ll be going back to Bessemer at all now.
Say my friend had agreed to invite Henry and say he had agreed to come. Was I going to follow Henry around the party to show everyone that he interested me more than many of them did?
This issue of intent is what separates my life from my mother’s. I thought I knew myself, and I thought I knew my mother. I was wrong on both counts. I am still standing on familiar ground, not wishing to push away or be pushed off it. Such ground shifted for my mother, and she shifted with it.
I’ve had twenty-four years of therapy, and as the old Woody Allen joke goes, my doctor thinks I’m making progress. Give me a category, label, or identity marker, and I will either check an appropriate box, or tell you why that box doesn’t apply to me, or how it confines me unreasonably. Two of my better adult friends have tried to persuade me that I’m an atheist, that it makes sense for someone with my views to be an atheist, and really, they admonish, “What’s the point of believing or even merely doubting the existence of God since he really doesn’t exist?” I say to them, “What do I know about any of this for sure?”
I agree that I want proof, but of course something like “God” defies logic, proof, certainty. They call me crazy for being in the gray muddle of belief. “Prove to me that there’s not a God,” I say. All I get are words: “Because I know; because there just isn’t; because there’s so much pain and injustice. Because the very notion is absurd.”
Are these “Words, between the lines of age,” as Neil Young sang?
I believe that my mother believed in God, but over our life together she said these words:
“I don’t believe that a loving God would send anyone to hell, or that a loving God would ever create any such place.”
“I don’t believe that Mary was a virgin. That’s impossible.”
“Jewish people (including her husband, my father) are ‘cold’ because they don’t have the concept of a loving God, like we do.” (She raised my brother and me as Methodists).
My mother went to church every Sunday morning, faithfully. I never heard her pray at night. Our family only said a prayer at mealtime on two holidays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, and on those occasions, it was my father who offered the prayer to God and never to Jesus. Actually, his words were “Dear Lord.”
On the day before she died, my mother received a visit from her next-door neighbor, Helen, with her sister and nieces. One of these nieces asked both my mother and me if it would be all right with us if she led us in prayer. My mother readily agreed, and agnostic that I am, so did I. Why would I refuse or get in the way? They gathered around my mother who was perched in her favorite reclining chair in front of the television I had bought her the previous Christmas. She muted MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and closed her eyes as these four women prayed, loudly and fervently.
I stood back, uncomfortable in prayer as always. If I’m not sure I believe, how can I enter a Jesus prayer and not feel as if I’m committing blasphemy? Do I then believe in blasphemy, and does that tell me anything? My mother never used such a word, but unlike me, she didn’t use God’s name in vain.
So, as I stood there wondering, I have to confess that it really wasn’t God or Jesus or the nature and force of prayer I was struck by. No, what got me was a scene I never imagined I’d witness.
Helen is African American.
Next-door neighbors, she and my mother spoke regularly on the phone. At the flowerbed that borders their two yards, they used to stand for hours discussing plants, food, and whether Alabama Democrat Doug Jones could beat Republican Roy Moore. My mother claimed to be the street chairwoman of the elect Jones committee, and in conservative Bessemer, Alabama, there was no sign of a Moore sign on her street or on any of the arteries leading to her street. When they won that race, my mother and Helen then began putting up signs for Bessemer’s mayoral race. They supported Kenneth Gulley against Anthony Underwood, although they both agreed that Anthony was a good man.
Jones and Moore are white men. Gulley and Underwood, black men.
My mother didn’t live long enough to see those results, but no matter. She had a Gulley sign, just as she had an Obama sign years ago.
After they prayed with my mother, Helen and her family hugged her, kissed her, and she hugged and kissed them back. A couple of hours later, my mother lapsed into a coma, and though other friends dropped by and said prayers over her, the benediction she heard last came from her best neighbor. Helen and her nieces all hugged me, too, and later that evening, they sent plates of fried catfish, hush puppies, and salad to us. A loving meal Helen prepared for her family and ours.
“I just love your mother,” Helen told me, on that weekend when we were preparing the house for sale. “I keep looking out my window, expecting to see her out in the yard watering those plants. Whenever I did see her, I’d head on out, and we’d talk and talk. I miss her so much.” Then she began crying.
It was just another scene I never thought I’d witness. Just another moment lived with someone I’d never have known if it weren’t for my mother. Helen and I hugged then, and I thought about the ways strangers and old friends fall into your arms, your life, and in that moment, you can decide who you are and who you want to be. You can “reinvent yourself,” if not “completely,” then in tandem with those “critical elements of your old self” that you can’t help but “retain.”
And really, whatever you believe about your “place,” if you truly want to know yourself, how could you, why would you, have it any other way?
Helen was tied up at church on the day of my book signing at The Bright Star. That Sunday was just days after Edward dropped over to bring me the book he had been holding for me. I invited him to the signing, and though he thought he could make it, he didn’t. I never found out why.