A Handshake to Break Barriers
HENRY visited us for the first time when I was 13. He entered our lives in a blue Oldsmobile with his wife, Nancy, at his side and their three children in the back seat. It was Dad's birthday, and their coming was to be a surprise.
The day was bright and cheerful, warmer than usual for the end of October. My sister, two of my younger brothers, and I were out in the side yard tossing a football around when they drove in.
Mom had really planned the whole thing. We kids were privy to her thinking-through process, but it was her idea entirely. She simply needed a vote of confidence from time to time, and we were happy to oblige. Secrets were still fun to have and to keep then, and this was a secret of special import. So the after-dinner family planning meetings in my sister's room (minus our father) seemed all that much more exciting.
We hadn't seen Nancy in eight years. She was the older of two daughters from Dad's first marriage and in the early 1960s she had married a black man - Henry - without telling the family. Dad had known about Henry, and he had found out, of course, about the wedding. But by then, he couldn't do anything - or, rather, he did the only thing he could think to do in the thick of heartbreak, anger, and fear: He tried to block out this wrenching change. And the only way he could see to do it was to shut Nancy ou t of his life. So he stopped communicating with her. No letters, no calls. And no visits.
From that point on, there was almost complete silence on the subject. I rarely heard Nancy's name mentioned in all the intervening months and years, although I know now that my parents talked about the situation from time to time.
When we sat on the twin beds in my sister's room, anticipating the possible outcomes at the moment Henry and Dad would first meet, Mom would reason and ruminate aloud. Would it fall flat? Would it backfire? Would Dad walk away or maybe come out swinging? Would Nancy and Henry even come? No one knew. In the end, we opted for the simplest of outlines: Ask them to come, and - if they said "yes" - pray for the best. We did. They did. And we prayed.
Both my parents had grown up in small upstate New York towns. There were a few families of color dotting the vastly white canvas that was the backdrop of their growing-up years and early adulthood. And these families were usually well-known and respected. But the old double-standard remained firmly in place, at least for Dad: It's one thing to have a black man for a friend; it's another to have a black man marry your daughter.
IF my parents' racial experiences were 98 percent white, our school years weren't much different. The only children we knew who were black came to school for just part of the year, when they arrived every fall with their parents to help harvest the apple crop. They lived in little cottages on the edge of one of the biggest orchards in the school district, which was run - unlike most large farms in the area - by a family who cared that migrant workers' children go to school.
Today such descriptions sound like tinny stereotypes. But this was all we knew then; it was the extent of our world. Our "knowledge" was largely ignorance, yet it was an ignorance we were happy to begin to shed as our experience broadened. And one of the first steps came when Henry entered our lives.
Once Mom's plan was set in motion, the day could not come quickly enough. When it did, all our energies were consumed in trying to act normally and in preventing Dad from making his regular Saturday trip to the hardware store. Neither was easy. We often looked at each other with a mixture of anxiety and self-congratulation as we vacuumed, dumped waste baskets, dried dishes. Finally, the suspense drove us outdoors and we chewed up the time playing touch football. Dad seemed oblivious. Everything looked pe rfect.
When the Olds came up the hill below the house, it was - understandably - at a crawl. As the car eased into the yard, Mom came out of the house. We stopped the game and waited, almost as though we were setting up for the opening scene of a play. When Dad didn't make an appearance for what must have been a full minute, someone called to him to "come see who's here." Finally, he did.
No actor could capture all the feelings that so nakedly swept across our father's face as he began to grasp who he was looking at - who exactly was "here." He stood silent. He pulled back. He started to say something. Then it looked as though he would go back in the house. But something kept him there. Maybe it was good manners. Maybe it was the fact that his children were watching. Maybe it was actual forgiveness. The important thing was that he stayed.
Then he took a step forward, toward the car, toward Henry, as his son-in-law got out. "Hello, Walt." Henry said. "Hello, Henry." Dad replied.
In that moment, a few words of greeting slipped through the bars of a prison built of eight years of silence and distance. The cage was not impenetrable after all. The walls and barricades were not nearly so powerful or lasting or real as they had always seemed. And then the door to freedom opened a crack, pushed by a pair of hands - the large hand of a middle-aged black man who had spent years in construction work as a supervisor on tunnel projects clasping the hand of a white man 25 years his senior, w ho had pounded typewriter keys, writing small-town newspaper stories and PR copy. Over the years, both had stroked babies' faces and thrown footballs. Now, at last, they had come together. And their coming together had struck down in a final way the long episode of coming apart.
Whatever came after - all the other hellos and hugs and birthday wishes, the laughter and being introduced to two new nieces and a nephew - have sunk into a happy fog in my memory. All I recall is that it seemed to be only a matter of minutes before we kids were asking Henry to throw us the football. And he did - way down to the barn.
In the more than 20 years since that handshake, there have been too many family visits to count. Volleyball tournaments, wiffle-ball games, graduations, a wedding, trips in Nancy and Henry's RV to picnics and museums. Bit by bit, we have learned much about Henry's life before we met him, even before Nancy knew him. When he was in school, for instance, he used to take over for his mother at her short-order cook's job during his lunch period. She was a single mother working two jobs to support her large fa mily, and this was the only way she would have a break during the day. Henry often held two jobs himself later on.
We found out also, not long ago, that when Nancy and Henry visited that first time, Henry had done so on the condition that Nancy be willing to see her father alone if Dad was unwilling to see Henry and the children. Henry would make the four-hour trip home and return for Nancy whenever she was ready.
A FEW years ago, a fire broke out in a tunnel Henry was working on, and he barely escaped. He retired not long after and now works around the house (inside and out) and helps to keep up his son's house across the street. Nancy works full time, as she has for years, at an inner-city health center. Happily, for everybody, Henry is now able to do something he really enjoys - cooking. Just ask anyone who's been there about his Sunday breakfasts. Henry's still up at 5:30 almost every morning, and after doing some chores, he and their dog, Bear, go for a six-mile walk along the Genesee River. He's still a quiet, forthright man. His kids are grown now, but I notice that they still give him their full attention when he speaks. He's still physically strapping, still unfailingly kind, still more intuitive than most people I know.
Dad passed on last year. At the memorial service, all seven of his children gave eulogies. So did his granddaughter, Lisa - the second eldest of Nancy and Henry's four children. Lisa and Dad had kept up a pretty steady correspondence over the last several years - he, usually offering advice on dating, friendship, and marriage; she, telling him about her job and, at times, about discrimination she has suffered. The latter upset him terribly. He could not understand, it seems, how people could feel or act that way.
Henry was, of course, at the memorial service, too. He sat in the second row and listened in his usual intent way. When we gathered at the house afterward I overheard him say to Nancy, "You know, when all of you were reading, I could see Walt in the face of each of you kids."
Someone once said that when you've seen another man's soul, you never forget his face. I like to think that on my father's birthday those many years ago, a portrait of each man was indelibly etched in the memory of the other. And it comforts me to hope that the memories and faces did not fade over time, will not ever fade. Because, in my mind's eye, every now and again, I can still see two hands reaching out and finally coming together - joined at last in a simple, courageous greeting of good will and ne w beginnings.