My dad was born in 1915 the same year as Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman. The cost of a gallon of milk was $0.36 , a stamp costs $0.02 and Babe Ruth hit his first career home run. Sometimes try as I may, it is still hard for me to comprehend that my Dad had lived a lifetime before I was born in 1971.
He grew up relatively poor in Chicago with his older sister Bernadine, his mother Alma who ran a boarding house and his father George who was a machinist. Segregation was in full swing and my grandmother could have cared less about the laws regarding the separation of people defined solely by the color of their skin. She refused to make anyone use the back door or eat in separate rooms and if you didn’t like it you could stay somewhere else and she didn’t give a damn whose “laws” she was breaking. All were welcome and that meant all colors of God’s rainbow, many times if you simply had no place to go you were welcome. Everyone was going to eat well, and everyone was going to use the front door! The family did not have much but they shared what they had with those who needed it. Sometimes this did not sit well with my grandfather and I remember the stories my dad would tell of just how much of a rebel my grandmother was in those days…in all of her days. My memories of her are much like a mosaic for me, colorful jagged pieces of images and experiences I try to somehow fit together. I can see her face and there are two things I remember specifically about her. First that she would let me stack all the canned goods from her cupboard in big pyramids and knock them down with wooden spoons, and I remember just how she smelled, that warm clothesline clean smell of summertime. She was kind, and compassionate and could not understand or participate in the hatred of the world around her.
All of this background to tell you a story and to explain to a friend why I gave $5 to a woman begging on the streets.
I was probably around 6 or 7 when I went with my Dad to get painting supplies at John R. Green in Covington. There was a man who was dirty, disheveled, and whose pale gaunt face made him look sick , he was a little scary to me begging for money outside the store. Sadness seeped from him. When we left my Dad handed him a bill. I am sure my eyes were like saucers and my inside voice was screaming FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS! I didn’t really say much on the way home, but of course as soon as I got home I could not keep it to myself so in front of my mom and my Grandmother I blurted out “Dad gave some dirty, sad man “FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS” little did I know that would start a whole lotta trouble as my mom’s mother was not on the same page with my Dad when it came to social issues. In her mind my Dad was an idiot as that man was just going to “drink it away”. I was upset and began crying because everyone was mad. I went to the backyard where my Dad had gone out to his workshop in the garage, he lifted me up on the old planked bench dancing with fresh wood shavings and kissed the top of my head. “Now I don’t want you to be upset and I am going to tell you why. You listen to me because this is very, very important. I know your Grandmother didn’t like that I gave that man money but sweetie we can’t worry about what he does with the money, maybe he bought himself some food because he sure looked hungry to me, or maybe he wasted it away but we only have to answer for what we do in this world, how we act, and how we treat others. It’s your most important job, remember that.”
It is one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me. Do I fail sometimes and judge others? Yes. Do I always show my best self? No, not by a long shot. I do however try to make the best possible choices and when I don’t it doesn’t take me long to reflect back to what my Dad taught me and try to do better the next time.
He was born in 1915 but he was way ahead of his time.