I’d like to think that I’m free of prejudices, but some time ago, I was reminded that I am not. I was listening to an audio recording of Frances Mayes read her book, Under the Tuscan Sun. As I listened to her slow, honey-coated voice drip over the Italian words, I felt myself slip into a black hole.
Sometimes, regional dialects bring out the worst in us. When I hear a Southern drawl, I immediately think of something dismissive- something akin to “ignorant white trash” which is hardly so in the case of Frances Mayes who chairs the Creative Writing Department at Berkeley.
- Most of us grew up with the prejudices of our elderly relatives. Generations ago when people travelled less and seldom came in contact with people or ideas different from their own, ignorance drove the prejudices. What prejudices did your relatives hold?
- Were any of these prejudices passed on to you, or do you have your own?
- What experiences did you have that moved you past stereotypes?
- Do you still harbor stereotypes? What are they? (Think beyond ethnic and racial stereotypes. I, for instance, initially dismiss women with “big hair,” long fake fingernails, and people who have built McMansions as testimony to their earning power.)
- Write a piece in which you incorporate prejudice or stereotyping.
My parents were anti-Irish. My dad, of Welsh parentage, grew up hearing how badly his father had been treated by the Irish in the Pennsylvania Coal Mines. The Irish had immigrated earlier, and they resented the Welshmen. It is an old story – immigration stories never change.
I’m closing with a story that is less about prejudice than it is about family dynamics, but look for the Irish twist at the end.
The Cold War
The time is 1950. The Cold War is escalating. Senator McCarthy names 81 “loyalty risks.” Pacific coast skiers organize to defend mountain passes against a Communist invasion, and The U.S. Guide to the Atomic Attack is a best seller.
But I am only seven. My world is small. What do I know?
My mom and dad and I and my baby sister Christine live upstairs in my grandparents’ house. Daddy upholsters furniture. He is very proud that he upholstered the furniture for the Queen Mary, but he is not happy. He misses the travel and excitement of being in the Army.
Family life weighs heavy. To lighten his load, he and my Uncle Donny drink after work. Mom, who was pretty independent during the war years, suffers Daddy’s return. Also, she has a colicky baby and hemorrhoids.
But I am only seven. What do I know?
I sit at the white, enamel kitchen table. My egg is cold and my toast dry. While my parents argue, I stuff my uneaten crusts into the frame under the tabletop.
Christine begins to cry. She cries all the time. Grandpa asks Momma, “Why can’t you keep that baby quiet?” The only way Momma can quiet Christine is to place the bassinet right next to the vacuum cleaner. Christine likes the sound of the running Hoover. The vacuum runs all night and day. Grandpa complains about all the Hoover noise.
Momma has Christine on her hip. She jiggles the baby up and down to keep her quiet. Christine is teething. She gums the bib of Momma’s apron. Daddy is at the door leaving for work.
“Goodbye. Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
“Will you be home after work?”
“If Donny doesn’t keep me out too late.”
“Mable doesn’t like it when Donny comes home drunk. She blames you. But she blames me more. I’m supposed to keep you in line, and you are supposed to keep Donny in line.”
“Well, what do you expect me to do? He’s the one with the car!”
“I expect you to set an example. You’re a pair. It’s the blind leading the blind.”
“Well if you hadn’t sold the car, I wouldn’t have to depend on him or his car.”
“You’re the one who enlisted and left me with that old junker.”
“It wasn’t a junker.”
“The tires were shot, and I couldn’t get new ones.”
“You should have put the car up on blocks.”
“I was pregnant and hitchhiking to work. Do you think I liked hitchhiking to work? If I could have driven the car, I would have.”
“You don’t know how to drive.”
“That’s not the point. The point is there was no rubber for tires. The car was no use to anybody, and I needed the money.”
“I sent you money.”
“You didn’t send enough.”
Daddy kisses me. “Goodbye, Sweetheart.” He turns to go. He doesn’t kiss Momma.
Momma sits down at the table. She has a special cushion. It looks like a doughnut. Her fanny hurts. She cries. Christine cries.
I want to get up from the table, but I can’t leave until my plate is clean. Children are starving in China. I’ve hidden the egg yolk under the edge of the plate. It is not a good time to ask Momma if I can be excused. I wait.
I wait some more. “Momma? Can I go out and play?”
“Stay right out front where I can see you.”
Grabbing my roller skates and key, I start out the kitchen door.
“And don’t go down to Murray’s.”
“But I want to see if Colleen can skate with me.”
“I said, ‘No.’”
“They’re not our kind of people.”