Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21
One of the things I miss about my dad is his self-deprecating sense of humor, which would come out at random times and have the whole room laughing. Or just the passenger in his car.
At the end of a brief visit during my freshman year in college, Dad was driving me back to the airport. We came to an intersection where we had to stop but the cross traffic did not. It was a busy time of day, and cars sped by, with seemingly no one willing to sacrifice a few seconds to let us on. After about five stressful minutes, Dad muttered under his breath, “Come on, somebody …!”
Just then, a black man slowed his car down, smiled at Dad, and motioned to him to go ahead. Dad smiled back, waved a “thank you,” and pulled out. After a moment of silent smirking on my part, I heard Dad mutter in mock disgust, “How’d’ya like that? Forty years of prejudice, shot to hell.”
If my father were alive today, he would be over 100 years old. He grew up in a time and way of life that might be called “racist” by today’s standards, but I have never known a sweeter man. Dad was one of three boys, raised on an “farm” – a large lot with a pond, some chickens, a vegetable garden, and an occasional random creature, such as an orphaned baby bear and an alligator, which wouldn’t have been unusual in Florida, but this was Missouri. (Don’t ask.)
My grandparents had “hired help,” which I’ve come to understand were more like members of the family. My grandmother would discuss dinner options with her cook, who told her it didn’t matter how many chickens they prepared, the boys would eat everything in sight anyway. According to family lore, one day after a rainstorm, the chickens lay around looking as though they had all drowned. The cook told Granny that they weren’t dead, admonishing her to hang them on the clothes line by their feet. Granny followed her advice. Sure enough, after dangling in the sunshine for a while, the chickens dried off, perked up, and began flapping and protesting.
A generation later, my parents had a maid named Vester, who worked for my mom from the time I was about five. (I remember hiding from my sister’s wrath behind Vester’s skirt, and her ordering Susie to be nice to her little sister.)
Vester was the first one in the family to know that Marty and I were engaged. As it was a week before Susie’s wedding, after the initial silent squeals and hugs, she advised me regarding the best time to tell my stressed-out parents. Vester traveled all the way from St. Louis to Michigan to attend the wedding – not as a caterer, but as an honored guest. I will never forget how beautiful she looked in her royal blue kaftan.
Four years later Vester was the first to know that Joanna was on the way, not because I told her, but because she’d had a dream about a child in the woods. When she had asked who it was, a Voice had told her, That’s Ann’s little girl.
Although Vester was nearly as old as my father, after my mother’s death she kept “working for him” (taking care of him). And Dad took care of her, in the only way he was able in those last years, by giving gifts to her and her family. When he could no longer drive, he gave his practically-new luxury car to her grandson, who was a chauffeur. Vester stood in Dad’s room at the assisted living facility and gave a tearful speech about not waiting until someone’s funeral to give them flowers. “You gave me my flowers today.”
After Dad had passed away, my sister and I kept in touch with Vester and her daughters during her last days. I remember visiting her in her home and seeing many familiar things that I recognized as having belonged to my mother, and even my grandmother. (Vester had more heirlooms than we did!) Her devotion to our family was so profound that my youngest daughter Kelly and I traveled from Michigan to attend her funeral at a church we had never been to, in a part of St. Louis we had never seen, full of people we had never met. Vester’s daughters excitedly introduced us to almost everyone there, and almost everyone we met fairly gushed about how much Vester loved our family. There was no talk of race or economic status, only talk of God, grace, and the devotion of people who genuinely loved one another.
As an adult, I have enjoyed deep friendships with people of different ages, races, religious traditions, nationalities, and backgrounds. I have learned a lot from them all, including that practically every individual I encounter has the potential of becoming a close friend. It keeps life interesting.
I was sharing the anecdote about the intersection with another blogger, and it occurred to me that the black man on the busy street had the answer to racism – kindness! He wasn’t glaring at Dad, pointing a finger and calling him a racist. He was treating him as he himself wanted to be treated. And while admittedly there are people and situations that are too far gone to respond to kindness, attacking a racist is not going to change him, either. Hateful behavior only drives prejudices deeper. (Why do we even have to state this obvious truth?)
What would happen if we treated everyone with kindness and respect, even those we perceive aren’t worthy of it? (Are we worthy?) Who knows, we may see more people’s attitudes change for the better – more “years of prejudice, shot to hell.”