The Northwoods of Minnesota, in the ’60s and ’70s, was a blue collar enclave of iron mining communities. The women and children worked hard on the home front while the men (and a very few women) worked swing shifts at the mines. With all of the responsibilities of raising four kids and taking care of my Dad’s needs, Mom wrote.
It’s taken me until very recently to realize that therein lies the roots of my writing. One would think that it is a glaringly obvious statement, but her writing was almost never discussed. Ever present, in various locations around the living room, were copies of Redbook, McCalls, and Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest. There were novels by Leon Uris, Anais Nin, William Peter Blatty, Victoria Holt or Mario Puzzo. And then there was the Writer’s Digest – The Bible of writers.
Mom wrote short stories and submitted them to each of the women’s magazines, and received her rejection letters quietly. In fact, her entire writing experience was done quietly. No one ever discussed it. It wasn’t taboo, it just never came up. I was barely aware of it, being so self-absorbed as kids are I do remember her tap tap tapping on her typewriter on days that I was home sick from school. I’ve never read her work. I can only assume that the subject matter would have been appealing to women – based on the magazines that she was submitting to.
She was repressed by time, place, societal norms and expectations. As more time passes since her death a few years ago, I’ve come to see her in a much different light and along with that comes a much deeper appreciation and respect.
She was an avid reader and always encouraged me to do the same, and I did. When I showed an interest in photography, she subscribed to two photography magazines for me. She was a good singer, and when any of us showed an interest in music, she supported it. She was always trying to expand her world. After my father passed away, she married an artist who worked in the painting and sculpture mediums.
She was bigger than her surroundings, but I didn’t appreciate it. I do now, and I am proud of her.
I wept over my break-up with God while driving. I was thinking about our good times; those hundreds of hours spent in praise and worship, and then remembering that I thrilled at the experience of the fellowship all in unison with one intent, but also not admitting that I was not feeling the presence of God, but rather the euphoria of a single-minded meditation of sorts. Not once did He show up. We waited, vigilantly, but no-one could say definitively that He showed up to the party being thrown in His honor.
And that time as a missionary in Mexico when a family brought their daughter, crippled with polio, to a group of us at a work sight. The parents saw the joy in our faces during the Sunday service earlier in the week and where convinced that the Holy Spirit inhabited our praises. We also believed, and we prayed for her leg to straighten as a testimony to her family and village that God will never forsake. But He did.
And the hundreds of hours in prayer.
And so on.
We had a 35-year relationship with plenty of separations and restorations until, well, I just ran out of gas. I didn’t have the one-sided conversation in me anymore. I wasn’t buying the, “God speaks to you through the people he puts in our lives and through the good things that have happened to you and the bad things that didn’t.” I’ve counseled people with that line, but it was very good sounding and anxiety relieving bullshit. He never spoke to me. Not once. Not ever.
I miss Him a lot. I wept so deeply I had to pull over.
That was yesterday. Today I find myself fully dressed and in my right mind. I think I’ll write.
I was a sixteen-year-old boy walking down the short main street of a northern Minnesota iron mining town, looking for friends or trouble to get into. I saw a new bone-white Lincoln Continental parked, facing me, on the street just ahead of me. I took a couple steps closer and saw that inside was a woman in the passenger seat. She was alone and looking directly at me with a slight grin. I stopped then, and if anyone had been around to see me, they would have wondered why I stood frozen on the sidewalk for what seemed like…it seemed like…time stopped.
She was a black woman in a land where one could drive a hundred miles and not see another, but that wasn’t it. It was her breath taking, exotic, sensual beauty. I swear her eyes were made of dark chocolate and gold, and her skin was a copper tone that I had never seen in a movie or magazine. She wore a white felt narrow brimmed Fedora with a feather sticking from the hat band. The longer I stood there, the bigger her smile got, but neither of us was uncomfortable. Just in the moment. I took in the whole image of her in this fine chariot and I knew that my life had been changed.
It was at that moment when the rest of the world found me, and I found the rest of the world.
I didn’t appreciate who you were, but I’ve come to understand. Over the years I would see you on this show or that and my impression was that you were a bit too precious and over the top. You had the diction of a Northeastern blue blood and I my assumption was that you came from a privileged up-bringing. Your whole persona seemed affected and that chilled my interest in who you were or what you had to say.
I heard ‘Still I Rise’ without being aware of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. I’m not sure a white guy raised in Minnesota could appreciate one without the other. I didn’t know that you shared the stage with James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett Jr., and Cicely Tyson, (All of whom I’ve always thought highly of).
I have come to understand what black entertainers like you, Ozzy Davis, Sammy Davis Jr. Harry Belafonte and all the others had to go through being well loved entertainers, yet having to come and go through the servant’s entrance of the venues that you were playing.
I’ve been shot at and nearly run over by bigot crackers because I was traveling with my ‘road dog’ Chris who was also the best man at two of my weddings. I’d forgotten at the time that he was black, but the world reminded us. He apologized to me once that I had to endure this with him and I burned with shame so deeply that I could taste the ash in my mouth. I tell you this only so that you know that I get it…as much as I’m able.
I’m sorry, Doctor Angelou. You were regal, and proud, and your respect was hard won. Forgive me for not knowing. You have a place of honor in my soul, Ma’am.