29 Mar 13

The Memory

One day sometime during the mid-eighties I was dressing my Barbies for a killer expedition in their red Corvette on the front driveway. All of a sudden, my grandmother stomped up to me with a genuinely distraught expression on her ordinarily cheerful face.

“I want you to promise me that you will never marry a black man,” she ordered with an intensity that adults usually reserved for statements like “Go to bed,” “Eat your Brussels sprouts,” and “If you do that one more time I’m going to pull this car over right now and you’re going to be sorry.”

I have a vivid recollection of this incident because it was so completely unexpected. My thoughts were of frustration. I was kind of in the middle of something. But she was my elder and I had to respond to her.

I had only one word to say: “Why?”

“Because it ain’t right,” Grandma said.

I was genuinely confused. What wasn’t right? Me getting married to a black man or me getting married because I was seriously underage? Or both? What was happening here? I looked down at Barbie and realized that she and Skipper were going to be late for their outing.

“But . . . what if I loved him?” I said.

The question was strange enough but it was made even stranger because my grandma seemed so angry. We weren’t even talking about a real fiancé here — just some hypothetical black dude leaning into my house like the sheriff from Blazing Saddles asking where the white women were at.

“It doesn’t matter. It ain’t right,” Grandma informed me.

“W . . . w . . . hyyyyy?” I said very slowly. I was not sassing her. This was seriously the most confusing conversation I had ever had. The most complicated issue I ever had to discuss with her before was chocolate or vanilla, and by chocolate or vanilla I mean ice cream, not people.

“Because it just ain’t right,” she said even more firmly. “Now I want you to promise me.”

There was only one way out of this. “Okay,” I told her, doing my very best not to sound like I was blowing her off because I much preferred the imaginary conversation I had been having with an inanimate object.

I lucked out. Grandma seemed satisfied with my answer so she finally went away and let me go back to what I really wanted to do, which was to find the ideal fashion ensemble for Barbie’s cruise in her convertible. I can remember with absolute clarity that my thoughts at that time were the childhood equivalent of What the hell was that? Who cares? Why do I want to talk about marriage? I’m eight years old for crying out loud. Who cares?

My grandmother was a wonderful woman. She had a vivacity that made me love her with absolute devotion. This incident is highly uncharacteristic of virtually every other interaction I ever had with her. All of my other memories are of a woman who taught me to crochet, cooked delicious food for me, lavished attention and gifts on me, and made my childhood absolutely wonderful. But standing there in the corner of my mind is this one embarrassing, painful memory like a stubborn little stain on an otherwise beautiful piece of cloth.

I don’t share this memory because I wish to slander the legacy of someone who I love and who is such a major part of who I am today. I share it because it’s important because I see a lot of people making this exact same mistake today, and a few decades from now their children and grandchildren will experience the same confusion and regret when they think of a dear loved one who, despite being an overwhelmingly positive influence on their lives, exhibited the ugliness of bigotry against those they did not understand. I share this story because incidents exactly like this one are being played out again all over this country, except instead of an adult extracting a promise against interracial marriage, the indoctrination is taking place against homosexual unions.

This week the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding California’s anti-gay constitutional amendment and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. I hope that both of these horrible laws will be struck down. Even if they are not in this court action, eventually they will be. That’s what gives me hope. I know I’m on the right side of history. If you don’t agree, I’d just like to spell out the following facts:

  1. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage.
  2. Public opinion has never shifted so rapidly on a social issue in this country.
  3. The younger an American is, the more likely they are to be accepting of LGBTQ people. Homophobia is literally a dying ideology.

If you are opposed to the recognition of gay and lesbian families, you have the right to be wrong. And you are oh so very wrong. But your opposition will leave an embarrassing mark on the memories of your descendants in exactly the same way that my grandmother’s bigotry against interracial marriage did for me. You will be loved and remembered fondly, but with an asterisk marking a crucial character flaw.

But it isn’t too late. You can change. Lots of other people have. Do it now. You won’t regret it, and neither will your grandchildren.