That fall I’d reached a low point in self-esteem. I’d recently broken my engagement to be married, work was taking its toll on body and soul, and the commute across Chicago’s potholed streets not only infuriated me but threatened the suspension in my old Toyota.
To keep spirits up as winter closed in, my housemate and I began jogging a nightly two-mile route up Logan Boulevard, down Kedzie, and around the park. Gang graffiti covered vacant stretches of stucco and brick along the route, and dark, empty buildings heightened the vague sense of threat.
One particular night I slogged along, feeling the weight of every stride. Suddenly we saw five teens accosting a drunk on the sidewalk a half block ahead. We heard their taunts, the breaking of a bottle, and the defenseless victim’s cries. Punches and kicks came in quick succession, followed by a slash with the bottle. All of a sudden I was running full steam, a voice in me I didn’t recognize screaming, “Leave him the fuck alone!” Closing in, I was oblivious to the consequences.
Remarkably, the attackers fled. After demanding help from reluctant neighbors, we attempted to stop the bleeding, awaited the ambulance, and then moved on, my momentary feeling of invincibility giving way to a fear of revenge lurking in every dark alley.
Later, in the safety of our kitchen, I looked back on the event with wonder and an unsteady pride. What I remember still with some awe is the surprising strength I discovered at a time when I had been feeling so powerless.
My father was born with a deformed left hand. Instead of fingers, he had a webbed ridge with some fingernails on it. In the pictures from his wedding, he has his left hand in the pocket of his best suit. But the father I knew paid no attention to his handicap. It was just a simple fact.
He did, however, tell me the story of his seeking a job at Ford Motor Company during the Depression. At his interview, he kept his cap over his left hand. Told that he’d been hired, he put on his cap and got up to leave. When the personnel manager saw his hand, he said, “Hey, what about that?” Dad replied, “When I think it interferes with my work here, I’ll come and tell you.” He was still on their payroll when he died.
South Bend, Indiana
It was 1988 and I was a blond displaced Northerner doing social work in the South. Margaret was a black single mother raising her two children in poverty. A co-worker and I ran a group for parents — all moms — who had long histories of “neglecting” their children. In their cases, the neglect was not intentional but merely a result of trying to raise children with little money, education, or skills.
In November we offered to take the women to vote in the presidential election; none had voted before. Margaret was the only one who wanted to go, so I picked her up, and we went to the polling place.
Since Margaret could not read or write, I was allowed to assist her in voting. She signed her name with an X, and we went into the booth. Margaret was a large woman, and I had to put my arms around her so we could both fit.
“OK,” I said, “here we go. Who do you want to vote for?”
“The man,” she said definitively.
“Margaret, you have to tell me more than that.”
“You know, Ms. René, I want Jesse.”
“Good, Margaret, that’s fine,” I replied, punching her card.
As we left the booth, several people in line who had been watching us started to clap for Margaret.
Back in the car, heading down the dirt road to her home, she saw my orange sticker that read, “I voted.” (My district had been passing them out.) “What’s that you got on your sweater?” she asked. When I told her, she said, “Do you think I could have one of those?” I pulled the car to the side of the road and gave her the sticker. “My kids are going to be proud of me today, Ms. René,” Margaret said.
René T. Murry
I always assumed I’d be a courageous mother. My children would be fearlessly protected from junk food and television. Bad teachers would be banned. Their earaches would be treated homeopathically. Thanks to me, the guardian at the gate, they would be better than their time and place.
What has happened is that I’ve had more calm than courage. Our home has been colonized by pop culture, the walls penetrated by its advertising jingles, the refrigerator filled with its glitzy, packaged food. My children are not pure, or even close to it. Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers soon became “TV time” at five every evening. From whole-wheat crust we moved rapidly to memorizing the local pizza-delivery number. Any books replaced “good” books. And all this happened before my children hit public school.
I was not cut out to be a strict parent. So instead of insisting on perfection, I remained calm. When they turned the French bread into the guns I wouldn’t let them have, I neither blessed nor cursed their behavior; I simply said, “Please don’t kill each other.” When my daughter refused any clothing that was not pink, I also refrained from critical commentary. This, too, I assured myself, would pass. It did.
The first time my ten-year-old cursed at me, I put him in his room, closed his door, and didn’t let him out for one hour: all without showing my tears of shame and rage. Was withholding my emotions right or wrong, courageous or cowardly? I don’t know. I love my children and know that they need me beside them, not my protection.
Yes, I do require religious education for them. And milk. And vegetables. But beyond that I am too wishy-washy to be courageous, too much a part of the world to be above it. And too much of a follower of my children, wanting to go with them where they go and not be left behind in a past that wasn’t nearly as perfect as I once imagined it to be.
In 1959, I was a young white girl of fourteen, and Molly was a middle-aged black woman who came every Saturday to clean our house. We liked each other.
My stepfather hated the sight of me and always found reasons to hit me. One Saturday he lost control and forgot Molly was coming. When she saw him hitting me, she rushed to stand between us, and told him, “You shouldn’t be hitting this child! If you want to hit her again, you will have to go through me.”
He stood very still, saying nothing. Then he turned and left the room. Molly made sure I was OK, then went on to clean the house.
My stepfather continued to beat me until I was twenty-one. But after Molly stood up to him and protected me, I at least knew what he did to me was cruel and very wrong. Molly and I weren’t related, but at the moment she stepped in I felt connected to the whole human family, much more so than I ever would to my parents and relatives.
When I was eight years old, my father rode the bus with me and my younger brother and sister from our home in Kathmandu to our grandparents’ village in southern Nepal. As we waited for the bus to depart, my father turned to me and said, “Stand up straight.”
I looked at my hunched-over father with surprise and replied, “What about you? If you want me to stand up straight, you have to stand the same way.”
He gave me a disapproving look — children were not supposed to question their parents — and said, “My guru always stood bent over and, imitating him, I did, too. One day he told me to stand tall and I also disrespectfully questioned him, as you’re questioning me. He told me that he had fallen into bad habits when he was young and was now too old to change, but that I should listen to what he said and not imitate what he did. I expect you, Daughter, to do the same.”
Later, at fourteen I was embarrassed by my growing breasts. Not only did I feel awkward and ungainly, but I had to put up with strangers on buses and in cinemas pinching and poking them and making lewd comments. Consequently, I took to wrapping a cloth around my breasts to flatten them and to drawing my shoulders in and hunching my back. I walked around like this for two years, and today I still suffer periodic back pains from that time.
Ten years ago I had the good fortune to meet many wonderful and wise Tibetan gurus, with whom I have since studied. Some of them were in their seventies and eighties. Some had been ill and even crippled. But they all shared one thing in common: they walked and sat straight and tall. Even the guru who had been bedridden for twenty years sat as straight as the mast of a ship, his shining black eyes twinkling like two beacons in the night. “Sit straight and breathe fully from your abdomen,” they all said. “Stand straight and gaze out at the world with awareness and mindfulness. With your body straight and tall, your thoughts will be clear and sharp.”
I am no longer ashamed of my body. The breasts I used to bind bounce freely now as I walk. And when I walk, it is with my head held high and my back straight.
Delhi, New York
I was a young single mother, struggling to make ends meet and give my daughter the same guidance as would come from a mom and a dad. It was a nearly impossible task, but I tried.
When my daughter was eight years old, a bully began terrorizing children at the school-bus stop. I took turns with other concerned mothers from the neighborhood, waiting at the bus stop to protect the children. The bully, I discovered, was an eleven-year-old girl. She threw rocks from across the street while cursing loudly at both me and the children. I went to the school to speak with the principal about what was happening, and I was told that a social worker would visit the rock thrower’s family, and she would probably be suspended from riding the school bus.
The next day, as I pulled into my driveway after work, two women were waiting for me in the bushes beside my front door. One was the mother of the eleven-year-old girl. With trepidation, I got out of my car and watched these women roll up their sleeves as if preparing to punch me.
“We came to talk some sense into you,” the bully’s mother said. “You have no right to get some social worker to come by my house and accuse us of abusing our child. She’s a stupid little brat, but we can take care of her. We don’t need you interfering, acting like you and your daughter are so perfect.”
“Who are you to say that my friend abuses her child?” the other echoed. “You ought to mind your own business.” They added some curses. My daughter, a latchkey child, was watching from a window of the house.
As they cursed me, and stepped closer with raised fists, I ran down a list of options in my head: I could get back inside the car and lock the door. I could try to walk past them to the safety of my apartment. I could argue, fight, lie, whine, or plead ignorance — all these options went through my mind during that split second.
Instead, I told the truth in a calm voice: Yes, I had gone to speak to the principal because her child had thrown rocks at the other children. The social worker’s accusations were her business to deal with, not mine. Furthermore, this was not the best place or time to discuss this matter because I had to make dinner for my family. With that, I walked past them and went inside. To my surprise, they went home.
Santa Barbara, California
Someone brought us into each other’s lives for a purpose. Knowing him made me believe in God again; I felt I was living a miracle. Once I realized what was happening, I knew our time together would be short, but as we went on I began to hope for something more.
It was an honest love between us. We risked. We trusted. We were open. We were friends. Together we reached a special place neither one of us had ever been before. But we never made love — it wouldn’t have been right.
Then he told me his life was falling apart, and I did what I thought was right: I turned him back toward his wife. I said, “Take what you found with me and bring it home,” and, “Do it for your sons.” I gave him a list of counselors. My head was held high, but my heart was breaking.
I never wanted to be the escape hatch, the transitional one. I had too much self-respect too much hope in a chance for something more with him. I thought I had to let what we had die so that someday, maybe, it could come back. So I walked away from the most precious thing I’d ever known.
That was a year ago. He’s divorced now — and with someone else, someone who was around all along, someone I always knew he wanted. They spend every day and night together. They’ll be married soon.
When we parted, I didn’t understand we were leaving each other’s lives forever. He did. I look back and don’t know if any of it was real for him. I don’t know if I touched his life at all.
There’s not much solace right now in knowing I stood tall. I have my truth, my spirit, my dignity, but I can’t help but wonder: if I’d crawled on my hands and knees, would things have turned out differently?
“Grease-can alley with the big, fat belly. Grease-can alley with the big, fat belly . . .” Over and over Paul taunted me. It hit a soft spot since I was a chubby child and my dad was a mechanic. Paul was older — maybe twelve to my eight — a big, mean kid who was always in trouble in school; a kid who yanked the legs off frogs, threw stones at turtles, and pulled the girls’ hair.
One day he started the rhyme as usual to amuse himself and four of his friends, and I snapped. I knocked him down, jumped on top of him, beat his head against the sidewalk, and said, “You turd, don’t you ever say that again!” He lay there stunned, sweating, and out of breath. After that, my status in the neighborhood soared. No one messed with me again, least of all Paul, who suddenly had a very different opinion of me. Here’s what I learned: if you beat a boy bloody, he’ll have a crush on you forever.
At the family supper table one evening, Dad opened the conversation by saying, “What odds would you give me in a battle of wits with Goatie?” My little brothers and I laughed. It was a joke, of course. Goatie was a retarded young man from a respected family who wandered freely around our town. In true small-town fashion, people tolerated his bizarre behavior. He hadn’t completed much schooling, but he hung around the high school and was a thorn in the side of my father, the principal.
“The poor sap accosted me on Main Street,” Dad said.
My mother exploded: “That worthless lout! Why doesn’t his family control him?”
“Oh, it was just one of his games,” my father said. “He stood out in the middle of the street and yelled, ‘Hey, Prof! Hey, Prof!’ ”
Mom was fuming. “What did you do?” she demanded.
“Why, I just kept walking. He shambled over and stood in my path and screamed, ‘Hey, Prof, I’m talking to you!’ And I kept walking. Then he grabbed my arm and turned me around and yelled in my face, ‘Hey, Prof! You lost that basketball game last night and I’m gonna take it out of your hide.’ And — this is really good — he put up his fists like a boxer.”
We kids laughed again, but Mom didn’t. She said, “And . . . you just kept walking?”
“Sure,” Dad said. “Left him there still bellowing, for all I know.”
Mom groaned. “With everybody on Main Street watching?”
“Yeah,” Dad said, laughing. “Goatie got his moment in history.”
“And what did you look like when you just kept walking, for God’s sake?”
We kids began to realize this was no joke at all.
“Sounds like you’re saying I was a coward,” Dad said. I don’t think she would have used that word. I couldn’t stand to think it. Now I had a terrible dilemma: had my dad backed down or stood tall?
Kansas City, Missouri
He stood over the stove cooking hamburgers. “Chemo, cobalt, I’ll try them all; then I’ll get my house in order.” His tears splashed into the frying pan full of sizzling grease.
He never gave up. He stayed on his feet until he could no longer get air into his lungs. Then, and only then, did he ask to go to the hospital.
When I saw him there, he looked out of place — I was used to seeing him on his feet. Two days later, he was gone.
I had only recently transferred to the Chippewa Regional Correctional Facility, where I didn’t know anyone. One day I decided to sell something I owned, so I set out to find a buyer. I discussed the terms of the sale with several people until I found someone who, after minimal bargaining, agreed to make the purchase.
The man said he didn’t have enough money right then, so I told him that if he could come up with a down payment, I would hold on to the item for him. But he wanted me to give it to him then. “I don’t do business that way,” I said. “It’s nothing personal.” I think he assumed that his race was the reason for my refusal, but that wasn’t the case. I had learned long ago that, in prison, at least for a person of my size and aversion to violence, all sales must be strictly cash-and-carry.
At this point, I saw someone I had come to trust and I asked him whether he knew the man I was doing business with. “Oh yeah,” he said, “that’s my homeboy; he’s straight!” So, against my better judgment, I retrieved the item from my cell and handed it over to the other man who gave me the down payment and promised to pay the balance the following week.
It’s been a couple of weeks and he still hasn’t made good. Now I have a bad feeling, and it’s not about the money, which I don’t really need. I have a bad feeling about what people expect me to do if the man doesn’t pay me.
In the environment that I live in, it’s not unusual to see a man getting stitches or worse over as little as a dollar. The prevalent attitude is that you are not a man if you let someone take from you. The terms bitch, ho, coward, and worse are constantly thrown at those who choose to accept losses and go on with life.
I have several choices. I could put my padlock on the end of my belt and use it to bust the man’s head open, or buy a shank and stab him. If I did, no one would call me “bitch” or try to steal from me again, but I would have to watch my back for the man’s homeboys and face prosecution for attempted murder, or murder.
I could snitch . . . but that’s out of the question. It makes no sense to aid our common oppressors.
Or I could face the labeling, let them say and think what they want while I hold my head high. I could let the man who swindled me laugh and tell all his friends how he “ganked” the white boy, and still treat every man with an equal degree of respect regardless of color.
I could give to those who are truly in need, still believing that trust and honor are not dead. (Tragically, in most people’s eyes trust has become a character defect — especially in prison.) I could stand firm in the conviction that violence is fear and pride driven by ignorance, and that the ignorant should be pitied — not heeded.
Let them call me a coward, for they have no idea what courage really is.