All I Did Not Know

Until I was nine, I lived in my grandfather’s house in a Boston neighborhood that was about to become one of the most vital black communities in the country.

The year I started kindergarten though, the place was still very white. There was just one black child in our class whom, as I recall, the teacher was constantly punishing.

One day, saying he sang too loud, she barricaded him behind the piano, which she then pushed into the corner, so he couldn’t get out.

Another time, she took him into the cloak room and hung him by his belt loops from one of the hooks.

I brought these stories home to my mother, who found them as troubling as I did.

All through our childhood, my sister and I were given to know that ours was an “enlightened” family. Hadn’t this grandfather we lived with given learned talks even at the Young Men’s Jewish Association, Roman Catholic though he was? Hadn’t he labored to get the teachers their first-ever pay raise when he was Chairman of the Boston School Committee?

These were the stories we heard of him, a classic bootstrap tale, beginning when he left behind thin-soiled farm and Irish immigrant parents alike to try his luck in the wider world. He finished college, and law school, and by the time he was giving those learned talks around Boston, his speech was as refined as that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who were running the place.

His success was a direct consequence of his hard work, I was taught, and only much later did it dawn on me that he might have been accepted as easily as he was by these WASPS because, with his Northern European ancestry, he looked just like them.

But that wasn’t mentioned in the family story.

Neither was the breakup of our mother’s wartime marriage, that abandonment of a wife and two babies by our father. He was never mentioned him, not even once.

“Where is OUR father?” it finally occurred to us to ask.

“You don’t have a father, we were told. End of discussion.

Still, we had an advantage, a kind of “protection,” as white children, and children whose people had gone to college. I mean, no teacher ever tried to hang either of US in any cloak room.

At age 17, I was admitted to one of the country’s top women’s colleges – because I was such a clever little star, as I told myself. I chose not to dwell on the C-minus I got In Algebra III that semester might or to consider the fact that I just might have been admitted because I was a legacy, my mother having gone to the same school four decades earlier.

 Whether I truly earned my place there or not, my real education began at that school where for the first time in my life I met and worked beside Asian students, black students, Jewish students and Latino students.

 And my education continued when I went on to teach in a diverse urban high school.

In time, married and with babies on the horizon, my young husband and I went on to become homeowners, something we might not have been able to do without help from our parents, who were homeowners themselves. Another advantage.

Maybe I go on too long here, because this is meant just as autobiography. Certainly it is not meant as any kind of sermon. I mean to say only that I ‘see’ more and more, the longer I live. And I am resolved never to be that person who find herself on third base and tells herself she has hit a triple.

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8 thoughts on “All I Did Not Know

  1. This is fascinating. Did your grandfather leave any biographical notes? My grandfather was from a time a bit earlier than yours. He was the son of Irish immigrants, who settled in Roxbury.
    A member of the State Board of Arbitration, he worked out of the State House, traveling throughout the state negotiating strikes and other manager-worker problems. He was well known for his unbiased attitude toward both sides.. My father treasured a headline from a local newspaper: Supple In Town. I have a priceless letter of his to his sons in which he offered his advice to them on becoming men. He died in church while attending mass,

    1. I would love to know his name and dates Joan. Because my mother married so late my people date from far earlier decades than you might expect .

      Wouldn’t it be something if they knew each other!

  2. A lovely piece–especially the ending. Are you familiar with this, from Hawthorne’s “Customs House Essay,” (that I once used in a talk to Seniors and their parents at BB&N):

    ” It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.”

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