We spent our holiday in a small town that time hasn't changed in more than 50 years. There's just as much prejudice in that small town now as I'm sure there was in the 1950s.
To be as diplomatic as possible, and to limit repercussions, I will try to avoid saying exactly who of my family doesn't hang with certain ethnicities. But what comes out of his or her mouth at times is disturbing at best. Each year during Christmas, he or she (I'll arbitrarily use the generic "he" from this point on) brings gifts for my two boys but doesn't include me in the tradition. The routine had been the same for the last eight years, but this year was different.
When he and another family member were in the kitchen, I again heard a degrading comment about a person of a different ethnicity. Usually, I admit that my response has been to make a nasty face and shrug it off. This year, when I closed my eyes and silently shook my head, I thought of Billie.
I was 4 years old when a truly special friend of the family came by for a visit. Her name was Billie, and she had worked as a maid, nanny and cook for my grandmother, my great-aunt and my great-grandmother for over 40 years. She was the sweetest person in the world. Billie was African American. In the small town where I grew up, white was all you saw.
Throughout the visit, I kept staring at Billie. I often remarked that Billie was different than the rest of us. My mom was horrified every time I opened my mouth. We had been taught at an early age to not judge by outward characteristics, but by civility.
As Billie was about to leave to head back to her home in New York City, still staring at her, I finally announced, "I know why you look so different from the rest of us."
My mom went from horrified to terrified. Billie very calmly kneeled down to my level, looked me in the eyes and said, "I'm sure you do honey, but tell me how you think I look different."
"We all have blue eyes and yours are brown," I said with great relief now that the mystery was solved.
Billie gave me a big hug.
Billie has been special to me for over 30 years. She may have worked for my great-aunt, my grandmother and my great-grandmother, but to me, she has always been a member of my family.
I'm not going to change this family member's racist view, but I do want to thank him for the first truly valuable gift he has ever given me: the priceless gift of a wonderful memory.