Sunday, July 2, 2017

Close Encounters

I was raised in the deep south in Roswell, Georgia, a small town that my ancestors helped settle in the early 19th century. I guess we’re a family of home bodies because after all these years, so many of us are still there. I was a black sheep who married a foreigner (an Iowan) and spent my adult life in Florida. But Roswell, though no longer a small town, will always be home.

There is a cemetery right down the road from our family house where you can see the gravestone of my great great grandparents, Valentine and Nancy Coleman. It was so close to the road that, when the road was widened a few years ago, it had to be scooted over. I’m guessing that means Valentine and Nancy are now under the road, but I’m not sure about that. They won’t care, regardless. The Colemans of Roswell are as relaxed as willow trees and have always known how to go with the flow, even if it’s the flow of traffic overhead.

I consider it a rare privilege to have this local ancestral heritage available to me. Roswell is full of historic documents and legends and someday my story will become part of the legacy (the eccentric widow who stole away to Ireland and was never seen again).

It isn’t all so good though. I grew up a racist. It was apparent that my family considered all people of color to be inferior. I don’t recall it being said directly, but the attitudes made it obvious. I overheard whispers about filth and stupidity and disgust with poverty. We weren’t the hateful KKK brand, but just the common ignorant southern middle class of the day.

The only interaction I had with anyone ethnically different from me was with our ironing maid, Mary Stuart. Mary had a humble, subservient spirit and I loved keeping her company while she ironed our weekly laundry. My mother set her up in a back bedroom and she worked while watching General Hospital on tv. It was funny to me that she pronounced it General Horspital. 

My mother made a point of telling me that I should never, ever say anything to Mary about her being a n……. because that would hurt her feelings. And of course, being the rascally little scamp that I was, the next time I saw her I blurted out, “MARY, YOU'RE A N……. !” Mary knew how to be gracious and forgiving, even if my mother knew nothing about child psychology. 

She had a circuit of clients in our neighborhood and we were the last house of the day. So my mother was responsible for taking her home. She lived on Oxbo Road which was sadly referred to simply as “N…… Town”. I remember seeing the black children playing in the dusty (or muddy) street and returning my bug-eyed stares as we bumped around the curve to Mary’s house. I was so curious to go inside when we dropped her off, but that was never going to happen. 

So where am I going with this and why now? A few days ago as I was walking by the River Suir, I came upon a family of Travellers enjoying the sunshine and bathing their horses. In Ireland, the Travellers are an indigenous ethnic group that have a long history of conflict and tension with the majority of “settled” Irish. You may know them by the traditional (but perjorative) terms of “tinkers” or “gypsies”. They are recognizable here in Thurles by their horse drawn buggies. They have traditionally been nomadic (hence the name) but in recent years have settled into groups of more traditional houses and trailers mostly in urban areas.

According to internet research sources, they are often viewed as “insular, anti-social, dropouts and misfits.” I also read that “social, economic and educational exclusion were contributing factors to high levels of offending behaviors.”  I actually spent a couple of days reading and watching documentaries about their alternative lifestyles and subsequent struggles with discrimination.  

One source stated that 50% of Irish Travellers do not live past age 39 and that men are six times more likely to commit suicide than the settled population. There’s a plethora of information out there if you’re a closet anthropologist like me and feel the need for more details.
I felt of rush of deja vu as I greeted the Travellers by the river and watched the children play. I introduced myself and asked permission to take some photos. I have to say I was intrigued to see the horse on a leash taking a swim. I couldn’t decide if the horse liked or disliked this. Maybe the horse wasn't even sure. 

A few days later they were back and after they had all left, I noticed that one young man remained behind. As he was across a fence rehitching his horse to its buggy, we struck up a conversation. He told me some things about his large family and asked me about mine. There was so much more I wanted to hear about his take on contemporary Traveller life. I really REALLY wanted to ask him for a ride back to town (about a mile) in his buggy. But I was fearful based on the prejudices that I had to own. I hated this feeling of uneasiness and suspicion that had no basis at all in this young man’s appearance or behavior. But I also felt responsible for the safety of my children’s mother, so I hesitated. As he was about to trot off, my brave took hold and I popped the question, “Do you think you could give me a lift back to town?”

“Sure. Meet me up by the road.” Yes! I was thrilled. Then just as quickly I heard “Ughhhh…..actually I just remembered I’m not going that way. I have to meet someone down the road in the other direction.”

It hit me like a horse kick. In that brief moment, HIS fears and prejudices had surfaced. I have no way of knowing, of course, exactly what he was thinking. But I’m guessing he might have questioned my motives or my reactions or anticipated criticism from his family. I don’t know. I just know I thought about all this as I walked back to town. 

These things are way too complicated to be sorted out by a Floridian with a laptop. The “us vs. them” scenario is played out all over the place in politics, religion, culture, gender, education, and on and on and on. I spent my career helping young children process their economic and racial differences at an age when it might truly make a difference in their lives. I guess we never really get through the processing. 

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant writing which begs for a wider audience, Kim. If you ever compile that book of yours, this entry must be included. You handled several delicate talking points beautifully.