October 8, 2012

What I Learned from My Racist Grandfather.

He will die soon, without ever knowing his grandchildren and without ever reconciling with his daughter.

My grandfather is a closet racist. Even my mom didn’t know. In all the years she lived with him, he never revealed his secret. So it wasn’t out of rebellion that she married my father.

My grandfather’s lived in the same small town for most of his life, yet I doubt even his closest friends know the real reason he no longer speaks with his youngest daughter—her brown husband; perhaps more precisely—his half-brown grandchildren.

Still holding out hope that the relationship would be short-lived, the news of a baby was the final insult. It wasn’t until she was pregnant with me, their first, that he decided their relationship was over.

It’s not that he’s racist, he might tell himself. This kind of thing just isn’t right for his family. He’s a quiet man; a tough and stoic New Englander and this kind of thing just brings too much attention.

I can’t begin to imagine how my mom must have felt: pregnant for the first time and disowned by her dad. Her only consolation, I’m sure, was the hope that he’d get over it.

I guess I don’t have to tell you that’s not the way it worked out.

He used to make himself scarce when we would visit. We’d call a few days ahead and my grandmother would make sure he had something to do until we left in the evening. He’d return home when the coast was clear.

I remember feeling jealous that my cousins got to stay for dinner, got to spend the night in their  parents’ old bedrooms upstairs, got to sneak out for late-night swims at the lake. I remember Grandma coming over on Christmas Eve and I remember knowing that tomorrow the rest of our family would be celebrating together.

I did see him once when I was a kid. That time, we showed up without calling.   

I think my Mom just wanted to see his face. Maybe she wanted him to see hers. My brother and I opened the door and I saw him sitting back in his recliner; the calloused soles of his bare feet were the first glimpse I caught of him.

He must have recognized us from the pictures my grandmother keeps in the guestroom, because he was up and out of that recliner before Mom even stepped through the doorway. He escaped to the basement and out the bulkhead, then got in his old blue truck and spun up clods of dirt as he raced out of the driveway. My mortified grandmother fixed us tea.

I hated him that day, as tears streamed down my mom’s face. But it’s also the first time I realized what a sad and cowardly man he was. Something in his heart was stunted, replaced by a hard-edged pride to which he clung for dear life.

Fast-forward 20 years: I have a 12-year-old brother now.

He met his grandmother for the first time last summer because he’s lived most of his life overseas with my parents. When we arrived, my grandfather’s truck was in the driveway.

“Oh! What a nice surprise!” My grandmother said, flustered, as she greeted us in front of the house. We’d called ahead. Twice in fact, because we knew her memory wasn’t what it used to be.

Still, she’d forgotten to tell him. And now here we were. He must have snuck out back again because by the time we got to the front door he was gone.

We spent the day at the lake, swimming in the cool water and visiting with family. When we returned to the house, there he was: shirtless and very old. We’d caught him by surprise. He emerged from behind a wood-pile stacked against the house and it seemed like everyone stood still.

I saw his pale flesh hanging loosely off his thin frame, and tufts of white hair on his chest and on top of his head. He looked up and I saw his blue eyes jump from my mom, to my dad, to me and finally, to my little brother. His mouth opened. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he turned his back and walked quickly toward the woods.

Thirty years spent clutching his convictions had either calcified his stubbornness or steeped him in shame. Either way, he couldn’t face us.

My brother broke the silence. “Was that your Dad?” My mom just nodded. “But he doesn’t like us,” he stated. “Right,” she sighed, knowing there was so much more to say.

For most of my childhood, I felt a strange mix of anger and haughty indifference toward my grandfather. The pain he’d caused my mom was palpable; yet I’d always felt that if he didn’t want us; we didn’t need him. Now when I think of my grandfather, I feel little else than pity. He will die soon, without ever knowing his grandchildren and without ever reconciling with his daughter.

If he’d answered her letters, if he hadn’t run away, who knows how things could have been different?

If he’d learned to forgive his daughter, for what he thought an egregious offense, if he had been able to say he was sorry, he could have met a warm and funny man who would love his little girl unconditionally. He could have taken his grandkids hiking. He could have embraced a skinny, wide-eyed 12-year-old as he stood in a garden.

So what is there to learn from my racist grandfather?

Let love win over pride or fear or shame. Think about what’s really important in your life. Should you allow personal convictions to take priority over people and relationships; over opportunities to love and be loved? Use my grandfather’s example to set aside your differences and love now, before it’s too late.


A. Majack currently lives in New Hampshire’s seacoast and works as a web-copywriter and SEO strategist. Despite her frequent yoga practice, Amahl has a tendency to become a bit crotchety, and relies way too heavily on her two cats for respite from the daily grind.



           Editor: Evan Livesay


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