This piece was published today, September 17, 2017 in the Pasadena Star News.
Stephen Sondheim has given the world many unforgettable lyrics in musical theater. One that has been coming to mind lately is from “Into the Woods,” in his song “Children Will Listen.”
“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” the lyrics go. “Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be. Careful before you say, ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.”
Our nation has Nazis and KKK members demonstrating in support of their ideals of racism and their notion that the white race is superior to all others.
As a child, I listened to my parents, who were not Nazis or Klan members, use words that were hurtful to African Americans and Mexican Americans. Racial epithets and slurs were easily thrown around the dining room table. I bore the brunt of their ideas, but I did not adopt them.
One day when I was about 8 years old, I was eavesdropping on my mother and her friend as they talked at the kitchen table. Mom’s friend said she saw a white woman and an African American man (she used the N-word) driving together in a car. She shared it with my mom as if she had seen a man from Mars. They seemed to enjoy repeating the N-word, to punctuate their incredulity. I got bored and went out to play.
I grew up in a small town in Ohio where the majority of people were white. There were a few African American kids in our junior high, but not in our grade school. The same was true for Mexican Americans. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t substantially like me in all aspects of life — we were all white, middle class and practiced some form of Christianity. Though we never went to church because we were, in Mom’s words, “unaffiliated.”
When I started high school, the pressure was on to get a boyfriend and, eventually, get married and have kids. That was the extent of the ambitions my parents had for me. I was very awkward, shy and skinny, with big buck teeth. In spite of all that, a boy called and asked me for a date. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was because he was a football player. In my high school, football players were members of the celebrity class, and he was well known and admired.
The hitch was that he was Mexican American. Knowing that my parents wouldn’t approve, I nonetheless accepted the date. Then I had to tell my mother. She gushed with pride when I told her I was going on a date, but I knew I had to tell her about his ethnic background before he showed up at the door. She told Dad, and he became enraged.
Dad wasn’t warm and cuddly to begin with, so I expected a bad reaction, but I didn’t expect that he would threaten to throw me out of the house if I went on a date with a Mexican American (he used viler words to describe a boy he had never met).
I was 16, with no extended family or close friends to turn to. I knew my father was serious about his threat. I come from a family where ties are cut due to disagreements and are never repaired. I would be out on my butt.
I broke the date and learned a lesson. Just as in Sondheim’s song, I looked to my parents for which way to turn, but I didn’t want to turn in their direction. I finished high school and saved enough money to go to college. There I met a variety of people who were different from me. My Jewish roommate and I still keep in touch, 47 years later. I married a Jewish man.
My parents visited my husband and me often over the years. During one visit a basketball game was on television, and my mother made a vile remark about one of the African American players. Memories of my foiled date so long ago bubbled back up, along with my distaste for my parents’ bigoted views of people they knew nothing about.
“Mom,” I said, “in my house we do not speak of our fellow human beings that way.”
Boy, did that feel good. I knew there was no way to change my parents’ minds or hearts, but observing their racism as a child, when I was looking to them to decide “which way to turn, to learn what to be,” I learned the answer well:
Go in the opposite direction.
This piece was published in the Los Angels Daily News on August 15, 1999.
I called the hospital and was put through to the intensive care waiting room. My dad picked up. I knew immediately something was terribly wrong.He told me my mom had a heart attack during the surgery. He didn’t know where she was. No one was telling him anything. What was going on?
My parents said the surgery wasn’t terribly serious and I believed them. After all, my sister would be there, and I planned to arrive the next day. Now it looked like I would be too late. My sister, I found out later, also took them at their word and attended a class that morning.
When I arrived at the hospital the next day the doctors told us they were worried. They never say that. When a doctor worries, family members panic. My mom was surrounded by “spaghetti,” with enough tubes and wires to power a small city. None of us knew if she would make it.
I stood by her side, leaning over the bed rail and talked and talked. She was unconscious but it didn’t matter; the nurses said it would help. The next day things got worse. My mother was reduced to a mass of hourly readings: heart rate, respiration, blood pressure. And then it got worse.
The doctor said she needed a sigmoidoscopy. He thought some her tissue might have died during the heart attack due to lack of oxygen. He wanted to go in and "take pictures." Knowing what she was in for, I asked that I be allowed to stay with her during the procedure.
I searched for the right words to comfort her. With her mouth taped shut, tubes sprouting from both wrists, forearms and even her abdomen, and now a nasty tube going into her guts, I asked her if she would like me to swear for her. Her lids lifted and our eyes locked. She nodded, yes. I began to swear like a sailor in loud and confident tones.
To this day, I don’t know why I offered to cuss for her at that moment. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I heard my mother swear. We kids knew that if Mom swore, something was terribly wrong.
I knew something was terribly wrong in the cardiac intensive care unit as the physician performed a painful procedure on my mother after she had endured forty-eight hours on life support following seven grueling hours of surgery.
We fought together, the two of us. I voiced her frustration in loud, vibrant tones. We weren’t complaining, we weren’t even praying. We were fighting for survival in the best way we knew how, not by cowing and crying but by crowing and proclaiming in colorful street language the indignation my mother felt but was unable to express.
She made it through the procedure, through the night, through the fever and yet another agonizing day on life support. On the morning of the fourth day she opened her eyes and smiled. My father, sister and I jumped for joy, so much so that the intensive care nurse asked us to leave until we calmed down.
Six years later my mother is going strong. She tells me often that my swearing got her through her ordeal. Perhaps other moms would have benefited from prayers or poetic platitudes from their children at a time when they swung between life and death. For my mom and me, getting mad and getting even with death did the trick.
The nasty words she felt like saying a thousand times but did not, in the interest of raising decent children, were expressed at a time when they helped her cope, in a place where such words could express her frustration, by a daughter who wanted with all her might for her mom to come back.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on Sept. 6, 2004.
My dad said that anyone who worked for someone else was a fool. He thought
people who punched a clock, worked from nine-to-five and answered to a boss lacked independence and guts. I believed him.
Growing up in the 50’s, I watched my Dad leave every Monday morning, off to sell his wares to retailers in neighboring states. He was a manufacturer’s representative and supported his wife and five children on a straight commission job. His car was his office and he made his own hours.
Although we enjoyed a middle class lifestyle on Dad’s earnings, my parents did not feel the need to help their daughters pay for college, although they did help their sons. I wanted to go to college and I knew that I would have to earn the money myself. I landed a job at the phone company right after I graduated from high school in the spring of 1968 and put most of my $75 weekly salary away for tuition.
I lived at home with my parents and walked (yes, walked) to work so I wouldn’t
have to spend money on gas. During the cold Ohio winters I borrowed Mom's car. One balmy spring day, after a particularly frigid Midwestern winter, I trudged along to the telephone office.
Dad was right, I told myself, working for someone else is miserable. I had to
punch a time clock and then sit at the switchboard until my scheduled break. My supervisors stood behind us and secretly monitored us on a regular basis to ensure we gave service with a smile. It felt like prison.
I walked along with gloomy thoughts as my only companion. I-Phones had not been invented, so, to divert myself from my self-pitying thoughts, I began to observe my surroundings. I listened to the leaves sing their spring song. I began to feel joy as I walked beneath the leafy canopy of green and light on the early summer day. I felt happy, even though I was going to work. How could this be? Where was my pride and independence?
I reminded myself that the twice-monthly paycheck would get me away from the switchboard and off to college. I liked the predictability of a regular salary. I liked having a paid vacation and other benefits. I was independent. I was paying for my college education on my own. That was very independent. I began to re-think the be-your-own-boss idea.
I never held a commission job or started a business. Over the past 35 years I’ve worked mostly for non-profit agencies. I can take breaks when I feel like it but I can’t take a day off when I feel like it because I have obligations.
After all these years I realize I don’t mind working for “someone else.” Indeed, the vast majority of Americans are employed by “someone else.” The country could not get along without us. As we pause on this Labor Day weekend to honor the “nine-to-fivers” I take my place among them, with gratitude and pride.
I admire the brave souls who prefer to live by their wits as they collect commissions or start a business. They trade a regular paycheck for fun and adventure, unlimited potential and maybe some big bucks. We honor those workers too.
Most of them will probably work on Monday. I will enjoy my paid day off.
Kathleen Vallee Stein