In 1967, my mother, who had been raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, in a lifestyle that shielded her from any memory of the Depression; who was educated at a premiere women’s college; who for twenty-two years was a doctor’s wife; found herself divorced, having to find a job, and raise two young girls alone. She rose to the occasion, and then some.
My sister and I became latch-key kids, walking home from school and spending several hours alone with the TV until our mother returned home from her job at the local YMCA. The characters on the Dick Van Dyke Show, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best re-runs were my afternoon friends. I can still recite entire episodes and sometimes do at parties.
We lived in rural Indiana, a small town smack in the middle of the Christian Bible Belt, where the strong presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society wafted from the closets of my school friends’ homes.
My mom, going against all her good southern upbringing, in her own way, took a stand on civil rights. She was not the indignant protester type. She was a southern lady, well versed in proper entertaining, polite conversation and warm hospitality. But behind her sweet, unassuming, southern smile lurked a pensive, logical, wise mind.
She made a point of meeting and knowing people of all races – perhaps a slight southern guilt tingeing her ambitions. We had black friends, Native American friends, Asian friends, Jewish friends, all who regularly came to visit us at our home – stirring up anxieties and suspicions among our neighbors. My older sister’s boyfriend at the time happened to be African American, causing the neighbors across the street to sit on their front porch with shotguns across their laps. “Just in case,” they would say to each other. Gossip and controversy spread across town about how we were “N-word lovers.” My mother was fired – from the Young Men’s Christian Association – my sister was fired from her teaching job at a local dance studio, my elementary schoolmates shunned me.
My mother would say to me, “My goal is to help raise a generation of people who are not blemished by racial prejudice. Imagine how the world will be without this nonsense.”
In 1971, when I was thirteen, my uncle raved about a new TV show called All in the Family, which featured a lovable curmudgeon named Archie Bunker. “Why is everyone yelling?” I asked one evening, as my uncle roared with laughter. “Why is that guy so mad?” “This,” said my uncle – another ardent civil rights advocate – “is going to change everything. Norman Lear is a genius.”
Flash forward to 1998. My husband and I took our two children on a winter vacation. After a day of skiing and playing in the snow, my kids and some of their friends, (ages ranging from 5 – 10) flopped on the couch and turned on the TV to behold a rerun of – you guessed it – All in the Family. It was an episode in which Lionel, the Bunker’s black neighbor, angry with his parents, asks to sleep on Archie’s living room couch. As Gloria and Meathead arrange the sheets and pillow, Archie makes awkward, frustrated faces into the camera. I remembered this episode and how my uncle had laughed and laughed. The children watched for a moment and then looked up at me declaring, “This is dumb. Why is he acting so weird just because Lionel wants to sleep on his couch?”
Thanks to Norman Lear, that generation my mother referred to is beginning to emerge.