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Mom and Hilda

September 28, 2012

In the mid 1970s, near the time I was finishing grade school, Hilda and Bernie Heinen moved in next door.  They had retired from the farm in rural Stearns County where they and generations of family had lived and where some still lived: still farmed and some still spoke a form of German compromised by a couple of generations away from the motherland, a couple of wars with which they did not want to be associated and a longing to be able to navigate the logistics required to make it through a trip into town, the stock yard or the grain elevator.  Hilda and Bernie’s English was good with irregularities common in our town that often interchanged the words borrow and lend as well as the words teach and learn and with an accent that hinted at the rural Minnesotan and German.  Lake Wobegon.

Mom and dad came from New Orleans, a different world where a few still spoke the last smatterings of Creole, but themselves spoke English that had no hint of the French that dominated many of the name places and was cultivated to distinguish them as Xavier University students.

Hilda and Bernie moved into town partly uninfected by much of the media bias that tainted most of America’s perception of African Americans.  Mom had learned well from her father and her own experience to meet people like you were meeting Jesus.

Hilda and Bernie were good people and good neighbors.  Mom and Hilda became good friends.  Better than the neighbors across the street who were related.  Better than most would have expected and better than most would have dared or bothered.

And most would not have expected the exchange that happened between mom and Hilda one afternoon while they stood in one of their front yards.

Hilda referred to to a black person using the word nigger.  That, in Stearns County, Minnesota and many other places would not be so unexpected–maybe for reasons other than why, on this day, the word came out of Hilda’s mouth.  What came next was truly unexpected.

Of course, my mom what stunned.  Surprised and stung in a way that hearing the word nigger always stings.  It is America’s ultimate unwelcoming–and we as black people know the unwelcome that comes with this word and a lot of other edifices that loom larger than a passing insult.

But mom was not mad.  It did not change her relationship with Hilda, like so many stinging encounters might.  Mom was hurt, but took a half moment to seek the best way to respond, maybe even asking God what to do.  She decided to do something that she might not have been able to do with many other people, with any other type of relationship and maybe not in today’s social spaces.

She told Hilda what that word meant: what it means in common language and what it felt in her ears and to the ears of someone who is or believes is the humanity of African Americans and other people who walk this earth.  Mom was kind and gentle–because she sensed that Hilda really didn’t know.

And she didn’t.  Hilda faced the biggest shame of her friendship with mom.  She really didn’t know and would not have wanted to hurt mother or anyone with the word if she knew what it meant.  Hilda could not have been sorrier.

What was so remarkable about this exchange was that this is not how we handle this issue in America and not many are willing or really have the honest, safe space to misstep and repair the damage.

What usually happens is that someone shouts “Nigger” to draw a line of supremacy.  The target of the slur either gets out of the way of the unhealthy and harmful verbal assault or responds with either the angry pain of the injury or a rebuttal that falls on the emotionally deaf or dumb.

Or maybe the response it an attempt to say how that kind of language and attitude is hurtful and damaging to common spaces, not much unlike what mom did with Hilda.  Where Hilda showed her exceptional nature was in her response.

Most of the time when we explain that this kind of language and other slights we encounter (and I hate to call them slights because there is nothing slight about systemic degradation and social, political and economic disadvantage), we get a response that complains that is dismissive, that we don’t have any reason to complain, that somehow they are entitled to speaking to and about us with impunity.

Instead, the two women chose to understand each other.

They made a space moved mom to choose Hilda as the person to whom she sent her two youngest after getting off the school bus for tending and a snack before her older kids got home.  It made a space that moved mom to be the primary helper for Hilda, more than her family who lived not far from us, or the once removed cousins who lived across the street when Bernie was dying of cancer.

The two women chose to share a space that most of America will not work to create, for which most of America is reluctant to work and that many do not want to exist.

After Bernie died, Hilda let her hair go white.  She let mom know how sad she was without him.  Mom worried, wiped tears and let her tell stories and shared a few of her own.  They were busy being Jesus for each other and entertain the angel they saw in each others’ eyes.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherry Ladig permalink
    September 29, 2012 12:33 pm

    This is really touching, and so beautiful. And so rare, in an age where too often defensiveness and posturing take the place of understanding.

    • September 29, 2012 12:38 pm

      Thanks Sherry,
      I think that it is harder to find the space for this today as it was to find 35 years ago. It takes a lot of trust that often isn’t there.

  2. Trish permalink
    September 29, 2012 1:50 pm

    Beautiful story, Clarence. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve always had a deep admiration for your mom….more so now…and for Hilda too!

  3. News Day permalink
    September 29, 2012 3:10 pm

    This is a beautiful story – thank you for sharing your mom and her friend’s generosity of spirit.

  4. sheila brannan veach permalink
    September 29, 2012 8:46 pm

    Good story. Good memories to keep.

  5. Marly permalink
    October 14, 2012 9:27 am

    Your mom is proud that you wrote this story.

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