Set the scene: A micro-town in Indiana, a family reunion, a 99th birthday party for a woman who has faced enough hardship in her life to deserve a birthday bash with her entire extended family every year. However, that extended family is large, white, largely religious, and conservative. In New York, you defended the South as not being entirely filled with bigotry and hatefulness. Back with a myriad of Southern folks, though, you have to take a breath and revisit that assertion.
Act 1: Respect Your Elders
You shan’t reveal her name, but she is related to you, in her eighties, and wearing a pink button-down. She has asked about your summer, and you tell her: “I worked with kids of parents who are survivors of domestic violence, oftentimes kids who witnessed the violence.” She proceeds to tell you three disparate stories about slapping and hitting her children and how she needed to show them that she was their mother and in charge. She adds, almost as a punctuation, how appalled she was that her son, upon her question about what he would do if one of his children were gay or lesbian, responded “I would be okay with it, as long as they were happy.” You feel as though you have been socked four times in the stomach, but you are in the South and gentility is the name of the game, especially with the elderly. “That’s good you think about your grandchildren so much,” you say, and then escape to help prepare the homemade peach ice cream.
Act 2: Jokes Aren’t Jokes
Your second cousin who says Obama is a terrorist brings his girlfriend, who is two years younger than him at fifteen and, apparently reading the room, opens with a joke about crossdressers. When a group of you sit under a tree and you say “Her shade is beautiful,” she pushes up her glasses, tucks her hair behind her ear, and responds sardonically: “Did you just assume the tree’s gender? Triggered.” She hits her boyfriend, on his side, on his back, with her phone case. He slaps her plate out of her hand in the line for cornbread. They laugh. You wince. They’re young, yes, but already raising hands to each other. You wish you could talk to your supervisors. You wish you could say something. You wish, you wish, you wish.
Act 3: Shape Your Present
One of the child brigade, muddy-legged and sprinting around like a sweet Southern cliché, is pushed by her sister and calls her r*t*rded. You speak sharply without a beat, and she looks at you wide-eyed. No one has ever told her this word could be wrong, or hurtful. Your heart aches for all the autistic kids, all the kids with learning disabilities or growth disabilities that you interacted with this summer, and how easily you know she could brand this slur upon them. You, being twenty to her ten, take on that mythical mixture of cool teen and authoritative adult, and being told off by you brings her stinging shame. “I’m sorry,” she says, eyes cast downward. All you can do is hope she will think about this again in the future.
You miss Moxie. You miss it, and you keep starting when you realize where you are, not at work and not in the city and not reading feminist theory every single day. But all of this has given you strength, if only to get through the reunion. You are full of ineffable little gratitudes. You hope those that they are meant for understand, somehow.