The power of those small conversations

Alvera & LM on her 94th birthday

My mom, Alvera Mickelsen, died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 97. I’ve shed some tears, but she was so ready to go.

My mother had lived a full and independent life until age 94 when she suddenly fell, broke her femur in three places and ended up bedridden in a nursing home, too weak to even turn herself over in bed. This photo of us was taken on her 94th birthday, just a few months before that terrible fall.

Mom hated being in a nursing home, but stayed practical and stoic, in part because she figured she’d  follow the usual post-fall trajectory of a 94-year-old woman and die within six months. Instead, she lived another three years. She was always gracious. She didn’t complain. But she was like a plane on the runway, waiting to be cleared for takeoff; watching while her friends—mere youngsters in their 80s and early 90s—roared past her to the Big Beyond. It was like they were butting in front of her in line.

So although it sounds awful, her death came as a relief, first to her, but also to me. I had been feeling really ambivalent about traveling with John and leaving my mother so weak and vulnerable. She had excellent care. She urged me to go. But it didn’t feel right. So while I still have grieving to do—you’re never really ready to lose your parents, even at this age– I will now be able to travel with a much lighter heart.

My mother was a lifelong Baptist and feminist who supported progressive causes. This made her an oddity in her conservative evangelical circles, but she didn’t care. She cast her first presidential vote for FDR and her last for Obama. About ten days before she died, when it was clear she was now failing fast, we talked about the upcoming election. She was horrified by Trump.

“Well, it doesn’t look like you’re going to be around,” I said, “But I’m pretty sure we’re going to be electing our first woman president this November.”

My mom weighed less than 90 pounds at this point and could barely talk. But she raised her arm and made a clenched fist salute. “Yes!” she whispered. “Yes. Yes. Yes!”

Her signature issue was, in the words of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune obit,  “arguing, despite considerable pushback, that being a feminist is a Christian responsibility.” But she influenced me in other areas too.

Here are three stories I told at her memorial service last Saturday at GracePoint Baptist Church in New Brighton, MN

1) “When I was seven years old, we lived in Wheaton, Illinois where my father taught at the graduate school at Wheaton College.  In the spring of 1965, my dad accepted at job at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN, so my parents put their house on the market. My mom decided to do For Sale By Owner to save money.

It was the For Sale by Owner sign that raised the neighbors’ alarm bells. Our modest house was a couple blocks from the small “black” section of Wheaton. A realtor could be trusted to not sell a house on a white street to a black family—it would kill their realty career. But my mother? The neighbors weren’t so sure.

A little context: Wheaton was a nearly all-white very conservative suburb, 30 miles west of Chicago.  Congress had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act only nine months earlier.  So the whole political movement for equal rights and open housing was still pretty new.

On a warm Friday night, shortly after the “For Sale By Owner” sign went up, my mother was standing out in front of our house with a bunch of neighbors watching as we kids played and rode bikes up and down the sidewalks.

“Alvera, we saw your sign and we sure hope you aren’t going to sell your house to any Negroes,” said our neighbor, Dave, who lived two doors away. “I have the same concerns,” chimed in our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Cook,  “Alvera, you must promise us you won’t sell to blacks.”

Just then, two little kids collided on their bikes and the adult gathering quickly broke up in the scurry to wash off scraped knees and look for Band-Aids.  So the question was left hanging.

As my mom told me some years later, she had a hard time sleeping that night. She believed in open, integrated housing. Yet at the very moment when she was asked to put her values on the line…she hadn’t said anything. It wasn’t completely her fault—the bike collision had gotten her off the hook. But still. It bothered her.

The next morning, my mother went and knocked on Mrs. Cook’s door.  I tagged along because I was always following my mother around.

The Cooks were childless, retired missionaries who filled every stereotype of cranky old neighbors. If I was playing a game and my ball accidentally rolled five feet onto their lawn, they went ballistic. Ditto for the time I drew chalk hopscotch on their driveway. Mrs. Cook made me wash it off, standing over me as I scrubbed saying, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, little girl.” She almost never called me by name. It was always “Little Girl.”

“Good morning,” Alvera said when Mrs. Cook opened the door. “Listen, I know it’s early, but last night I didn’t get a chance to respond to what you said about selling our house. So I wanted to let you know that I will sell my house to whoever gives me the best offer. If that’s a black family, I will happily sell to them.”

There was pause. Mrs. Cook did not look happy.  “I’m sorry to hear this,” she said tightly. “But I certainly hope you didn’t stay up all night worrying that we might be racists. Because I’ll have you know we spent years being missionaries in Africa. We love Africans. We treat Africans just…like…children.”

“Well, thanks, “my mom said briskly. “I just wanted you to know” and Mrs. Cook quickly closed the door on us.

“But she HATES children,” I announced as we stepped off her front porch.

“Shhhh,” my mother said.  “I said what I needed to say. I don’t need to argue with her.”

2) Fast-forward three years. It’s now 1968 and my mom is teaching writing at Bethel College. I’m 11 and tagging along as she picked some mail up at the English department. On the way out, we ran into an African-American colleague of hers, Dr. Thomas, who taught in the music department. It was rare to see a black person at Bethel in those years; even rarer to see a professor.

She introduced me; they chatted a bit and in our car on the way home, she said, “Dr. Thomas is a wonderful man. He’s from Chicago. He once told me that, a few years ago, the Chicago police stopped his brother for a traffic violation—it was something very minor…and no one knows what happened next, but the cops beat his brother to death. With their nightsticks.”

“What?!?!?” I said, “Why would they do that?”

“No one knows,” my mom said wearily.

“Did the police go to jail?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s not right,” I said.

“No,” my mother said. “It isn’t.”

Look, these small, private conversations are not big dramatic acts. It’s not like my mother was marching with Dr. King. But in 1968, there weren’t a whole lot of white mothers were telling their white 11-year-old daughters that the police were killing black drivers for no apparent reason. And that conversation is one of the reasons why, nearly 50 years later, I support Black Lives Matter. Because this has been going on for a long time and it’s long, long past time that we ended it

3) Fast forward another 25 or so years. It’s in the early 1990s. My father has died, but Alvera is in her mid-70s, still going strong as the group Bible teacher for an all-women’s tour of Israel around the theme of “Women in the Bible.”

I wasn’t on this trip, but Alvera told me it was a little unusual because half the women were white; half were African-American and they read some parts of the Bible very differently.

For example, the white women saw Sara as the faithful wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. And the black woman saw her as the slave mistress who drove Hagar and her son, Ishmael out into the desert to die, where they survived only because God sent an angel to help.

As my mother liked to point out, both views are correct. The Bible shows both Sara’s faithful and as well homicidal side. My mother liked how the Bible often doesn’t clean things up and instead shows flawed, complicated people living in flawed, complicated cultures.

Anyhow, on one of their tour days, her group was visiting the West Bank and their assigned licensed guide was a young, brash Israeli who didn’t know much about the Bible and who, in Alvera’s opinion, kept giving a particularly biased, propaganda-heavy narrative about the Palestinians.

After a few hours of this, Alvera felt she needed to provide some counter- balance for her group—she was, after all, their designated teacher. “There are usually two sides to any conflict, both in Biblical times and today,” she announced as she began to give the Palestinian version as the bus drove to the next site on their schedule.

The Israeli guide quickly cut her off. “You’re an ignorant woman,” he said. “For starters, there is NO SUCH THING AS A PALESTINIAN. They don’t exist. Palestinian is a political term. They’re just ARABS!”

“Well then, under your same logic,” Alvera shot back, “there’s NO SUCH THING AS AN ISRAELI. Israelis don’t exist. Israeli is a political term. They’re just JEWS.”

The Israeli guide was furious; he and Alvera went back and forth. I think he had no idea who he was tangling with. She looked like a little old white-haired lady in tennis shoes. But she had been a top debater who later taught and coached debate at the college level.

Alvera looked at her group, most of whom seemed panicked by the open argument and ready to dive under the bus seats for cover. But several of the black women—who knew all about being marginalized and disrespected– had fire in their eyes. They were having none of this. One of them stood up. “Excuse me,” she called out to the Israeli guide. “EXCUSE ME. But did we just hear you correctly?? Did you just call Alvera ignorant?!?! 

You notice in all these stories, my mom stepped up for causes that weren’t necessarily hers. She wasn’t black. She wasn’t Palestinian. But when it came to injustice, if my mother saw something, she said something. She didn’t shout. She was always gracious. But she said something. She approached life with an open mind and open eyes, so her world got bigger not smaller as she got older.

She was woke, as the kids say now. And she stayed woke.

And that’s no small legacy. Most of us will never be famous or powerful or command vast audiences. All we have our own small circles of influence. But that’s where we are called, in our own small way, to speak up, especially for the people with less power.

We don’t know if our voices will make a difference.  Most of the time, they probably won’t. I am confident, for example, that my mom did not change Mrs. Cook when she went to her front door and said she’d sell happily sell our house to a black family.

But she did change me. Man, did she ever change me.

2 thoughts on “The power of those small conversations”

  1. I was thinking along the same lines as that last post . . . she certainly taught you well. That was a beautiful tribute. I will be looking forward to your very interesting trip and studies! nancy virden

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  2. I’m crying having read this tribute. What wonderful stories and how obvious it is that you are your Mother’s daughter-brave, brilliant, and equally as dedicated to fighting injustice. I am relieved for you, John, and Alvera that while you will still be grieving, you will be traveling knowing your Mom does not require you at home. Such a beautiful offering. Thank you for sharing.

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