The Day Grandma Got Woke


My mom loves to watch Ellen. It’s usually fun and games, with hunky guys and Ellen playing tricks on her guests and staff. She rounds out the hour with lesbian jokes, a musical performance by some obscure band, and Ellen surprising some needy but giving person with $10,000 in cash.

Then the death of George Floyd happened. All the fun and games on Ellen’s show stopped.  Ellen hosted several shows where black celebrities, politicians and other people of importance were given a platform to discuss why black lives matter. Mom wasn’t too happy about that. Where was her fun afternoon show?

But then she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said the book called White Fragility. Since Ellen told everyone to read it, it is backordered for now. That led to a discussion about other things Ellen had recommended, such as viewing the documentary by Eva Duvernay called 13th.

I watched 13th for free on YouTube, and it is tough to watch.  But not as tough for me as it was for my ninety-year-old mom. I’d already read Twelve Years a Slave. I’d already seen Selma, The Hate U Give, and Fruitvale Station. I was a lot more woke than Mom.

Then she watched it. She cried. She didn’t seem to know the gory history of slavery and the Jim Crow South. She didn’t know about Emmett Till or Ruby Bridges or the four little black girls that burned up in the church. She was a young mother with kids to attend to. She didn’t pay that much attention.

When Mom told me on the phone how eye-opening the film had been for her, how she’d never seen so many horrible things regarding the treatment of blacks all at once, it was eye-opening for me. This is the same mom who didn’t believe me about the Trail of Tears, the death walk for many Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government.

When I tried to talk to about it several years ago, she said, “Why, I’ve never heard of that! It was never in the history books or taught in school!”

Like she was doubting me. Challenging me.

“Who writes the history books, Mom?” I challenged back. “It’s not the losers.”

Mom shrugged her shoulders. She was not ready to be woke, even though her own sister-in-law, my uncle’s’ wife, a Navajo woman, spoke on a PBS show about the Trail of Tears tragedy.

Mom was never a racist. When I came home from first grade and told her that Mrs. VanCura said that the kids who misbehaved had to play with Teddy at recess, Mom was horrified.

Teddy was the only black boy in the school.

When I was in third grade, I watched the boys throw rocks at Jack, the new Jewish boy, on the way home from school. I told Mom, and she was angry. But that was centuries ago.

Mom lost her anger along the way to old age and stopped paying attention to current events.

Her life was comfortable. Her life was good. Then, after a series of events that led to both Mom and my older sister having to leave Iowa to come live here, one with younger Sis and her husband, and one with me, Mom’s life is not so sheltered now. She is out of her senior housing bubble and living with younger family members.  She’s in California, where police officers get murdered in a sleepy town in the Santa Cruz mountains, and lootings happen just down the road.

Mom is woke now, at 90.

I am so proud to say that.

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