My grandfather, whom I adored and still do, was a bigot. He wouldn’t rent his apartments to black people or single young men or women. He told me that other tenants would move out if he rented to blacks, and that single young men and women partied. These practices were legal at the time.
But my grandpa was more than a bigot. He’d had a farm in the 1920s and ’30s in the Yakima Valley and hired Filipino and Japanese farm laborers. One was Mr. S, a Japanese man with a family. I can remember my uncle making fun of Mr. S’s appearance and accent, which was not uncommon when I was a kid in the 1950s. He made fun of Mr. S. by taking his forefingers and slanting his eyes, sticking out his upper teeth to simulate buck teeth, and pretending to talk like a Japanese person. I am sorry to repeat these details, but I am learning that we make things better by being honest.
When World War II broke out, Mr. S. and his family went away. To an internment camp? I don’t know. But they certainly lost their little vegetable farm.
I was told that Grandpa helped Mr. S. get his farm back after the war. I don’t know the details, and I might have gradually come to believe that whatever help he provided had been exaggerated over the years.
Except for this. In the summer of 1975, my grandpa was gradually approaching the end of his life. We all knew it. I was visiting and out in the yard when a glossy black sedan pulled up to the curb outside my grandpa’s little white house. Picture the kind of car that Don Corleone rode around in.
Out stepped an elderly Asian man dressed in the kind of formal black suit that diplomats wear in old photos. He even wore a bowler hat. I approached him awkwardly. He told me that he was Mr. S. I recognized the name. I clumsily accompanied him to my grandpa’s front door and announced him to my grandfather, then shuffled away down the sidewalk. I don’t know much about the visit, but Mr. S. brought a cardboard box full of perfect asparagus spears from his farm, remembering how much my grandpa loved fresh asparagus. It was the only time that I’ve ever witnessed someone pay such a formal call on someone else.
Grandpa told me later that Mr. S. had told him that his wife was very ill. Grandpa died in July of 1975, Mr. S. several years later.
This is what I know: My grandpa was a bigot. I loved him very much and I still do. The correct description of the behavior of my grandfather and my uncle, whom I also loved dearly, is racist, a term that hurts me to use in connection with people who loved me and tenderly cared for me. But I am learning that telling the truth lances the wound and may, in the current climate, provide useful information to others.
I also know this: Mr. S. paid a formal call upon my grandfather at the end of his life. Grandpa hadn’t seen him in years. Mr. S. did that in appreciation of a man who stood up beside him at a difficult time, when it would have been easier just to fade back into the crowd. Nobody would ever have known if Grandpa had simply ignored the struggles of an old employee and his family or if, years later, Mr. S. had simply gone about his day, managing his asparagus crop, worrying about his wife, and leaving an old white guy alone in the care of his family.
I’m telling this story now because, as always, it is time to stand up beside people who have done nothing wrong, who’ve just gotten caught up in the swirl of events bigger than themselves. It is always time to do this. And there’s no point in waiting for the perfect people to do the right thing. There are no perfect people. There are only people like us, flawed and bigoted and stumbling around, trying to do the best we can.
We are Americans. We sometimes get it wrong, especially when we’re scared, and at times we do the wrong things. But somehow, more often than not, we eventually get things right. Just like my grandpa did.
And, just like him, my own grandchildren are watching. It’s time once again to do the right thing.
(Editor’s note: Names were withheld at the request of the author.)
Susan Hallett is a retired care manager for the Council on Aging. She lives in Colfax.
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