My granddaddy made a big round table with a big lazy-susan in the middle of it, back in the 1950s, I suppose. He and the family took a lot of silent pride in that beautiful smooth table. It would seat 12 comfortably. Lots of laughter, talk of family, friends and community, the Sunday sermon and tears had seeped their way into that wood. The amount of food that had slowly made its way around to each one seated, well, one can’t imagine. Fried chicken, butter beans, corn, field peas, okra, biscuits and of course sweet tea and homemade chocolate pie.
One Saturday, grandma had cooked for the whole family. I was probably 15 or 16 years old. There was a lady named Aalene, who would come to help my grandma clean house, maybe once or twice a month. Aalene was a black lady, heavyset and maybe in her 50s at that time. That particular Saturday Aalene was at grandma’s. She sat at the table with us and ate with us.
Everyone was seated, the blessing was said and the meal began. The slow turning of the lazy-susan began. A family member began to talk about all the “N’s” at school. How slow they walked and how those “N’s” talked. They went on and on about them. I was right there laughing and shaking my head in agreement as this commentary continued. I lifted my head and my eyes crossed over all the glorious food and right up to Aalene.
Horror slowly began to fill my soul like a sickening poison. She had her head down and was just eating quietly. My eyes moved left right into my mother’s face, where she was silently mouthing very sternly, “shut up!” Everything in the room seemed to be completely swallowed up. My soul was pierced through with utter shame and hurt for what I had just done. I sat at the table for only seconds longer. My heart was pounding so hard in my chest, and I could hardly breathe. I got up from the table and went to my grandmother’s bathroom and fell in the floor and cried and cried and cried. I knew what needed to be done.
Everyone left and my brother and I were walking back home. I said to him, “we need to go back and apologize.” To which he responded, “I’m not going back in there to apologize for nothin’.”
He was right because he had not said a word. So, I stopped and turned around and headed back up to the house. There I found my grandma at the kitchen sink. My heart was about to explode with sickness. “Where is she?” I asked. My grandma said, “she’s in the bathroom.”
I walked through my grandmother’s sweet smelling bedroom and made my way by the dresser, and into the bathroom. There she was with her head down and slowly scrubbing the sink with a sponge and Comet. As I opened my mouth my voice trembled and as I began to speak the tears just flooded my eyes and my face. My heart pounded harder and harder and sobbing I said, “Aalene, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” She just kept slowly scrubbing that sink in a nice and easy crazy eight way, and said, “It’s OK, I knowed what-cha meant.” I hugged her neck and we were all right from that moment on. Anytime grandma needed me to take her home I did and we enjoyed the ride.
I don’t remember the words I said at that lunch table that Saturday, but just being in agreement with what was being said, was wrong. My parents did not raise us to say the “N” word, and it was not spoken in our home. I did grow up hearing it though. God let me know real quick that day that He didn’t appreciate my behavior. He allowed my heart to be broken and to experience great shame all in one fell swoop. He taught me a strong lesson that day: Love each person, and that means love every single soul on the earth. Just like God does.
Mary Kay Best is a wife and mother who is currently working on Master’s of Divinity Degree. She resides in Seven Springs.