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Lydia Brownback

I was blessed as a child to enjoy the love of three grandmothers. There was Grandma Helen and Grammy Harriet. And then there was Mary, who wasn’t actually a biological relative, but the lack of a blood tie was made up in love, sugar cookies, and a listening ear.

Mary Miles worked from 6:00am to 6:00pm, six days a week for sixty-three years, in the home of Granddaddy and Grammy Harriet. The kitchen was Mary’s domain, an unspoken law of the house that everyone respected. She’d come into their employ in her early twenties, following the end of a mercifully short, childless marriage to an abusive husband. She had no family, no education, and few opportunities. My grandparents were newlyweds at the time, so Mary was there when my father was born, and during his infancy she fell easily into a nurturing role, which became lifelong.

A generation later, my brother and I were enveloped into that same nurturing heart. Her kitchen was a warm, comforting space to which we’d retreat on Sunday afternoons before dinner, escaping the boredom of grownup talk out in the living room. In Mary’s kitchen, there was always the delicious smell of roasting beef, and her dog Lady was curled up on a cushion. We could do no wrong in Mary’s eyes—no scolding for running through the house or sneaking a bite from a platter on the counter. Delighted by our company, she’d stop work and sit on a stool that left her short legs dangling well above the floor. She listened intently to our childish chatter. And she’d tell us about Jesus. Oh, how Mary loved Jesus. She was a matriarchal figure in the church she attended, where congregants referred to her affectionately as Mother Miles.

Those minutes in the kitchen were regularly cut short when Grammy came to shoo us out so Mary could finish her dinner preparations and serve the meal. Afterward, before we left for the evening, my brother and I always made our way back to her domain for one more cookie and a hug.

But woven into those happy Sunday evening memories are some dark threads of tears and angry voices. My brother and I were too young to understand the adult talk before and during dinner, but it was the 1960s, so surely it entailed a good bit about civil rights and all the political controversies arising from it. The conversational tempo would rise as the pre-dinner bourbon went down, and sometimes something was said that made Mary cry and even, on occasion, storm from the house. I didn’t understand, but I was filled with anxiety, because those I most trusted to keep me safe somehow weren’t safe with each other. Most of all, I was just sad.

Of course, my understanding grew with time. We were white. And Mary was black—the richest, darkest, most velvety black I’ve ever seen. As the years passed, I saw the divide but never felt it myself. To me, Mary was simply part of my people. But the divide was there, and it cut both ways.

That divide—it showed even years later, when just Grammy and Mary were left. Each day Mary served Grammy her lunch in the dining room, and then Mary sat down in the pantry to eat her own lunch on the other side of the door. Through that door the two old women would converse as they ate. Witnessing this once, I asked, “Why don’t you two sit in the same room at the same table so you don’t have to strain to converse through a door?” Neither one answered. But a few weeks later I stopped by the house at lunchtime, and they were eating together in the pantry. To share a meal in the dining room was a divide too big to cross—for both of them—even though each had a framed picture of the other on her bedroom dresser.

Mary was part of my family—at the very heart of it. She was loved by all of us, but respected by just a few. Because she was black. For that—for my warm, wise, kind, Jesus-loving Mary—my heart will always be broken.

From childhood on, that personal heartbreak worked into my soul an intense desire for racial reconciliation, but that term is parsed in so many different ways that I don’t quite know what it looks like. Am I wrong to see racial reconciliation as a heart-deep embracing of the equal value of—and respect for—every human being made in the image of God? And I’m not talking about conflating racial differences so that unique lines are merely blurred into one colorless whole. I have in mind a full-scale appreciation for those differences and promoting them in daily life. Isn’t this really what it’s all about?

I haven’t walked in Mary’s shoes. But I have walked alongside hers. Even so, I can only sympathize. Empathy is not mine here. But I don’t feel shame for the privileged shoes I’ve been given to wear. I do, however, feel sorrow—a heavy weight of it—for the hurt Mary endured, for the ignorance of loved ones who hurt her, and that people of all colors talk to each other through doors.