In Memory of Elijah Cummings

Elijah E. Cummings, one of the great activists and statesmen of our time, recognized the signs of demagoguery and autocracy as a very real and existential threat to our democracy and, in particular, to the freedoms of the marginalized everywhere – particularly people of color. He recognized because he was old enough to remember – remember what it looked and felt like not to be free. This blog is a revised and updated version of “For Mini” originally posted in June of 2013. Then, I could have not imagined it being even more relevant today.

You could sit on my great-grandparent’s porch, deep in the southern woods, and count to ninety before the first faint sound of a car could be heard coming our way. The sound was something like the hum the wind makes as it is first gathering steam. As Don Williams once sung, I can still hear soft Southern winds in the live oak trees. This was where Joe grew up, my great uncle, the one they said was never right, to whom I would dedicated my first book, An Ordinary Life Transformed: Lessons for Everyone from the Bhagavad Gita. It’s also where Mini would come to cook and clean for us.

We were not the old money antebellum south. We were the other south, poor, yet fiercely proud. And, like such families, with many children to feed and crops to plow, extra hands were needed in the house and in the fields. And, those hands were black. Of course, by the time I was growing up and spending long, hot, pick-flowers-in-the-field days there, an image of the those extra black hands could only be held alive in the vapors of memory. But, Mini was no vapor. She was right there making the biscuits and, then, making my bed.

And so, she labored for our family for most of her long life. No doubt she would have said she loved us dearly, as we certainly felt so, and we always said we loved her like family. And, I believe, both were, unequivocally, true. Me, living in a different part of the country for the school year, did not have the long history with Mini. I was also part of a new generation hearing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the television. So, though I was always happy to see her come through the back door (yes, only the back), mostly, I just tried to turn away and not think about it too much. But, sometimes I couldn’t and that sour feeling would come back curdling in my stomach again.

I suppose I could have made it through without any unnecessary upheaval for those few short weeks each summer. After all, this was where my roots were, my home. This was my family, the only place I felt I belonged, and always a welcome respite from the long difficult school year where I struggled so. My family was good, salt of the earth, and I loved them. And, of course, still do.

could have had it not been for that outhouse at the outer edge of our back yard. Mini wasn’t allowed to use the indoor bathroom. The outhouse was for her. One day, when I was maybe ten or twelve, I watched her make her way out to that outhouse and I could feel that curdling again. But, this time the inevitable tide, like nausea, having festered for what felt like many summers in my young life, was not to be curtailed. I waited for her to return to the kitchen and, finding us alone, blurted out, Mini, why don’t you use the indoor bathroom?

And, exactly in that moment, would have given my whole life to take it back. Her stunned, piercing glance felt volcanic, like hot embers, long dormant, suddenly now in real danger of erupting without regard to fallout. And I, in the wake, stopped breathing, paralyzed. Oh, but my young, naive, heart was screaming, But, Mini, it’s not right! 

Gratefully, her lifetime of well-adapted this is how you behave ‘round whites instinct kicked in and she quickly recovered but not before giving me a good tongue lashing. Youse knows better’in dat Miss Stetnee. Things is how they is. You best leave it ‘lone now! And, turning from me, she threw the dry cloth over her shoulder and flashed me one last clear look of warning, We be done w’ this Miss Stetnee. We be done w’ this. And, so we were.

Things is how they is. You best leave it ‘lone now! My family would have echoed the exact same sentiment. Still, since, I have winced every time I remember. Just what was she to do with that? In truth, none of us, least of all me, were equipped to do anything with, simply, yet regrettably, what was. It was more than what we did. It seemed to be who we were.

We never talked about it again. I returned to school and, in later summers, would come to see Mini less and less as her age and health issues took hold. Still, over the years, I’ve often prayed that she knew what was in my young heart that day in the kitchen. I have imagined being able to sit with her and say…

Please forgive me. I just couldn’t watch you walk out to that outhouse anymore. I just couldn’t. Still, I’m sorry I was so unkind to you. I just so wanted you to know, dear Mini, that I ‘saw’ you…and so ‘felt’ for you. This was what was in my heart to say. I just didn’t know how.

Oh, dear Mini, thank you for your hands, sturdy and skilled, given in the long, faithful service to my family. Thank you for still making our biscuits and our beds but, mostly, for loving us, even when we did not know how to best love you.

Yes, I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees and, today, when I close my eyes, I can see in the vapors dear Mini standing there in the kitchen…but this time…

Smiling softly back at me…unburdened and free.

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