My dear Grandma (who is presently enjoying heaven) was once described by my mother (her own daughter) as being (and I quote) “about as cheerful as diarrhea“. She rarely spoke (and she was rarely not speaking) without mentioning someone who had recently passed on or someone who was about to pass on or how she felt like her time to pass on was coming up quickly. She had a certain offensive obliviousness to her that allowed her to completely insult an entire room full (possibly a city full) of people and genuinely have absolutely no shred of a concept that she might have alluded to something even remotely unpleasant. When we told her we were adopting a child from China her first response was . . .
“Couldn’t you get one from America?”
Then I think she said something awkwardly invasive about the working order of our reproductive systems. It was weird. She redeemed herself, however, after we adopted Rachel by telling her Korean doctor (who proudly displayed a picture of her own daughter on the office wall), “You ain’t got nuthin’ on me . . . I got me a little Chinese girl too. She’s my granddaughter!”
I never once sensed an ounce of sincere hatred in her heart for any group or race of people (except for maybe Southern Baptists) but by today’s standards she would register on the polar opposite end of the scale from politically correct . . . or polite . . . or acceptable in public.
IRONICALLY . . . I think it might have been my grandmother who planted the first seeds of cross-cultural curiosity in me. Grandpa was a WWII vet and then a General Baptist Pastor (not Particular . . . not Reformed and most certainly not Southern Baptist . . . bite your tongue heretic) for more than 50 years. He and Grandma made several trips to the Holy Land (the General Baptist one) and when they did they took the chance to see some other parts of the world a bit. When I was five they were the only people in my life who had seen any parts of the world a bit which made them my superheros. I had a stuffed camel from Egypt, some wooden shoes from Holland and a “My Grandma and Grandpa went to Jerusalem and all I got was this stinking t-shirt” t-shirt. I was king for three straight weeks of show and tell.
When I was 12, it was Grandma who led me on my first authentic cross-cultural adventure. My cousins and I went on vacation with my grandparents all the way to California. They crammed us, along with the luggage, into the back of a 19 seventy something, Chevy Station Wagon where we laughed and fought and blew southern winds for 12 hours a day (Grandma’s euphemism . . . not mine . . . “Did you boys blow another southern wind? Alva stop this car, somebody needs to go sit on the toilet”). We stopped to visit distant cousins once removed in Yuma, Arizona which just happened to be right across the border from . . . a whole other country. I had never been so excited in my life.
I can’t remember if I begged or not but I so wanted to go to Mexico. In my mind it would make me the coolest kid in Illinois. “Where’d you go for summer vacation? oh really? Iowa? That sounds nice . . . me? Oh no place really . . . just MEXICO!! The whole other COUNTRY!! where they eat TACOS!! and they speak MEXICAN!!”
I didn’t say I was savvy. . . or in touch with reality. Just curious.
So we went . . . and it was amazing. It was at least 150 degrees (Fahrenheit, Celsius . . . doesn’t matter at that point). The streets were dusty because it hadn’t rained in over a century. There were burros in the middle of the road and men with massive hats leaned against the shade trees taking naps or playing enormous guitars (in the interest of integrity I should mention that my memory is actually a bit fuzzy and some of this may be coming from Speedy Gonzalez cartoons) . . . but it was amazing.
I do remember very well one shop owner shouting, “COME IN! COME IN! WE HAVE AIR CONDITIONING!” That was the man who would soon hate my grandma. He welcomed us in to look at his hand sewn, Mexican purses . . . from Mexico. Grandma found one she liked and asked if he would accept U.S. dollars. “Of course! Of course, anything for you lady!” And then it began . . .
“For you lady . . . $14”
smiling because she knew in her heart what she was about to do “no no . . . I’ll give you 7”
smiling because he had no idea the force he was reckoning with, “Oh lady . . . for you, 13.”
“Nah . . . 7”
“Oh come on lady . . . I come down you come up . . . I’ll go 12”
squinting confidently with a smirk “mmm . . . how about 7?”
squinting in disgust “you give me 10 lady”
nothing but a grin
He continued “9! . . . 9 dollars, that’s my lowest price!! You give me 9 dollars, I give you the purse. Come on! You like the purse! It’s a good purse! 9 dollars . . . . (long pause) . . . . EIGHT DOLLARS!! You give me EIGHT DOLLARS! COME ON LADY!!”
I swear this happened. My Grandma said “5”.
“FIVE DOLLARS?!! YOU ALREADY SAID 7!! YOU CAN’T SAY 5!!
Still grinning. “Yeah, I think 5 now.”
pulling out handfuls of his own hair. “LADY I GIVE YOU YOUR PRICE, SEVEN DOLLARS!!!”
“hmm . . . nah . . . five.”
“OK!! OK!! OKAAAY!! FIVE DOLLARS!! YOU WIN YOU WIN, YOU *something I think was a Mexican cuss word.*
And I swear this happened too . . . My Grandma said, “nah.”
And she walked away. Seriously, she walked away. She successfully bargained a man nearly 30% below her own starting price . . . and she walked away. I looked back and saw the man turn cherry red starting at his feet and rising to his head. His eyes bugged out, steam came out of his ears and he blew his sombrero off like a train whistle (that may have been from Speedy Gonzalez too but I really don’t think it was).
We shopped for a few hours and then finally came back around to the same little store.
“COME IN! COME IN! WE HAVE AIR CONDITIONING!” He locked eyes with my Grandma. “Oh you . . . GET OUT!!!!!!”
I miss you Grandma. Thanks for planting (in a way that only you could) a seed in me that has led me all over the planet and given me two of the most beautiful kids in the world . . . Oh yeah . . . we adopted again . . . remember that African-American doctor you had? (I think you called him colored) . . . well he ain’t got nuthin’ on you.”