My father was a white male. He lived the last 32 years of his life in the Deep South. After he became an evangelical Christian around the age of 30, he attended independent Baptist and Southern Baptist churches for the rest of his life, and he always voted Republican.
Now that you have the picture in your head that MSNBC wants you to have of him, let me tell you who this man really was.
My father was a man with his eyes indiscriminately open for humanity; he was always looking for people who needed a friend. My mother was often helping friends pay a bill or purchase something needed, but for my dad, for some reason, his open eyes were usually looking to help using language.
When he saw a Mexican couple was being exploited for cheap labor by the owner of the local Chinese restaurant, he led my family to befriend them. Rosi came to my house and taught my mom to make Mexican food while my mom taught her to make pineapple upside-down cake. At Christmas, he had me and my friends in his Spanish class memorize “Silent Night” in Spanish and sing it to them at the restaurant.
When the woman who had been my fourth-grade teacher and her husband employed some undocumented Mexican workers to pick at their blueberry farm, he took me out to the farm to befriend them- and not just befriend them, to pick with them.
When a Vietnamese family moved to town and opened a nail salon, he befriended them and we were at their apartment at least once a week helping them with their English.
When the track team from São Tomé and Principe was scheduled to come stay and practice in my town prior to the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, my dad decided it was time to learn Portuguese, because where were they going to find a lot in common with anyone in our county? They didn’t end up coming, but he was going to be ready regardless.
And he never expected anything in return. I remember these grateful friends preparing dinner for us, even doing my nails for free for my wedding, offering to treat my migraines with acupuncture, but my father never asked for anything.
This year, Zoe is 9 and in public school for the first time in her life, following homeschooling from first grade through fourth. She skipped kindergarten and has a birthday late in the school year, so she’s as much as two years younger than some of the kids in her class. Also, because it’s the only dual immersion school in the district, there’s a fairly established camaraderie among the students. There’s no active bullying going on, but Zoe has climbed in the van more than once after school with her shoulders sagging and tears in her eyes and questions I cannot answer – how do you get fifth-grade girls to play with you at recess?
All I could do was pray, asking God to intervene and open the eyes of these cliquish girls to see what a great friend my Zoe could be. I never dreamed what a plan He might have instead. I never dreamed what God was weaving into Zoe’s story through my father’s legacy.
Last week, Zoe got in the van and told me it was a best day ever. A+ on a test? Chocolate cake in the cafeteria? The sun finally peeking through the never-ending Kentucky winter rains? No. There was a new girl in class. She had just arrived, just completed her very first day in a U.S. school, and she only spoke Spanish. And she needed a friend.
I must admit to a bit of pride when Zoe told me the girl was more or less assigned to sit with her in her English-speaking classes, because a native-speaking boy and Zoe are the two children with the highest proficiency in the class (OH my stars, did I ACTUALLY do this? I raised a BILINGUAL CHILD!). She played with the girl at recess, she helped her in class, she helped her make other friends.
Since that first day, Zoe’s told me about their other adventures, about recess with this new friend and another girl, Jessica, where they point to a slide and she tells them, “Tobogán.” And they say, “Slide.” She tries out this brand new word with a thick accent, “Slide.”
I close my eyes and I see my mother in our kitchen, pointing to a table and telling Rosi, “Table.” Rosi points and says “Mesa.” Rosi points at a banana and says, “Banana.” My mom points and exclaims, “Yes! Banana!” And they both laugh. (My mother lives still, but dementia has stolen all these memories from her. Should they be stolen from me one day, now you are here to keep them.)
A tear escapes my eye.
I don’t know why this Honduran girl (let’s call her Veronica) ended up in my daughter’s school instead of the school where the district usually assigns non-English-speaking new arrivals. In fact, yesterday she wasn’t at school, and my heart sank. No, don’t let her have transferred. Zoe spent recess building a fairy house in the mulch, alone. She said “When Veronica’s there, she plays with me, and Jessica plays with Veronica, and Emily plays with Veronica. Without her, there’s no Jessica or Emily. It’s like Veronica is my magnet. But she’s my actual friend, too.” She said it so matter-of-factly, and I had to leave the table because I was so choked up. God, bring her back.
These two, they need each other. Zoe could be Arthur, the boy who was a good friend to Francisco in Cajas de cartón. She’s my father, eyes open for who needed help. Because of my father, she’s me.
I’d be honored if you’d read my tribute to my father in the eulogy I gave at his funeral.
“When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:12-14