In the last days of her life, my grandma Olive, confined to an Alton nursing home bed, opened her eyes, saw me (I was visiting from Chicago) and asked: “Are we by that river?” Yes, I told her. “Can you take me there?” No, she was bedridden.
“It wouldn’t take long, Ewing.” She thought I was my father. After quite a few minutes of begging me to take her to the river, she said calmly, “Just take me to the river, Genie.” Why, Gram? “Take me to the river and drown me.” I sobbed, and I did not drown her, the merciful thing to do.
She had been baptized in the Big Muddy River as a girl. Now, after a thankless, hardscrabble life, she wanted to sail away. Her brother and sisters had left home as soon as they could. Olive remained behind to take care of Selinda, her sickly mother, and to fall in love with Morris Royer, a boy who lived on the neighboring farm. Morris wrote her a poem: “You are witty, you are pretty, you are single—what a pity. And I am single for your sake. What a couple we would make.” Morris took her to the hayloft then left.
I thought of this as I looked at the horrifying photo of the drowned Oscar Ramirez and his beautiful two-year-old daughter Valeria. They floated near the shoreline of the Rio Grande, Valeria tucked inside her father’s shirt, her arm around him. The helpless mama, Tania, was on the Mexican shore.
This is the new promise of America, desperate people seeking that mythical shining city on a hill, who will only know the myth and never the reality. Brown people with dreams, following in the footsteps of black people who were brutally forced into the myth, the labor of all of which, made possible the ill-gotten wealth, the morally corrupt first step of white America.
Imagine Tania’s pain. We can’t? Oh, yes, we can. The truth is, we won’t.
Did you see Valeria’s photo? Snuggled between Papa’s legs, purple headband with a huge purple flower framing her gorgeous face, her shock of curly hair; bits of peanut butter and jelly sandwich in both tiny hands, and oh that winsome smile. Imagine her at her Quinceanera, her entry into womanhood, what she would be, this new, proud American.
If white Americans gave way to feeling the pain of the oppressed, we would be an entirely different country. We who arrived on the eastern shore with guns and slaughtered our way to home sweet home. We who revere mass murderers like Andrew Jackson and scorn the warriors like Harriet Tubman. “Kill them all,” Ward Bond’s preacher character said to John Wayne’s Nathan, in some western. “Let God sort ’em out.”
Grandma Olive’s neighbors were mostly poor black farmers. She called them “good colored.” In a neighborhood of poverty, of dirt floors, well water baths, outhouses and the like, racism was a fool’s errand ensuring that the fool would get no help, no food to tide one over, no comfort, no helping hand. No gossip.
For Olive, the river, where her sins had been washed away, was freedom from pain. Oscar and Valeria sailed on the Rio Grande to freedom from wont, not baptism, only to veer off into the far country called Oblivion. God sorted them out: the ultimate fate for “colored people.”
We’re all headed there anyway.