In 1981 my aunt Sister MJ, a Benedictine nun, spiritual matriarch of my Alabama family on my mother’s side, a woman known for her unconditional love of her nieces and nephews, decided to reinstate our family reunion. Through the summers of the 1950s and 1960s we had gathered in the back yard of our grandparents’ house in a small central-Alabama town. We called them “Daddy C” and “Mama C.” The reunions had lapsed after Mama C died in 1970. Then after Daddy C died in 1980, Sister MJ decided to start them up again. (Note: names are truncated here as a kindness to, and out of respect for, my deceased family members and living cousins.)
I wrote a poem for the 1981 occasion entitled “Backyard Reunions at Daddy C’s and Mama C’s House” It began like this:
Those years seem all suffused with light, that backyard in the heart of Alabama all filled with light. Light off the white boards of the house. Light penetrating the green leaves of the bean stalks in the garden. Light lovely and soft in the pecan tree branches that towered high above the yard, or ghostly pale, where it shone through the dried bass head our grandfather had tacked to the clothesline unnumbered fishing trips before.
The poem went on to celebrate games of “burnout” where we boys threw a baseball as hard as we could into each other’s mitts. Drinking soda pop from metal garbage cans filled with ice. Stuffing ourselves on half-chickens and corn ears wrapped in tinfoil taken from Daddy C’s barbecue pit. Enjoying fresh garden string beans with bacon fat from Mama C’s stove.
The reunions also reminded us that our family was a “Gold Star” family, evidenced by the picture of our Uncle Rene in his cocked Navy hat hanging on the living room wall. He was Daddy C’s firstborn son, 25 years old, a Ship’s Cook 3rd Class, when he perished in 1943 after his ship was sunk in the Solomon Sea by a Japanese torpedo, his body lost forever.
And how, every year we came to hear the story of the broken window pane, the one that Uncle Rene broke as a boy, before going off to war. And how, when Rene never returned, Daddy C just refused to repair that window – just let it be. And how I would steal glances at that crack, a silver curve of light marking an unbroken line of grief.
After recalling more memories of “a community composed of flesh and faith” that was created in that back yard, a community I thought would endure forever, the poem ended so:
Life given and understood in the small details of that backyard. Details measuring, like the silver crack in the window pane, an unbroken line of love.
That is how I have thought of my family all my life. Never to be broken. That is how I wanted my own children and their children to think of my mother’s family, as well as cousins on my father’s side, all our Alabama cousins, all “our people.” The mother of my children is buried in a Birmingham cemetery alongside my parents, and recently my sister. Alabama has remained for me the place to go home and be with my family.
That all changed after Donald Trump became President of the United States.
Of course, fissures had been there before; every family has them. They showed up during the horror of the ill-gotten Iraq War, when one cousin’s son spoke at our 2005 reunion about being deployed to guide bombing runs into Iraq, a war I resisted as part of Military Families Speak Out. Yet I could understand that. He was a young man on fire to serve his country, acting on trust that his president would not deceptively send him to war. I had been there myself at his age. It was post-9/11.
Cracks grew wider in 2009 as cousins began sharing online Fox News reports delegitimizing a dark-skinned President, accusing him of being a closet Muslim, not even an American. Later there was the “Blue Lives Matter” retort to “Black Lives Matter.” Then later still the NFL “take a knee controversy” which Trump successfully re-branded as being about dishonoring the flag and disrespecting the military, not about unarmed black men dying from police violence. One cousin reacted this way: “When I got a new President, that was when I took a knee, to THANK GOD! Donald Trump Is My President and I stand with pride for my Country my Flag the National Anthem and all the service men and woman then and now.”
I could deal with all that. We could thrash out our differences and each conclude that the other was badly misinformed. And besides, what difference could politics make in terms of breaking the deeper bonds of family between us?
Then came Trump’s explicitly racially-charged “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, stripping babies and young children from their immigrant parents seeking asylum. While I had grieved over President Obama’s record deportations and his sad, brief move toward incarcerating families (which the courts stopped), Obama had not built his immigration policy upon an overtly racist framework sold as necessary to repel “rapists” and “criminals” coming from “s***hole” countries. Obama was dealing with all bad options rooted in 20 years of bipartisan Congressional inaction on immigration. Trump was exciting his base with red-meat racist canards.
“Zero-tolerance” purposely designed to break up families – that is when Trump broke my family. How can I break bread, much less Holy Communion at the closing Mass of our reunions, with people who justify the detention of innocent children in cold cages under Mylar blankets? Why should my son and his children go to the reunion of a family that tolerates this?
Yes, I know, it is not everyone in my family, but the burden falls on us who know what Trump is doing to challenge with love our cousins who appear to be blindly following him. Silence is complicity when innocent children are being harmed like this, and it is our country that is doing it, and it is being justified in a specifically racist way that is not a silent dog whistle but a bullhorn amplifying the racist, fear-mongering justification. History tells us we all come to a very bad end if we remain silent in a time like this, and that means being unafraid to let our families know what we think and how we feel.
So it stands for now. Trump has broken my family. The loss feels very deep to me. It is not clear to me how we mend it back together, even with the abiding love I still hold in my heart for all my cousins.
Postscript: The house where Daddy C and Mama C lived was sold three decades ago. I went by to see it one summer. Of course, the new owners had fixed that cracked window.