Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 10

spinning wildly to the drone of bombing attacks, the voice of Edward R. Murrow and the BBC. I watch as my
mother is born at the army base where Gramps is stationed; my grandmother is Rosie the Riveter, working
on a bomber assembly line; my grandfather sloshes around in the mud of France, part of Patton’s army.
Gramps returned from the war never having seen real combat, and the family headed to California,
where he enrolled at Berkeley under the GI bill. But the classroom couldn’t contain his ambitions, his
restlessness, and so the family moved again, first back to Kansas, then through a series of small Texas
towns, then finally to Seattle, where they stayed long enough for my mother to finish high school. Gramps
worked as a furniture salesman; they bought a house and found themselves bridge partners. They were
pleased that my mother proved bright in school, although when she was offered early admission into the
University of Chicago, my grandfather forbade her to go, deciding that she was still too young to be living on
her own.

And that’s where the story might have stopped: a home, a family, a respectable life. Except something
must have still been gnawing at my grandfather’s heart. I can imagine him standing at the edge of the
Pacific, his hair prematurely gray, his tall, lanky frame bulkier now, looking out at the horizon until he could
see it curve and still smelling, deep in his nostrils, the oil rigs and corn husks and hard-bitten lives that he
thought he had left far behind. So that when the manager of the furniture company where he worked
happened to mention that a new store was about to open in Honolulu, that business prospects seemed
limitless there, what with statehood right around the corner, he would rush home that same day and talk my
grandmother into selling their house and packing up yet again, to embark on the final leg of their journey,
west, toward the setting sun….
He would always be like that, my grandfather, always searching for that new start, always running
away from the familiar. By the time the family arrived in Hawaii, his character would have been fully formed,
I think-the generosity and eagerness to please, the awkward mix of sophistication and provincialism, the
rawness of emotion that could make him at once tactless and easily bruised. His was an American
character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism
and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the
cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War II. Men who were both dangerous and promising
precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.
In 1960, though, my grandfather had not yet been tested; the disappointments would come later, and
even then they would come slowly, without the violence that might have changed him, for better or worse. In
the back of his mind he had come to consider himself as something of a freethinker-bohemian, even. He
wrote poetry on occasion, listened to jazz, counted a number of Jews he’d met in the furniture business as
his closest friends. In his only skirmish into organized religion, he would enroll the family in the local
Unitarian Universalist congregation; he liked the idea that Unitarians drew on the scriptures of all the great
religions (“It’s like you get five religions in one,” he would say). Toot would eventually dissuade him of his
views on the church (“For Christ’s sake, Stanley, religion’s not supposed to be like buying breakfast
cereal!”), but if my grandmother was more skeptical by nature, and disagreed with Gramps on some of his
more outlandish notions, her own stubborn independence, her own insistence on thinking something
through for herself, generally brought them into rough alignment.
All this marked them as vaguely liberal, although their ideas would never congeal into anything like a
firm ideology; in this, too, they were American. And so, when my mother came home one day and
mentioned a friend she had met at the University of Hawaii, an African student named Barack, their first
impulse was to invite him over for dinner. The poor kid’s probably lonely, Gramps would have thought, so
far away from home. Better take a look at him, Toot would have said to herself. When my father arrived at
the door, Gramps might have been immediately struck by the African’s resemblance to Nat King Cole, one
of his favorite singers; I imagine him asking my father if he can sing, not understanding the mortified look on
my mother’s face. Gramps is probably too busy telling one of his jokes or arguing with Toot over how to
cook the steaks to notice my mother reach out and squeeze the smooth, sinewy hand beside hers. Toot
notices, but she’s polite enough to bite her lip and offer dessert; her instincts warn her against making a
scene. When the evening is over, they’ll both remark on how intelligent the young man seems, so dignified,
with the measured gestures, the graceful draping of one leg over another-and how about that accent!
But would they let their daughter marry one?
We don’t know yet; the story to this point doesn’t explain enough. The truth is that, like most white
Americans at the time, they had never really given black people much thought. Jim Crow had made its way

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