SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Liz Wallace

A Crack in the Foundation

He taught me and my two siblings how to play card games on an old, foldable card table in the kitchen and how to drive on the dirt roads of rural Michigan. Most importantly, my grandpa loved us more than anyone or anything. We were his only grandchildren, we were his whole world. In return, he was a hero to me and my siblings, but he was not without flaws. He softened immensely in his old age, but he always held on to his innate ability to intimidate. He commanded respect with his physical size, stern face, and deep voice. In fact, I attribute these distinct characters to him so much that they continue to haunt me even after his death. I can remember that my family always made me tell grandpa bad news or ask him for permission to do whatever because they figured I was the baby and he was less likely to bite my head off than if any of them tried. It was not that he was a mean person; it was just that he was intimidating enough that no one was willing to risk upsetting him. Certainly, no one dared talk back to him.

My grandpa stayed with my family in Arizona for a few months every year. This was in part to avoid Michigan winters, but also to visit and help my outnumbered and overextended parents transport three kids to various activities. He picked me up from school every afternoon…

I can’t believe some people think this is cold. Hell, back home it is a high of fourteen today. Arizonans don’t know a thing about the cold. I would be sweating if I put a jacket on right now and I just drove by a woman dressed in some get-up like she was preparing for a record-breaking blizzard while walking her dog.

I pick up my youngest granddaughter Elizabeth every afternoon at the same time, in the same place. I pull the truck up to our designated spot, turn the engine off, and roll the windows down before I really do start sweating. I nod off for just a second before I hear the first few kids exit. About thirty seconds later a flood of kids burst through the school’s front doors, not even giving the doors a chance to reclose in-between waves of exiting kids. I’ve done this long enough to know Lil takes about six minutes longer than that first wave. Finally, I see her stroll out and she immediately looks for me across the street. She spots my familiar truck on the opposite side of the road. She waits with the other kids for the signal from the crossing guard that allows everyone to cross. I always get nervous when she has to cross the busy road. When she finally hops up into the passenger seat, I make a U-turn to head back to the house. Elizabeth, or Lil as I call her, tells me about her school day before staring out the open window at the houses as we roll by.

The short drive back to the house was going much like the rest of our car rides home had always gone. We plugged along in his Navy blue truck, but when we were just two streets away from my house when we noticed two girls standing in the middle of the road. When they saw the truck turn the corner, they eventually shuffled over towards the sidewalk with little to no urgency. It took upwards to thirty seconds for them to move far enough over so that the truck could safely pass. I was and will probably always be a fairly patient and extremely non-confrontational person; my grandpa was very much the opposite.

We are almost home when two girls messing around in the middle of the road make us stop. They don’t even flinch at the first sight of the truck. I don’t have the patience for this. I grip the steering wheel a little tighter. Still, they have barely moved. Beads of sweat are now forming on my forehead. I really do not have time for these two. The white girl finally leads the black one to the sidewalk as if they are just now seeing the truck. Finally, they move just enough out of the way that I can finally accelerate past them. I can’t believe these two. How rude. They should be ashamed of themselves.

As we passed the turtle-paced girls with my window completely rolled down, mind you, I was mortified to hear my beloved grandfather angrily breathe “goddamn nigger.”

Fuming at this point, I blurt out “goddamn nigger.”

As soon as his words exited his mouth and entered my ears, I swiveled in my seat as much as the seatbelt would allow and stated in a surprisingly stern tone and high volume, “Grandpa! You cannot say that!” This was the one and only day I can recall raising my voice to my grandpa.

Lil swivels in the passenger seat so fast I think she might spin around in a full circle. I hear her reprimand me, but I don’t acknowledge it.

Usually, Lil waits for me after getting out of the truck so we can walk into the house together, but not today. I guess she is mad at me. I should probably just leave her be.

The two girls were Mallory and Tori. I knew them. Mallory was a strawberry blond, freckle-faced white girl and Tori was a black girl with braids hanging down past her shoulders. Both of them had been in my fourth grade class the previous school year. I was not particularly good friends with either of them, but I knew them and they knew me. I do not know if it was because I knew the girls or the fact that it was my grandpa whom I held in such high esteem, but something in my eleven year old brain knew that what he said was unacceptable. He could not look me in the eye for what seemed to me like forever.

I pull out the chair I have stashed behind the pillar on the front porch. I resume my usual afternoon activity of sitting on the front porch watching the neighborhood, the birds, and the planes pass by. I wonder how long Lil will be upset with me. I don’t know why she is taking it so personally, I wasn’t talking to her. She knows I don’t have much patience. It’s not my fault they were so rude. Their parents should have taught them better, especially the colored one.

It would be really easy for me, as a white person and as a loyal granddaughter, to defend my grandpa and say things like, “He grew up in a different time.” Or, “He isn’t racist. He just had a bad day.” However, I think that is a copout and frankly, it is bullshit. He knew what he was saying.

Lil doesn’t talk to me or even look at me all through dinner.

I loved my grandpa until the day he died and have missed him every day after, but that incident is something that I will always remember and one of the few times I will not defend his words.

Maybe I did overreact a little. Maybe I should have just let it go. Maybe that was the wrong response. Maybe she’s right.

It is the first time I can feel the cold in Arizona.


There is a reason we are the way we are. My grandpa’s life events leading up to this ride home from school will never be an acceptable excuse for his racism, but it is a window into what prompted this particular world view. My grandpa was a farm-bred son of Scottish immigrants. Due to this combination of genetics and upbringing, he had a considerable physical advantage over his peers. He had a good seven inches and sixty pounds on most of his fellow Marines. His experience operating farm machinery and his large size made him eligible for the positions of both driver and gunman in an Amphibious Tractor Battalion in World War II. This assignment of traveling from ship to beach gave him the unfortunate vantage point to see, smell, hear, and touch what would haunt him for the rest of his life. I was an inquisitive child and although he was not open about his war experience with most people, he usually tried to answer all of my questions on the subject. He told me the battle of Iwo Jima was the first place he had ever seen grown men cry for their mothers. He could not focus his vision on any one grain of sand on the beach without dead bodies littering his peripherals. He was in hell. He was eighteen years old.

After the war, he returned to his family physically healthy, but mentally anguished. He drowned the agonizing screams and the gunshot blasts in bottles and bottles of booze. He acclimated back to civilian life from 1945 to 1950 in a time of severe and wide-spread racial discrimination as the Civil Rights Movement was still over a decade away. At this point he was in his early twenties and building the foundation for his core beliefs. Unfortunately, he got sucked into the wrong movement. He closed his mind and his doors to anyone who did not look and talk and think like him. He continued hanging around his Veteran Affairs drinking buddies throughout his adult life.

It was just too bad for him that his son married an open-minded woman, whom he happened to love just like a daughter. This same woman, along with her husband, made a point to raise their own children to respect others for their similarities and their differences. My grandpa was taught to hate diversity and my siblings and I were trained to fight for it. So when the poison of the words “goddamn nigger” seeped through my grandpa’s lips and leaked into my ears in the front seat of that navy blue GMC truck, that cold Arizona afternoon in 2002, our core beliefs collided and his racist foundation cracked.

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