My mother was always a racist.
I was brought up in the working class London of the 1950s and early 1960s at a time when the city saw, first, an influx of eastern European refugees, second a surge of migrants from the West Indies, and finally many more from India and Pakistan. My mother made it clear to me from an early age that she despised the Jews, the Greeks, the Cypriots and, most especially, “the blacks” no matter whether they were black or brown or anything in between.
When I was about eight years old, I had a “girlfriend” who turned out to be Jewish. Her parents were kind folks who invited me to tea and fed me Marmite sandwiches. My mother quickly put a stop to that. In the mid 1960s, with a youth group that I was a member of, I did some social work, helping young East Indians settle into West London. My mother was furious, calling me a traitor. She was invariably rude to black nurses, bus conductors, and others that came her way.
Vicious though she could be in public, at home mother’s racism was generally expressed only in private conversations between her and me. I am sure my father was aware of her prejudices but he, like his parents, was a man of immense toleration for people of all races and she rarely spoke about it when we were together as a family.
For more than 30 years, from the 1970s through the first few years of this century, my mother and I were completely estranged for reasons unconnected to her prejudices on these matters. About ten years ago, a friend of hers who had discovered Skype, persuaded the two of us to reconnect. It was difficult at first but, these days, my mother and I have developed a good relationship based on telephone calls every two weeks. A few years ago, when she was stricken with cancer, I returned to London to take care of her for a short while. We got on very well.
I called her yesterday and we chatted for quite a while, laughing and joking about a number of things. Since my father died in 2000, she has lived alone in a pleasant cottage at the end of a pleasant cul-de-sac in suburban west London. At one point in out conversation yesterday she was explaining that both her neighbours on either side of her were even older than her: one is 91 and the other 93. Completely out of the blue and without any hesitation she said “When we three die, those horrible black people will take over our houses, I bet, and the neighbourhood will be ruined.” I swiftly changed the subject and we moved on.
It was the first time I had heard her speak that way since I was young. I guess I wasn’t shocked by what she said — I had heard much worse from her in the distant past — but I was taken aback, and I find it difficult to know how best to react. My mother had very little schooling and she is not open to intellectual debate. She is almost 91 years old and in failing health; she and her opinions, though vile and against everything I believe, are no danger to third parties at this point. Other than write this piece, I shall probably do nothing. But I fervently hope that this doesn’t become a topic of conversation ever again because I, too, am a man of strong convictions and I can only bite my tongue for so long.
the autobiography of a mayfly
would be as short as a page
and as dense as perfect memory
the madness of dashing hither and yon
across the summer’s blue distance
to seek the one mate of perfect desire
the need to avoid the bloodletting wars
of birds and trout at cool water’s edge
to arrive in one piece at the perfect location
the keenness of invention, of new hieroglyphics,
to tempt her away from the maddening crowds
to sing her, to win her with this perfect dance
the sense of fulfillment, slowly drifting to earth
with all power spent, all duty completed
to remember, to listen to the end of this perfect life