All the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent reading and studying I’ve done this year have brought to mind our houseguests of Christmas 1967.
Our pastor had asked for families to host boys from the Job Corps site in Packwood for the holiday. At 14, I thought nothing could be better than having a couple of teenaged boys in the house. My hospitable mother didn’t take much convincing, so we signed up, bought and wrapped some Christmas gifts and tucked them under the tree. I imagined all the fun we’d have playing games, sitting around talking, sharing meals and being goofy together. My brother and sister were older and off living their own lives. Finally, some kids my age in the house!
When Rev. Bratt pulled up with our guests a couple of days before Christmas, he introduced us to two very dark, very nervous young men from Mississippi.
Puyallup in the 1960s was hardly what you’d call diverse. My graduating class had one Black person, and he was an exchange student from Ethiopia. But our family often had visitors around the table from different cultures and countries. Exchange students, scientists visiting my father’s USDA lab, Lions and Girl Guides and missionaries — all were welcome and I learned from each one.
The discomfort of this pair from Mississippi was obvious from the moment they arrived. We showed them their room, and there they stayed. Nothing we did or said could coax them out. They finally joined us at dinnertime, barely said a word, then slipped back into their room as quickly as they could. It was apparent they didn’t feel entitled to sit at our dining table, no matter how we tried to encourage them.
Somehow we learned they had never been in the home of a white family before, and we didn’t know how to get beyond the wall built by their lifetimes of experiencing racial prejudice.
After all these years I can’t remember their names. Our Northwest ears weren’t attuned to their Deep South accents, so that made communication even harder when we could get them to talk at all.
On Christmas Eve my sister, Ann, and her fiance, Jerry, arrived, and Jerry obviously had something devious in the works. He invited our guests from Mississippi to join him in the back yard, and finally they left their room to see what was up. Pounding, sawing and chatter could be heard, but I wasn’t allowed to look. A former Marine, Jerry knew how to enlist help and get the troops involved in a project.
On Christmas morning I found out what all the racket was about. Out in the back yard stood a newly built rabbit hutch, housing two Dutch bunnies. I have no idea what made Jerry think I wanted to raise rabbits. Maybe it was just the prankster in him that inspired him, as every time he visited after that, he’d put Hans and Gretel together and soon we’d have a batch of babies.
For that Christmas, the bunnies were the ice breakers we all had been searching for.
I wish I could say the barriers came down after Jerry and the boys built the rabbit hutch. We did our best to make them feel welcome, but they still retreated to their room for most of the visit.
Over the years I’ve often wondered about them. Did their experience in our home make any difference beyond giving them a place to go for Christmas? For this young teenager, it was a glimpse into the racial strife that would come to a head the following year, and still be unresolved half a century later.
They are probably grandpas now. If by some miracle their grandchildren and my grandchildren ever met, I hope that all of them would recognize the mutual welcome of shared humanity, at Christmas or any time.
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