My grandmother was of her generation. That’s to say, she could be a little racist from time to time.
Born in 1912, she also held down a full-time job in an office “with all those men” in the 1930s when most women stayed home and worked in support of all those men. That’s to say, she didn’t take any shit from anybody.
Alice has been dead for a while now, but I think of her often, and especially lately.
As tough as she was, she had a tender spot for me because her youngest son became one of those men who walked away for good and left their sons with the singular chore of never repeating that awful mistake with anybody else.
My grandfather died young, so Alice had to make it on her own for the last 25 years of her life. My grandfather, Pop, was of his generation, too, but kept that, and most everything, bottled up inside. He was a gentleman, and had Alice around to do most of his fighting. He worked hard as a salesman pitching cash registers for NCR, retired at 65, played a few years of golf and died. The American way right there.
Truth is, Alice was lonelier than she would have liked, for a helluva lot longer than she would have liked, and maybe forever. That’s what happens, I guess, when try as you might, you just can’t pull a punch.
While most of the family grew tired of her assortment of steady jabs and uppercuts, and retreated to their corners for good, I stayed with my grandmother Alice — or at least in her general vicinity for the rest of her lifetime.
I owed her, because when it got cold for me as a lad, she always had that extra blanket. When I was hungry, I got ice cream instead of spinach. When I was thirsty, I got milkshakes instead of water. There was a lot of good in her, if you could penetrate the hickory veneer and take a punch or two.
My journalism career had taken me to Maine in the early-90s, and we brought Alice along with us from Florida. She’d spent a year or two trying to work things out with the guy responsible for me and my sister’s empty spot. This time she was the one who got fed up with the loser, and did the walking away …
She took a small apartment in Brunswick in a senior complex that wandered though a 10-acre clearing in a pine forest on the west end of town. It was idyllic in every way, and about as good as life got on a modest, fixed income. She had just enough friends so she could play bridge, hustle their money and still be comfortably lonely when necessary.
She booked her appointment with loneliness most days between noon and 3 when she’d plop down on the EZ chair in the bedroom, flip on the radio and listen to one of those men who preyed upon people of her generation.
Rush Limbaugh knew just what dark buttons to push inside Alice, and reinforced all those boiling-hot thoughts she was sure she had a right to have. She was an aggrieved white person, after all, and life hadn’t always been easy for her. But she pulled herself up, made her way, and if she could do it, by God, you could, too.
And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t initially get the attraction. There was nothing like Limbaugh on the radio when he assaulted the airways in the ’80s. It was the time of Reagan, anti-government and double-crossing preachers.
The 60s and 70s had been a helluva stretch.
White people just needed a hug.
It was a mostly blissful time in my life when I knew for a fact all politicians were full of shit, but if some crisis came along, they’d mostly rally together and pull America out of it. Hundreds of thousands weren’t going to die unnecessarily in some pandemic, and our Capitol wasn’t getting murderously assaulted by a mad king, I can tell you that.
Limbaugh was background noise for me for a while, before he became nothing at all.
Trouble is, he still held considerable sway over Alice and millions of white folks like her. The affliction was getting worse, and as we all know by now, Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda channel would go on to finish off the truth.
Lately, I just don’t see a way out of what Limbaugh started. He lit a fire of hate that is burning uncontrollably through our countryside.
I always showed up to my grandmother’s apartment with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, because if I was going to try to deprogram the platform she was plugged into it might as well be finger-looking good. Man, she loved that chicken. Stuff like that was a miracle if you worked your way through The Depression.
We’d chow down and she’d tell me all the things Rush was saying to her. I’d parry her punches, politely deflect, and give her the straight scoop. I was a newsman after all, and had to have my facts straight. By the time we were done disagreeing and eating, I had to get back to the newsroom. We’d give each other a kiss and a hug, and retreat to our corners.
No minds were changed. I knew Rush had a stranglehold on her, and it disappointed me to no end.
But I took small solace in the fact, that she knew in her heart she’d helped raise a grandson who had grown to be a much better man than Rush could ever be.
That’s to say, she was of her generation, and had a harder time living with the good inside her, than the bad.
(D. Earl Stephens is a published author and finished up a 30-year career in journalism as the Managing Editor of Stars and Stripes. You can also find his stuff on Substack.)