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For the past two years, my mother, a one-time English professor, has had dementia. In that time, my father has become her full-time caretaker, and when he joins her at a day program for Alzheimer’s patients at the local Jewish Community Center, he has noticed an interesting phenomenon. The other caretakers, mostly black women, steal startled glances at a truly incongruous sight: an old white Jewish man taking care of an old black woman.
When my parents married in December of 1966, they were more than incongruous: they were illegal. (Though not in Brooklyn.) It was a year before Loving v. Virginia, the landmark case that struck down all of the laws banning interracial marriage.
Black women steal glances at a truly incongruous sight: an old Jewish man taking care of a black woman.
In the pictures from the wedding party, my mother’s family is out in force. She sports a velvet red mini she sewed herself; my Aunt Cherrie is in sea-green chiffon; my great-aunt Virgie in lime green lace, and my twice-divorced grandmother, perhaps significantly, in black. My father’s sister Francine is also there (in this case, in a leaf-green A-line), as are all my parents’ friends. But missing are my father’s parents and their numerous extended family, a line that extends directly from Eastern Europe to the Catskills.
This was always mystifying to me, because, in the time I knew them, my paternal grandparents loved my mother, and she them. My mother mastered my grandmother’s chopped liver and hand-grated latkes; my grandparents were thrilled to have an English professor for a daughter-in-law. Both my mother and my grandmother loved books and were skilled seamstresses; my grandfather was a tailor. (Now that I think of it, it’s possible they had more in common with their daughter-in-law than their engineer son.)
And yet, it was only when my older brother was born in 1970 that they began to speak again.
The week before the royal wedding, I put my own son to bed early to binge on Meghan and Harry documentaries. I brushed up on Harry’s childhood with the gripping Diana: In Her Own Words, watched the Queen’s coronation yet again, and went into a deep Google hole on the family’s Nazi past. Out of pure guilt, I shoehorned in Kate: The Making of a Modern Queen. (I drew the line at Lifetime’s hastily put-together biopic.)
But even I was somewhat mystified by the level of my engagement until I posted yet another link to the couple on Facebook, and my father quipped: “Looks like me and Blanche December 1966.”
And it’s true. There is the same super-slender, light-skinned black lady with a center part (in white silk cady!); there is the chalk-white, redheaded man in a tux, looking a little stressed. True, my mother’s red post-wedding velvet number is not quite a pristine Stella McCartney, but it is also an arm-baring turtleneck.
It was only when my older brother was born that they began to speak again.
So — why did my grandparents not attend? It wasn’t because they were racist — it was because they were terrified. They had come as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 30s, when the news of blacks was of lynchings, crosses burning, communities persecuted. In 1963, police trained high-pressure water hoses on marchers. In 1964, when my parents started dating, the civil rights workers Goodman, Casey and Schwerner were murdered. They were worried their son was signing up for the same. (Okay: my grandmother also called the woman who had snagged her son a ‘foxy, conniving article,’ but that’s a story for another day.)
The British royals have been suffering another kind of cultural anxiety: the integration of an institution that had colonized most of the known world. (I think they are lucky Meghan doesn’t mention it more, frankly.) But we all know the story: despite Fleet Street doing its best to make Meghan into some kind of gangster and/or prostitute, Harry staunchly defended her.
All of us are consumed with the idea of Meghan joining the royal family. But what we see is Harry joining hers.
And then, to all of our surprise, on Saturday, he doubled down. The gospel choir; the reverend; the cellist; the guests — we were agape. All of us had been consumed with the idea of Meghan getting a title and joining the royal family. But what we saw is Harry joining hers. (And, to Zara Phillips infinite dismay, dragging her along.)
This is not an unfamiliar dynamic to me. We three children were raised in the integrated town of Englewood, NJ, and attended a predominantly black public school. My mother’s mother lived a few blocks away and was often over for dinner; when my aunt Cherrie was going through chemotherapy, my Aunt Francine traveled from New York to Seattle to be with her. My mother was pretty much the most popular relative at yearly Catskills retreats.
Who could watch the Prince of Wales putting out his arm to Doria, delighted, and not see a budding e-mail relationship?
You can already see the same dynamic building between Doria Ragland, Meghan, and the Windsors. Who could watch the Prince of Wales putting out his arm to Doria, delighted, and not see a budding e-mail relationship? Who cannot be impressed that Meghan is skipping the honeymoon to begin work with her in-laws at the Royal Foundation? (She’s not even getting a recipe for chopped liver out of it!) Maybe Zara Philips and Meghan’s half-sister can bond over their (disastrous) manners.
And I am also struck by a little-discussed fact: Prince Charles chose all of the sacred music for the event. It seems unbearably sweet to me that Meghan and Harry involved him this way. What if my grandfather, a great lover of classical music, had been able to add his songs to my parents’ celebration? What if my grandmother had been able to help my mother sew her wedding dress? (Did I mention it was also silk cady?)
On wedding day, we all held our breath at that good-looking couple at the altar, at the statement it made to have a black woman treasured on such a global scale. But the walk I am most interested in was between Prince Charles and Doria. This is an integration of an entirely different sort — not romantic, but familial. It is caretaking. And I hope by the time Meghan and Harry are old, that will be nothing to stare at.