Recently, the new neighbor across the street suffered a tragedy. I respect that word and its implication, and write that she did indeed. Two weeks after she and her youngest son moved in, the son died. He had come to stay with her after she lost her daughter in a car wreck three years ago. Her son and his brother were visiting their father on his birthday. On the way home on their motorcycles, the younger man ran off the road and into a phone pole. He died in his brother’s arms.
There are so many levels of sadness in that, it remains overwhelming. As Priam pleaded with Achilles, it is not the natural order for parents to bury their children. Now she had buried two of hers.
A Jewish friend said that I was a mensch for making a series of meals for her and sitting with this woman I barely knew. My neighbor wept, showed me photographs, and spoke of her son’s virtues and personality.
This is part two; part one is here.
Humble Social Action
My grandfather was a mensch. Compared to him, I’m a misanthrope.
Granddad, William Benjamin Michael, (right in a college photo just after he returned from WWI) sought neither praise nor thanks, but did the right things daily. By example he taught me. In retrospect, I marvel at the elegance of his deeds.
He was relentlessly industrious. He had a full-time job as a yard foreman on the B&O Railroad. He read, but did not waste time on TV. Among other avocations, he had a dry cleaning/tailor shop, and he grew vegetables. Therein lay the basis for good deeds.
Every summer, he grew one or two patches, as he called them. These were one-acre (a lot of veggies) little farms. He would sell enough to the local grocers to earn back his seed and fertilizer expenses. I weeded and harvested beside him all summer, and I got to sell whatever I could for spending money.
Much of the output though went to the other side of the tracks.
There were 14 Black families in this small town (about 2,000 in the area). The adults from there worked in service jobs, like housecleaning, or the few large corn or fruit storage and shipping facilities. There were no manufacturing jobs for anyone. While the few Blacks did not face overt racism, life wasn’t easy.
At my Granddad’s funeral, the unofficial Black mayor of the town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia said to me, “Your grandfather was a great man.”
That was my own Atticus Finch moment, á la To Kill a Mockingbird. The seed for this post came from Laurel reminding me of that in a recent BMG post about Nelle Harper Lee’s latest award. I thought of the moment at the end of the trial when the elderly Black minister, Rev. Sykes, said to Scout, “Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
I hadn’t thought in those terms of Granddad’s relationship with the small Black community there, but yes, he was very helpful. He provided money and clothing, but more important, from his gardens, he gave countless bushels of vegetables and fruits to the Black community every year I was there and apparently before.
Mr. Pankhurst and others would come to the gardens and I would pick what they wanted or we’d do it together. We’d fill up the backs of pickups. Apparently for low-wage families, that was a huge help. The canned foods continued to supplement their meals throughout the cold weather as well.
So, the rest of the town may have ignored the Black families, but we were always welcome in their homes. We were friendly on the street too. Funny stuff.
My mother later told me a tale about her own mother in regards to Mr. Pankhurst. To nearly everyone, he was the diminutive Panky. To my mother and to me, we followed her father’s example and gave the same honorifics to Blacks as to whites.
My mother said once in high school, she referred to him as Mr. Pankhurst when speaking with her mother. Mable scolded her saying, “Don’t you ever call a coon Mister!”
That was quite a shock, my mother said. Her father did not use and did not allow racist terms around him. His wife was not so egalitarian. My mother responded — she said she surprised herself with her firmness to her stern mother — that she had always been taught to call adults Miss, Mrs. or Mr. There was no reason not to do this because Mr. Pankhurst was Black. He was still older and deserved common respect.
Living Your Thoughts
My grandfather was quiet and never self-satisfied or arrogant. I spent months of hours with him over the years (parse that!) and knew him as kind, wise and generous. Giving to others was just what he did and was. I didn’t think that other people took a lot of notice, much less felt strongly.
At his funeral, Mr. Pankhurst said he took pride in representing his community in signing the guest book. He and I laughed about the vegetables, particularly the huge zucchinis that Granddad let grow to monster size because he knew that some on that other side of the tracks liked to stuff the giant ones for baking.
He went on about how respected Mr. Michael was. Honestly until that conversation, I hadn’t considered how unusual that was. The other white folk were not hostile to the Black residents. They just didn’t think of them unless they needed a worker. Yet, what Granddad did for so long, he considered a small effort and the right thing to do. He both treated them with dignity and gave what he had. The Black folk didn’t think it was so trivial.
Granddad was a better person than I’ll ever be. Yet I know that if I act as a mensch, I do so by his example.
The lessons include not making any display of piety or virtue. Stepping up for others instead of stepping back can be a daily opportunity. Sometimes it is easy and other times it can take considerable effort, expense and risk.
I am regularly pleased to see the number of lefty activists who perform mitzvahs simply because it is the right thing to do. While some want praise, many must have had their own examples.
As the chances present themselves, be a mensch.
Tags: massmarrier, Massachusetts, Virginia,New Jersey, West Virginia, Judaism, Yiddish, Victor Carpenter, Righteous Among the Nations, mensch