It was a pretty typical family portrait: two beaming little (probably preschool) boys in the foreground, happy handsome daddy behind them. Everybody was neatly dressed, though not with the overkill of suits. Haircuts were current and neat. Everybody was relaxed and obviously happy to be together, showing none of those stiff self-conscious smiles often seen in family portraits. I don't know why Mom wasn't part of the family, for though it'd been mentioned, it was years ago and not part of the story, thus didn't stick in my memory.
I can date it back to the day the bridge fell. August 1st, whatever year that was. The story was one of the things I was thinking about it coming home that night, having just heard that because I'd picked the other way home I was safe, contrasting how lucky I was with those involved on 35W, and with the story behind the picture. The two will always be linked in my mind.
The woman telling me the story was a receptionist at a Minneapolis company that I delivered to and picked up from fairly frequently for several years. She and I had started talking, brief snippets here and there, and over the months and years began to know a bit about each others' lives. Each time I walked in I was greeted as a long-missing friend, with questions about how the people I'd talked about last time were doing now.
This day was different. She'd been absent a bit recently and I hoped she'd had a nice vacation. But that wasn't why she'd been absent. The man in the picture she was showing me was her son. He'd just been murdered, not for anything he'd done, but one of those tragic cases of wrong place, wrong time. Those two darling little boys just had their world turned upside down, and where they would now live was in question. And would they find somebody to love them as much as their father obviously did? It fairly shone out from the picture, and I said as much to her.
My comment triggered anger from her, though not at me. Rather, at a comment from one of her coworkers upon seeing the same picture, in reaction to her son: "Wow! He looks scary!"
Did I mention they were black?
The story memory came back to me today listening to all the radio show callers commenting on the Zimmerman acquittal starting with, "I'm not prejudiced but..." and explaining just exactly in what way they were. Black men get arrested more, explaining it as a racial failing rather than profiling by non-black police. Black juveniles wearing hoodies are thugs/gang members/scary however you look at it. Mothers of black sons called in to express their fears for their children in this society where we have, as one person so eloquently stated, a legal system, not a justice system.
Hearing that long-ago comment about that picture shocked me deeply. I could not, still cannot, see how another person could fail to see the kindness and love in that face, and instead see only the reflection of her own skewed fears. Not do I understand how she could be so insensitive as to express her particular idiocy to the grieving mother of that man.
In the intervening years, I have come to understand a little better the real meanings of the racial divides in this country. Such a statement is no longer so surprising, though it grows more offensive with each recollection, and the sheer weight of the numbers of similar feelings and statements drags at the spirit. I don't visit that company much anymore, since they've changed courier companies, but before they did, my friend quit working there. Retired, perhaps. Maybe finally unable to put up with a co-worker's prejudices. But I did hear her name in a radio story once that leads me to think she's become a community activist. It would be a great way to honor her son.