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    pink and white wedding flowers

    My Grandpa Didn’t Go to My Mom’s Wedding

    A family estrangement over race took an astonishing turn.

    Heather Thompson Day

    November 2, 2020
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    • Diane Cuellar

      Such a beautiful story, left me with a renewed sense of hope during these divided times. Wish the whole country could read your article Dr. Day.

    • john

      Thank you Dr. Day for an excellent article. Lot's of healing needs to take place in the church. Let it begin with those who are mature.

    My husband is white and I am black. Actually, I’m biracial, but no one asks if my mother is white when they see me, so I usually just say I’m black. The funny thing is that race isn’t real anyway. There is no scientific basis for what we call black or white; these are made-up labels we use to classify people. We are actually all the same. Why didn’t we learn this in school?

    Because race is not biologically real, what we are really talking about when we talk about race is our experiences. When I say that I am black, I am saying that I identify with the black experience in America. When my husband says that he is white, he is really saying that he identifies with the white experience in our country.

    I’ve always found it strange that anyone would try to speak over someone else’s experience. I’m so grateful for a husband who has listened, and not talked over me. And I’m grateful for a white mother, who adores my black father, and has walked beside him through his experience. We should listen more. We’d be better for it. All of us.

    I got married in Clearwater, Florida, which has always been a magical place for me. My grandparents had a condo facing the ocean, where I visited them on school breaks growing up. Summers were spent fishing with my grandpa, who taught me how to bait my own hook or pull a jumpy fish off the lure. He always had a toothpick in his mouth and a baseball cap on his head. He smelled like peppermint. I’d climb onto his big lap and he would shuffle a deck of cards and teach me how to play poker.

    When I got married, he walked me down the aisle. My dad, who is a pastor, was officiating, and so I put my shaking arm through my grandfather’s steady one, and we walked toward my husband together. He didn’t get to do that for my mom. He didn’t get to, because he didn’t go – because my dad is black.

    I’ve always instinctively known that people are capable of better. That no person is a singular action or response. That everyone is more than a single decision, or a single word, or a single story. I’ve known that bad behavior can find redemption and repentance; my interracial family has taught me that. Before my grandpa was the loving man I knew, he was the dad who didn’t go to his own daughter’s wedding.

    I don’t know how to love my enemies. Love doesn’t feel sturdy enough to hold me.

    My mom grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am not sure if she knew any black people personally when my dad sat down at her table in an expensive restaurant. He was an actor on tour with the Broadway show Jesus Christ Superstar. She was a waitress who was supposed to be off work already, but covered a shift for a friend. The second he saw her, he leaned over to his friend and said, “I think that’s my wife.” He left her two tickets to the show and a big tip. My mom had no interest in seeing Superstar. She had seen it before, but a friend was begging her to go again, and now she had free tickets. She met up with my father backstage after the show. They danced downtown, and my dad says he just knew, right then, that this was his person.

    My mom didn’t tell my grandparents her new boyfriend was black. She told them he was an actor from New York City who came into her restaurant. She didn’t know how to tell them he wasn’t white. One day my dad called their house to talk to my mom, but she wasn’t home yet. As he chatted with my grandmother, for some reason no one quite remembers, he decided to casually tell her he was black. My grandpa informed my mother that if she wanted to continue dating a black man, her stuff would be on the sidewalk. And so, she left. She bought a one-way ticket to New York City and didn’t come back for nearly ten years.

    As racial tensions heat up in the United States, I often find myself becoming angry. Angry, and tired, and anxious. I am tired of white supremacy, and tired of Christians who don’t find it to be a deal-breaker. Scrolling online, I often see horrible comments on my newsfeed; to be honest, I don’t know how to have grace for that. I don’t know how to keep forgiving people who don’t even think they are wrong. I don’t know how to offer grace to people who have never said sorry.

    But then I remember my grandpa. I remember that people are capable of better. I remember that grace is for people who don’t deserve it.

    Once my mom had my older sister, her relationship with her parents started to mend. It wasn’t an overnight process; this took years and years. But by the time I came along, there was not a holiday or month that went by without my grandparents. They were a deeply stitched part of my existence, and my grandpa was one of the best men I knew. It’s honestly very hard to even fathom him threatening to put my mother’s stuff on the sidewalk.

    He became a father to my dad, who didn’t have one growing up. My dad always says that he learned all the “dad” stuff from my grandpa: how to paint your house, how to change a tire, how to fix something that was broken. My dad grew up with seven sisters and then became an actor; he’s a creative dreamer type, certainly not the guy with a toolbox. But my grandpa taught him how to use tools and took him fishing. I can still see them out the window of the small Grand Rapids house, cleaning fish together and laughing.

    When I published my first book, my grandpa never put it down. He used to carry a copy of it everywhere and show it to strangers at coffee shops. “My granddaughter wrote this,” he would say, and they would have to pretend to care. When I met my husband, my grandpa would always grab his arm and say something about all of his tattoos, before hugging him and whispering in his ear, “You’re a good guy.”

    When Barack Obama was on the ballot, my grandpa was the first in line to vote for him. He was so excited! He became very intentional about racial issues. They felt personal for him. He had known the sin of prejudice, and also the warmth of redemption. He had a black coworker who was dealing with some racial confrontations, and my grandpa made sure to let all the guys know he would rough them up if he ever saw it happening.

    It’s amazing how people can transform. How forgiveness can water dry ground. How trees can grow in deserts.

    Lately I have often thought about how my family’s story could have been totally different. My dad had every right to tell my mom that he didn’t want anything to do with her parents, and I think my mother would have respected his decision. The day she used that one-way ticket she meant it. She made a choice. I am not sure exactly how they started talking again. But they did, with my father’s unearned blessing, just in time for my sister’s birth. My grandparents were there.

    I’m glad that my grandparents repented and that my father didn’t write them off forever. I know other interracial families who haven’t been so lucky. There are no fishing trips and card decks. No tool belts and toothpicks. My heart aches for them. I am a communication professor, and one of the things we know about persuasion is that it works best in relationship. The more we know about people, the more we like them. The more stories we engage in, the more human we all become. Relationship can cross many different divides, and race is just one of them. I am so grateful that my dad was willing to restore the relationship with my grandparents. I can’t imagine my life if he hadn’t.

    Who someone is today is not necessarily who he will be tomorrow – and relationship may be the only thing that will persuade him to see himself and others differently.

    I’m also grateful for my biracial identity. I am grateful that things are rarely black and white for me. So much of life is grey. There are days that I find myself disgusted at people’s actions, words, or apathy. There are days that I want to mute 80 percent of my Facebook feed and block dozens of people on Twitter. There are moments that people’s inability to listen to experiences other than their own makes me want to give up.

    “They’ll never get it,” I think out loud. I see people call people they disagree with trash. I see cancel culture on both sides of the political aisle. There are so many days I have no more Mr. Rogers left in me to try and muster up another happy thought toward my neighbor. There are truly bad people out there. There are actual racists and Proud Boys ready to “stand back and stand by.” I don’t know how to love my enemies. Love doesn’t feel sturdy enough to hold me.

    But then, God reminds me that before my grandpa was the man I knew, he was the dad who didn’t go to his own daughter’s wedding. People are capable of better. Who someone is today is not necessarily who he will be tomorrow – and relationship may be the only thing that will persuade him to see himself and others differently. Christian comedian Mark Lowry puts it this way: “God spreads grace the way a four-year-old spreads peanut butter. He gets it all over everything.” My grandpa is a constant reminder to me that grace has a toothpick, and that hope smells like peppermint.

    a bride and her grandfather

    Heather Thompson Day and her grandfather on her wedding day. Image courtesy of the author

    My grandpa died seven years ago. I crawled into his big recliner in his living room and tried to just feel his presence. On the end table beside me, I saw my first book, folded and worn out from his constant use. I sobbed in my grandpa’s chair. I didn’t know who I would be without his steady arm to keep walking me forward.

    In his memory, I’ve committed to patience. What he taught me about life can far exceed both of us. I’m committed to love and to doing what my own father decided to do when he was faced with injustice. He walked with them.

    And so today as I write this, I take a deep breath and try to center myself. I try to reach deep down within my soul and put my hands on some of that hope. Before my grandpa was the man I knew and loved, he was the dad who didn’t go to his own daughter’s wedding.

    We all probably have at least one person that we can walk down the dusty, long, hard, winding, broken road of racial reconciliation with. What if each of us put on our walking shoes? People are capable of better – if someone shows them what better can look like.

    Because grace is for people who don’t deserve it.

    Contributed By

    Dr. Heather Thompson Day is an interdenominational speaker and contributor for Religion News Service, Newsweek, and the Barna Group. She is also an Associate Professor of Communication at Colorado Christian University. She is passionate about supporting women, and runs an online community called I’m That Wife. Heather’s writing has been featured on the Today Show, and the National Communication Association. She has been interviewed by BBC Radio Live. She believes her calling is to stand in the gaps of our churches for young people. She is the author of seven books, including It’s Not Your Turn and Confessions of a Christian Wife.

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