While covering the conversation about race that unfolded in the United States during the 2008 election, “All Things Considered” host Michele Norris discovered that there were painful secrets within her own family that had been willfully withheld. Exploring this topic led her to write a book about her family’s history called The Grace of Silence. In this exclusive Reading Group Center essay, she discusses the journey she took in writing what she terms “An Accidental Memoir.”
The three words that follow the title of my book always amaze me when I look at the cover. The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir. Memoir is not the direction I was heading when I started out on this journey. To my mind the subtitle could just as well read, “An Accidental Memoir.”
I intended to write a book of essays on America’s hidden conversation about race but I drifted off course—way off course—when I started listening to the long-hidden conversations about race in my own family. I realized that my parents—the people I thought I knew so well—had kept a large part of their life and their legacy locked away for all kinds of complicated reasons. I learned, for instance, that my father had been shot in the leg by Birmingham police officers shortly after he returned from his WWII service in the navy and yet he never said a word about it. He never even told my mother. And I learned that Mom had her own secrets. Her mother—my Grandma Ione—had spent the late 1940s and early 1950s traveling around the Midwest dressed up as Aunt Jemima doing pancake demonstrations at stores and county fairs for the Quaker Oats Company. That too was never talked about.
My seemingly ordinary postal worker parents were sitting on some extraordinary secrets that placed my family smack in the middle of some little-known chapters in American history. If I wanted to understand why my parents walled off parts of their lives I had to try to pry open long-locked doors and respectfully pull people back to a past they spent half their lives trying to forget.
But here’s the thing about writing a memoir. Whether intentionally or accidentally, you ultimately wind up pulling a lot of people into a boat that did not buy a ticket for the journey. Some might be willing to settle in and go along for the ride but you also have to prepare for rough waters because some of those reluctant passengers are definitely going to rise up and rock the boat.
Readers always ask me how my mother handled my decision to root through our family’s long-locked cupboard of secrets—and that’s understandable. My father died in 1988. My grandparents are also all deceased and many of the other family members I write about are also dead or have gone to glory since publication of my book. And since my mother is both The Big Cheese and the Benevolent Enforcer in our family, relatives who were still alive looked to her for signals when I came calling with a long list of questions. “If Betty is going to stay tight-lipped, than so will we. End of story.” And that really would have meant the end of my story because I needed the cocoon of relatives that raised me to open up and share their stories. I could never open that proverbial cupboard of secrets unless my mother gave up the key.
I knew she wouldn’t just hand over the information. That’s not her way. If she was going to be a confidante, I was going to have to earn her confidence and I knew it would not be easy. I have a rock-solid relationship with my mother that has been tested and strengthened by some periods of extreme turbulence. My parents divorced when I was in junior high. Mom was the one who moved out of our house on the Southside of Minneapolis. I stayed with my dad while Mom purchased and fixed up a home eight blocks away on the same street. In the telling of those simple facts, I’m always able to discern a slight “how could she?” furrow of the brow because the maternal narrative we’re most comfortable with is all about love, nurturing, protection, and self-sacrifice. I never lacked for any of those things. Even at a distance, my mother was an attentive and highly assertive parent. She is a wonderful and wondrously complex woman. With a single arched eyebrow she can send you look that just might stop your heart. But she also has a wicked sense of humor and a laugh that froths and fills up a room. She is tough as Kevlar and yet she is also the person people often track down first when they need a dose of comfort.
In my last year at the University of Minnesota, my mom threw a party on her back deck for some of my friends. Almost a decade had passed since she had moved out of my childhood home. She made a deliberate decision to stay in the neighborhood so she could still hover around the edges in my teenage years. She and Dad settled into a friendly relationship. They chaperoned dances together at my school and showed up as a twosome for all my games. For my sake, they celebrated holiday meals together at her house with the rest of the family. When we got back to our house—otherwise known as the place mom used to live—I’d let Dad have at the leftovers that she would send home, knowing that he missed her cooking. The whole thing was so weirdly civilized that I doubt most of my teachers even knew that Mr. Norris and Mrs. Norris were not officially a couple.
I suppose Mom also bought that house on Oakland Avenue to stay close to her cocoon of siblings. Her sister Doris lived on Oakland Avenue. Her brother James lived one block over on Park Avenue. Various cousins lived one or two blocks east and west. We all watched in amazement as Mom transformed a ramshackle house into spunky little home with lace curtains that fluttered like eyelashes over her garden bed.
My college graduation party on the back deck was staged above another prodigious garden. She called that her “show-off space” because it featured tall, abundant, color-crayon perennials that sort of did their own thing, growing this way and that, but ultimately reaching their faces toward the sun
The celebration was a lovely gesture on my mother’s part. I had continued to live with Dad after they divorced and while he kept a tidy home, he was not much for entertaining and a graduation party never would have crossed his mind. Mom, however, loved a good reason for a party. She told me to invite two dozen of my friends from the student newspaper for barbequed sausage, beer, and grilled corn. Mom is an incredible cook and I knew that would only be part of the menu. She set out big bowls of salads and corkscrew pasta and sat back and smiled as college kids devoured it all.
One of my professors heard that I was throwing a party and called me to his office to ask if I would include a quiet girl who was having a tough time of it in school. Joan was a year behind me and she carried herself like a snapping turtle, ready to pull her head inside her shell if anyone looked in her direction. She was painfully shy, a trait that was problematic in the School of Journalism’s Broadcast program because even if you planed to spend a career behind the camera, you still had to do all kinds of on-camera work to actually get the college degree.
Joan was a wreck in class—and on a massive land-grant campus of 50,000 students she was lost. She came from a small town and never really found her way in the Twin Cities. My professor said he was astonished to learn that she had spent years traveling only between her dorm, the library, her classes, and a single pizza joint in the campus business district called Dinky Town. He said if I would consider inviting Joan to the party, he would provide her with a ride to Mom’s home in south Minneapolis. Sure, I said and then kicked myself two weeks later when I saw him pull up, because I had failed to prime the pump of hospitality with my friends by forewarning them to reach out to the hermitic student.
I fretted all night about Joan but all that worry was a waste. At some point, after I got entangled in a long conversation about who knows what, I lost track of Joan. I looked and looked and could not find her on the deck or in the yard. As I approached the kitchen door, I heard peals of laughter coming from the back porch. I recognized my mother’s voice. It had a way of lifting up into higher registers when something got good to her. But there was another horn in this symphony—an oboe I had never heard before. Peeking around the corner, I saw it was Joan. Her head was thrown back and she was laughing so hard that tears were running down her cheeks. The two of them were sharing stories about small town life, surrounded by fellow reporters from the Minnesota Daily leaning in as if absorbing breaking news.
A year later, after I had moved to the west coast to work for the Los Angeles Times, I got a letter from my professor. It was all about Joan. She was a changed student, he said. More confident. A tiny bit more outgoing. She was on her way. He thanked me for helping her “get over the hump.”
It was all Mom.
I have friends who keep fairly steady contact with my mother even though years pass with little more than an occasional email or phone call. Even now, when everyone calls her “Grandma Betty” whether actually related to her or not, my friends are still drawn to her like candy, especially if their own mothers are gone or far away. I hear that same refrain: “She’s an original.”
Mom is now approaching her eighties and she has slowed considerably. She needs a walker to get around and tries to avoid too many stairs. She is still quite active, cruising around town in a shiny black car, running “the senior citizens” to the grocery store or the theater. Whenever she tells me about these outings I chuckle at her “youthful” attitude, even while secretly wishing that she would start accepting more rides instead of providing them.
It’s a long way from the days when she used to move around the city on two wheels. Mom was famous in our neighborhood for three things: her prodigious garden, her angry chase down Oakland Avenue of a burglar who had broke ninto our home one afternoon, and her daily jaunts on her three-speed bicycle. Decades before the armies of eco-commuters donned their spandex and bike helmets, my mother rode her chocolate brown upright three-speed Raleigh bicycle to and from work, six miles in each direction. Her odd hours at the post office allowed her to avoid rush hour traffic. She left before dawn when she had the streets mostly to herself and returned mid-afternoon before I got home from school.
They called her the bike lady. Now that I look back on it, she looked a bit like Jackie O. on a three-speed cruiser. To keep her wash-and-set hairdo tidy, she’d strap on a silk scarf and tie up her pants legs with a rubber band. Her purse, Thermos, and lunch bag were secured in a wicker basket. There are people in south Minneapolis who will read this and say to themselves, “Geez, I remember her!”
This was the mid-1970s, when most of the mothers on the south side floated around town in sedans or wood-paneled station wagons. Bikes were for kids or the Tour-de-France speed freaks who in that era looked like visiting space aliens with their aerodynamic headgear and their thigh-hugging shorts.
In many ways, Mom was a pop-culture oracle, experimenting with trends before they caught on. She wore cowboy boots before they were fashionable. She sported ties with velvet blazers, long before Annie Hall made menswear hip for women. And when she told her friends that she dabbled in yoga they thought she was talking about a new energy drink.
My father was tickled by my mother’s eccentricities. Or, so I thought. I remember him looking on admiringly while my mother expressed one of her well-honed opinions. In my memory, he’s urging her on with a smile as if to say, “That’s my Betty.”
I have since learned that a smile can mask a storm of emotions. Until I wrote this book, we never talked directly about my parents’ divorce. There were times when I tried to broach the subject and when I got “the look” from Mom, I moved on. But this time that was not an option. I needed to go there. I needed her to talk about her life with my father. I needed her to tell me about life as the first black family on their block in south Minneapolis. I needed her to tell me about a fourth-generation Minnesota gal traveling to my father’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, as his new bride. I needed my mother to talk about her mother and her own work as an itinerant Aunt Jemima.
At first Mom wanted no part of this inquiry. I approached her from all sides, treading gingerly, careful not to disrespect her privacy and her pride. I was shaken to the core when I watched her physically constrict at times under the weight of even my gentlest questions. Sometimes she would cross her arms so tight it felt like a Minnesota blizzard had swept through the room. Sometimes she turned prickly. Sometimes she would hover at the edge of something I can’t quite name. Not tears. Not anger. Not shame. Something she can’t even describe with ease when we talk about all this in retrospect.
On more than one occasion my mother “dismissed” me from her room. When I pressed on for questions about my grandmother’s work, she snapped, “Talk about this when I’m gone!” Terrifying words from a woman approaching her eighth decade of life. I had to give her space and yet I had to know more. I was trapped.
“How did you do it?” readers ask. “How did you get her to open up? How do I get the people in my life to open up if I want to know more about their histories?” I don’t have an easy answer to that question but I do have a simple suggestion: Wait them out.
Eventually my mother did open up about this history. Eventually other relatives began sharing their stories. Eventually my family stopped clearing out of any room I entered, fearful that I would start pestering them again for details of their life. Eventually the spigot opened.
It happened for a lot of reasons. In my mother’s case, certain books and movies helped thaw her reserve. We read The Help together while I worked on The Grace of Silence and while she enjoyed the book and would eventually enjoy the movie, there were some aspects of the story that made her want to spit. We chewed over the black maid’s dialogue: Was it too close to caricature? We debated about the simplistic portray of good vs. evil: Didn’t it seem as if the racist housewives were pure venom and the enlightened author who befriends the maids was so saintly that her halo seemed to cast a glow over the page? Though we were raised in different eras, Mom and I both knew that Jim Crow society persisted for so long because god-fearing, church-going, amiable people maintained that blacks needed to be kept in their place. Did the book fully capture the horrors of life for black Americans of that period? Would people read it and think that was the way life really was?
“It went far beyond having to use certain bathrooms,” Mom said. “It was about more than just having your feelings hurt. People lived in terror. Constant terror. You know what that does to your soul?”
Of course I did not know. How could I know? The post-civil rights world I inherited was practically like a different galaxy. “No Mom, I don’t know. Tell me. What does that do to your soul?” My volley of questions was like a mosaic of little cracks in the armor. Daylight.
Mom’s umbrage over the portrayal of life in the Jim Crow era in books, movies, and mini-series helped lead to a series of “Let me tell you how it really was” conversations. Slowly the stories came forth. And as Mom began unpeeling her history I realized that she wasn’t just doing it because I begged her to. She was reacting more to an internal urge to share her legacy, to make sure the next generation knew who she really was and would have a clearer understanding of the forces that shaped her life. I have come to believe that the instinct to leave a part of ourselves behind through oral history is a natural and deeply ingrained instinct.
Long before we chronicled our lives in photo albums, scrapbooks, and family newsletters, long before we commemorated history in books and in film, ancient societies passed on their histories through the spoken word. In fact, one’s wealth was sometimes measured through the dramatic arc of a life story. That tale was deemed to be rich if it was full of peaks and valleys. A life story was all the more worthy if it was enriched by triumph and sorrow.
My mother is a prodigious reader. She burns through a new book every two or three days and loves reading along with me, my sister Cindy, or one of her friends. I think she likes talking about books as much as reading them. This has been a boon to me over the years. Books have always helped deepen our relationship. They have allowed us to talk about things we don’t perhaps want to discuss directly by putting our own lives up for assessment. Finances. Raising children. Growing older. Marital strife. Marginalization.
One of the most rewarding by-products of having written and published this book is discovering how The Grace of Silence has served that purpose for so many readers. I love hearing from book groups who come together to talk about my book but instead wind up lingering deep into the night to talk about their own life stories. And I am so honored when readers contact me to say my book prompted them to sit down with the elders in their family or community to harvest histories. Some have even sent me recipes for the pies or cakes or other comfort food they used to help stoke those chats.
There can be grace is silence, but nothing beats a great conversation, especially when it leads to new discoveries.
I hope you enjoy my family memoir and please keep in touch.
Grace in all things,