Below is one of the essays I discovered in my lost cache of writing. I wrote it in 2002. My children were 12 and 8. There was a big battle in South Carolina regarding the Confederate flag and it’s place on the State Capitol grounds. As a mother, I was looking for a way to address this that was open and honest. I had raised my children to accept and honor the differences of others. Of course, not everyone raises their children the same way. Anyhow… I feel myself attempting to explain the following piece. I’ll stop and let it stand for itself. It’s long-ish, by the way.
The Flag in My Neighbor’s Yard (2002)
There is a huge Confederate Flag waving from my neighbor’s front yard. I mean huge. Must-have-special-ordered-it huge. Gigantic. You can see it the second you turn at the corner by the city ballpark and soccer field. The lush, green field is teeming with little children in bright red and blue and orange uniforms. They kick a black and white ball across the wide expanse of grass while their parents yell encouragement and billowing behind them – glowing red like the backdrop of a Radio City Music Hall show – is the flag on a hand constructed wooden structure. The stars and stripes used to hang in the place of honor from a pole by their front door; but it’s overshadowed now, by its radical cousin, rising insistently from the middle of the front yard. It demands to be seen. It is making a statement. I just don’t know what it is.
You see these are more than just neighbors. We’ve known each other for years. These are the folk I’ve shared day-to-day banalities with and the quirky twists of daily living. Mrs. Waring, severely arthritic and barely able to catch her breath from her front door to the mail box, hand crocheted queen-sized blankets for each of my children when they were born. When she could no longer walk across the street, we’d stop in to visit her. Once, when she’d burned her feet, insensitive due to diabetes, in a hot bath, my grandmother went over to help dress and bandage them. The burns wouldn’t heal and she went back to the hospital. She didn’t come back. We missed her.
Two of the grandchildren are the same age as our children. My husband and I commiserated when the second granddaughter was born with a congenital heart defect. And we prayed for her recovery when the surgeons opened her tiny chest. She’s fine now, though small for her age.
Mr. Waring is an old WWII vet. Every morning around 6:00 a.m. before he retired from his job, I would hear his old station wagon beeping as he backed out of the driveway. Once he retired, I’d still see him daily, patrolling the neighborhood, his suspenders determinately anchoring his pants under his low, large belly “How you doin’ today, Mr. Waring?” I’d ask whenever I saw him. “If I was any better, I’d be dancin’ a jig!” he’d say every time. Even when he buried his eldest daughter. Even when his wife died. Even when his own health began to fail. “See you later, Mr. Waring,” “Have a great day today and a better tomorrow!” he’d reply. Each time. He was a cheerful man.
His son resembles a big bear. I’d see him sometimes down on the waterfront with a shrimp net, his dingy tee stretched to the limit of its cotton fibers, playing hide and reveal with the hairy mountain of his stomach. Grime on his hands and on his bearded face. He was friendly whenever we met. His wife was straight out of a Flannery O’Connor novel — bland, blond, a little blank –but neighborly all the same. We loaned them our Chevette for a while when their car was stolen from a local parking lot. They’d stop by our porch and we’d talk about our kids.
The daughter, Karen, was the one my kids really loved. They even called her Aunt Karen like her nieces did. And talk about affectionate. Whenever Karen saw one of us in public she would stop what she was doing and wrap us in a big hug, whether we wanted one or not. We could count on Karen being happy to see us, even in the checkout line at K-Mart where she worked in the plant and yard care department. Karen was the one who brought over birthday cards and walked Grandma’s dog when she was ill and who watered the garden when we were away. She told me once that they’d never lived close to colored people before but we were the nicest neighbors she could ever have. I accepted that in the spirit in which it was offered. We thought they were pretty nice too. When we moved to a nearby neighborhood we maintained our friendliness. We still owned the house across the street and they still looked out for it. And no matter what and no matter where, Karen still greeted us with a hug.
We were good neighbors. We respected each other and looked out for each other the way good neighbors do. So I did not know what to feel when I turned the corner and saw the flag, so big and bright it could not be missed.
In South Carolina that flag has many meanings. As the battle to remove it from the State Capitol heated up, the flags began to proliferate: on bumper stickers, lapels, flag poles. For some it represents slavery, oppressions, racism and intolerance. For others it is the heritage of their ancestors, states rights, old family tales. And for some, I assume, just a reason for a battle. Any old reason would do. All I can say clearly is what it means to me. What it feels like. My breath always catches when I see it. My pulse jumps. It is visceral. It feels like fear. I have to make a conscious effort not to recoil. I’ve heard the slogans, “Heritage, not Hate.” And when my 12-year-old daughter asked me what the battle was about I tried to be even-handed in my explanations. To talk about history from both perspectives. But my body knows differently and will not succumb to my logic. I am wary of approaching homes and businesses with the flag flying or drivers whose cars boldly bear it. I am wary of those who own those homes, businesses and cars. I do not know what they intend by the flags presentation. I do not know what they see when they look at me. My experience has taught me to brace for rejection, antagonism or worse and I must foster my energy to hide my reaction. When I can, I avoid such situations. I try to live Confederate Flag free as much as possible.
But this is the Waring’s House. This is my neighbor’s flag. I’m not sure what to do, because I know these people. Did they become different people when they hoisted the banner over their yard? Did I become a different person when I saw it?
I hadn’t seen any of the Warings for a few months before the flag went up and more time passed in which I didn’t encounter them. The flag on their lawn still occupied a corner of my mind, though, like a prod from an aching tooth or a dull headache. One day I decided to pick up some new plants for my flowerbeds. As I was heading out the back gate of K-Mart’s gardening section, my cart heaped high with potting soil and geraniums, I ran into Karen. My heart skipped. “Hi Karen, how are you?” I asked. I always do.
“I’m good,” she said. “How are you and Ron and the kids?”
“We’re fine,” I answered.
“Well, tell them hello for me.”
“I will, “ I responded. “And give your Dad my regards.”
She didn’t hug me. For the first time in years she didn’t hug me. I moved past her to the parking lot, pushing my cart into the hot Carolina sun. The thing is, I don’t know who held back. Did she? Or did I?