My bigoted grandma, in all her glory
A few weeks ago, I penned a story about my mother, how she emigrated from China and endured duress in America, some of it at the hands of her mother-in-law. Yes, my grandma – my father’s mother — was a bigot. She viewed Chinese people — including my mother – as inferior to others.
That sense of superiority led my grandmother to resist my parents’ marriage and, after they got wed, subtly remind my mom of her “less than” status. Grandma always pointed out my mother’s “otherness” commenting on everything from appearance to grammar; my grandmother had mastered microaggressions before the concept had been coined.
But she wasn’t a horrid person with no redeeming qualities. In fact, she influenced my life significantly. Rose Latzer Weinshilboum was one of the most intimidating personalities I’ve ever encountered. She was never shy about her opinions, and she offered them relentlessly. Her physical stature seemed to mimic her personality. She was short and stout. She kept close to the ground, and she was a sturdy sort of thick, a kind of thick that said “do not mess with me.”
She raised a family in Augusta, Kansas, a town that didn’t approve of anything outside of cultural norms. People of color were few and far between, at least if my youthful memory serves. When I was a kid, I visited my grandparents almost every summer. I think I saw an African American once, maybe a Latino person twice. In an era when women were expected to have kids and tend to the house, my grandmother was a partner in the family store, “W & W Discount,” short for Weinshilboum and Weinshilboum, husband and wife. And she wasn’t just a partner in name. She did the bookkeeping. She worked.
Really, she was my introduction to feminism. All the pre-ordained cultural expectations of women? Screw that crap. She was more than able of doing anything a man could do. Run a store? Check. Speak her mind? Check. Run for mayor? Bet your ass, check. At a time when women didn’t do that sort of thing, she did. In the early ‘60s, she didn’t like how men ran the city – misogynistically, loudly, stupidly. So she put her hat in the ring. No, she didn’t win, but she scared the hell out of the status quo.
She was beloved in that town. Also, she was feared. I’d go to the grocery store with her, and the teenage kid bagging groceries would speak to her in reverential tones. He knew that if he spoke back or was disrespectful, it’d get back to his mother. Yes, Rose knew everyone, probably because she was helping people virtually all the time. Because she would volunteer, she had pull in the community. She wasn’t Jewish or a woman or overweight. She was Rose.
She taught me to move past societal assumptions about gender roles, reinforced the importance of thinking beyond yourself.
She just couldn’t overcome her own biases when it came to my mom, to Chinese people. Truth be told, those biases probably included African Americans and Hispanics.
My relationship with grandma was complicated. She was my elder, so I had to respect her. I hated the way she treated my mother, though. I wasn’t wise enough to challenge her on the way she thought about people of color.
She’s been dead almost 25 years now, but I dream about her regularly. We’re always sitting at the yellow Formica kitchen table, and she’s challenging me about my life, questioning the assumptions I make. And I listen despite all her biases that hurt my mother. Why? She taught me to look beyond the ugly, to seek out the best in people.
David Weinshilboum is amazed that he retained all his digits despite spending so many Independence Days in Kansas when fireworks similar to dynamite were legal. He can be reached at david_weinshilboum@yahoo