A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

The demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

Sausage, polkas and damned heretics

pierogis and sausage

I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.

The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.

The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.

They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.

Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.

This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.

They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”

Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.

They’re not like us

Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.

However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.

See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!

They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.

For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.

While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!

Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.

To us, it was all music.

As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.

But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.

We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.

We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.

We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.

It’s all the same

There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.

People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.

I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?

We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.

We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.

We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.

It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

 

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.