I believe in listening to family stories, over and over again.
In my family, my father was the storyteller. He taught me the necessity of oral tradition. It was about his family we learned the most. This is one of his stories about his father who lived in southern Iowa in the early 1920s when the KKK targeted immigrants.
One evening, my father’s father—an Irish Catholic who, of course, opposed the KKK—heard a knock at the front door. Grandpa opened it a sliver and found his neighbor standing there.
“Do you know who burnt the cross in front of our home?” the neighbor shouted. The neighbor was a well-known Klan member.
Grandpa shook his head no; “Can’t say that I do.” The neighbor stared at Grandpa for a long second. Grandpa stared straight back. The man grunted and stomped back to his car.
Barely holding in what wanted to erupt, Grandpa shut the door and backed away from the windows that looked onto the yard. The car edged away into the moonless night and only then did Grandpa release a quick ha-ha, which bloomed into a laugh that caused his stomach to ache.
Grandpa, looking back on that night several years later, told my father he was thankful they didn’t have electricity yet—no lights revealed his smirk. He and a friend had erected a cross in a cornfield across from their neighbor’s house. They had constructed it from 2x4s wrapped in kerosene-soaked burlap. The neighbor had been known to burn crosses in front of Grandpa’s mother-in-law’s home—a Catholic immigrant from Ireland.
Without having to worry about yardlights, Grandpa and his friend had ducked into a cornfield and scooted unnoticed under the moonless sky to their homes. Grandpa had been home long enough to wipe his forehead dry with a kerchief, when he heard a car pull into the yard and a knock on the front door.
From this story I learned not only what my grandpa believed in: that it’s okay to be a rabble-rouser, especially when not following a pack that’s picking on someone who doesn’t deserve it—but also on the pride of being a Shey, who I am, what I am capable of, to stick out my neck for someone else and not be afraid to do it.
I am a mother of three year old and we live in Brooklyn, NY. My parents, who live five states away, are a big part of his life. He can go for six months without seeing them but he hears stories about them every day, about their life on the farm in Iowa. He perks up when I mention their names. He listens. Later, when he’s older, I’ll tell him other stories, too, how his great grandpa burnt a cross on the lawn of a Klan member and scooted home under a moonless sky to eventually tell his family the tale. They listened.
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