I believe people mean well. They might ask embarrassing questions or stare at my family. But they basically mean well. I didn’t always feel this way.I used to feel insulted when the grocery store clerk, looking at my two-year old Nicaraguan son, would ask, “Is he yours?” “Of course,” I said as if the question was preposterous. Right away, the indignation would sweep over my red-headed blue eyed self. Once in the Florida Keys, a group of Cuban women huddled together pointing at my two Nicaraguan sons playing next to me in the water. One after the other, they’d glance up and down the beach and then look at us, their interest and concern growing by the minute. Then I heard, “Dónde está la madre?” Where is the mother? Here, I thought, I’m right here. I’m the mother. More indignation as I imagined their disapproval. What was an Anglo woman doing with two Latino boys?Eventually a sister joined my two adopted sons, multiplying the opportunities to attract curiosity and take offense. Now the questions came from their friends, “Is that your mother?” “That can’t be your mother.” My favorite, coming from one of my kid’s high school friends was, “Is that your social worker?” I wish, I thought to myself. But that’s a different essay.It’s odd to think I used to get mad about this stuff. But I did. I spent a lot of my public life with my kids feeling on display, feeling watched, and feeling wondered about. I was defensive about them and my defensiveness rubbed off on them. When a new friend asked them where they were from, they’d answer “Wisconsin,” knowing full well the question really was “How did somebody who looks like you end up in that family?” We’d talk about it later, how people had their nerve to ask questions like that. How dare they?Well, you know what? It’s a legitimate question. I finally realized that about a year ago. I was buying a pie at the 4th of July Methodist Church pie sale in the small town where we vacation in the Upper Peninsula. Looking up at my two year old granddaughter in my arms, the cashier asked, “Where’s she from?” “Milwaukee,” I said and walked out of the church with my pie. Then I stopped and started to turn around. Well, I thought she is from Milwaukee but her dad is from Nicaragua and her mother is Hmong by way of Thailand and Paris. Isn’t that interesting and different? And doesn’t that say something about people and families and love? It dawned on me. People ask because they want to know. They’re curious. How do these unusual families get put together? You see, I always used to think there was hostility or ignorance behind these questions. I don’t think so now. I think people just want to know – I think they mean well.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.