How a potholder reminded me of my early lessons on race relations – Leavenworth Times
Your turn Connie Schultz Guest Columnist
Last month, on Boxing Day, I taught two of our young granddaughters how to weave potholders.
This is a family tradition, in which boys and girls learn to stretch vertical loops of cotton over a metal rack, then weave horizontal loops through them to form a tight weave. Eventually it looks like a potholder, how it is declared a masterpiece and will never meet the commercial end of a dirty pot.
My 40-year-old son’s faded green and white potholder currently sits on my desk under a glass candle jar. He is now a math teacher. With his roots as a weaver, how could he not be?
The last step of the potholders requires a crochet hook. For my granddaughters, it was my task, together with my daughter-in-law, Stina. I don’t hold a hook often, and as I started to pull one loop through the next, my mind flashed back to a time when my own childhood hands were crocheting a work of art.
I have proof.
After our grandchildren returned to their respective homes and left our silent grave, I walked into our guest bedroom and opened the Lane Hope chest at the foot of the bed. It was a present from my parents for my 16th birthday, when it was still a thing in small towns like ours. The parents gave their teenage daughters cedar-lined wooden chests, which we were supposed to fill with household items for a future wedding. Hence the word “hope”, certainly in my family, where every expressed parental concern seemed to end with some version of “and you, with all those opinions”. They were worried that I would bully the boys.
I never used the Hope Chest for its intended purpose – don’t pretend to be surprised – but I could never part with it. The trunk was a big purchase for my working-class parents, at a time when they were worried about the costs of my coming college years. He traveled with me to every place I called home, including dorms and student accommodation.
This time I opened the trunk to find the only thing I had ever crocheted. My mother’s only acquaintance with a needle was the type used for hemming and mending. Fortunately, Mrs. Sawicky, the mother of my friends, lived a block away. Most of my memories of Mrs. Sawicky involve her with a round full of beautiful yarn she crocheted into throws, scarves and sweaters.
Shortly after my ninth birthday, she agreed to teach me after I begged my mother to ask her. I crocheted a teardrop doily, from a skein of yarn in shades of cream, pale pink and blue. My mother, after showing it briefly, wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it away in her hope chest until she died, when Dad gave it to me. My masterpiece, preserved.
Now, when I hold this placemat made by my own little hands, I think of the fact that my father never wanted me hanging out with the Sawickys. We were Presbyterian and they were Catholic, and although Dad rarely went to church, he thought that was an insurmountable difference. Mr. Sawicki was an immigrant from Poland, which to my father was further proof that he was not of our species.
It was destined to be a losing battle for my father. I was lucky enough to learn early on, in one integrated class after another, that my friends didn’t have to look like me to be like me. Religion was just another square on the hopscotch.
It surprises people when I tell them that in little Ashtabula, Ohio, half of my classmates were black all through elementary school. I loved my dad, but he struggled with racism all his life. In second grade, I realized that was Dad’s problem, not mine. It was a major source of tension between us for all his years.
This is when some readers will feel the need to let me know that I committed bait and switch on them. I was there, writing about potholders and placemats, and now I’m talking about black people. If you mind that I didn’t tell you where this was leading, you are precisely the reader I was hoping to find.
You know how the mind works. One thing reminds us of this, and then this, and then this. Under the placemat in my hope chest was an envelope with my grade school class photos. As I studied the faces – I can still name most of them – I thought about the fact that too many white parents and elected officials these days don’t want their white children to know about our country’s history of racism.
This fictionalization of America is less likely to occur in various school districts, where some family trees include slave owners and children who were sold to the highest bidder. But this latest wave of whitewashing in American history is not new. It’s been around for years, by design and zip code. Three years ago, The New York Times reported that “more than half of the nation’s school children are in racially dense districts, where more than 75 percent of students are white or non-white.”
As a journalism professor, I see how it happens. I can often discern in single class discussion which white students grew up in school districts where almost everyone looked like them, and no one helped them expand their perspective. When I realized that few of my white students had heard of Ruby Bridges, John Lewis and Rosa Parks, it was time to change course. Whatever class I teach, we also learn about the civil rights movement, and the brave reporters and photographers who covered it. The conversations that ensue lift my spirits.
To bring us back to potholders, think of it this way: it’s a different kind of weaving, one thread of American history at a time.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA TODAY. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Girls of Erietown”, is a New York Times bestseller. Reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz