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A 'special' day for a grieving family

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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 21, 2001


Tomorrow, Thanksgiving, will be a "special" time for me, my mother and my seven siblings in Florida. We are gathering at my oldest sister's home in Palmetto. And, of course, our children and grandchildren will be there. My brother in Chicago will remain in the Windy City with his family.

I placed the word special in quotation marks because, unlike in the past, I do not know how our celebration will turn out.

This year's holiday is different: In addition to giving thanks for all the good things in our lives during the year, we mourn the loss of two of our relatives who died in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11.

My uncle who died was a wise man who put three children through City College and Columbia University on a janitor's salary. He was one of those steady men who left South Florida during the 1950s to find his fortune in Harlem.

When he died on Sept. 11, he had not found that financial fortune, but he had forged a legacy of personal respect: He was dependable, a hard worker, a faithful husband, a good father and an ideal citizen. By ideal citizen I mean he stayed with Harlem -- as a mother would with a sick child -- during the worst days of the crack insanity, drive-by shootings and the hopelessness that had children planning their own funerals.

He did not flee. And his children, all highly paid professionals, followed his lead by remaining in Harlem. In fact, they are major players in what is being called "the new Harlem renaissance."

My cousin who died in the attacks was a stock clerk during the day and a struggling jazz musician at night. He dreamed of hitting the big time with his sax, of touring the nation and the world with his band, of wowing thousands at Radio City Music Hall. I believe he would have made it. And why not? He had the drive, talent, work ethic and the support of a caring wife. He also had New York, the place where artists' dreams come true.

When we sit down tomorrow to eat the feast the women (men are sent away while the cooking goes on) have prepared, we will be thinking of the two who died.

But as a family, we have much to be thankful for, not just for our good fortune during 2001 but also for how our lives have turned out. My siblings and I were born in poverty, the children of farm workers who lived from one bucket or box of produce to the next.

Often, we had little food to eat, but the reason was not that our parents had not tried. Sometimes, rain destroyed the crops. Sometimes the lack of rain wiped out wages. Other times farmers would let crops rot in the fields because they could not get the market price they wanted. No matter what, my siblings and I grew up seeing our parents and nearly every other adult around us work from "first daybreak" to "last light."

The rule that governed our lives was a simple, brutal one: Any migrant farm worker who did not work was a farm worker who did not eat.

We grew up, therefore, with an aversion to welfare. Hard work was all we knew. Even when the labor was backbreaking, as it often was, we took pride in "doing for self." My father and other men measured their masculinity by how much crop-weight they could lift and tote.

Our mother and the other women worked in the fields by day and sweated over crude hot stoves at night. When we were in camps near public schools, we attended classes. When our camps were in the middle of nowhere, our mother, a high school graduate, did her best to teach us. I do not know if she knew what she was doing or not, but I do know that we had to sit and pay attention.

I can truly say that my father taught me how to read with comic books. I recall sitting on his lap as he read to me. I recall that he taught me how to pronounce the words on the page. I recall sneaking away to a private place and reading a Phantom comic. I recall reading Superman, Archie and war comics featuring blood-thirsty "Japs" against brave American GIs. My father taught me how to read these comics.

What do these experiences have to do with Thanksgiving? Simple. To this day, my siblings and I celebrate that our parents, along with the other hard-working adults in our lives, taught us an independence that continues to drive our lives. Our father died two years ago, but our mother is still living -- baking pies, frying chicken, planting flowers and, above all, giving orders to everyone around. Oh, yes, she loves to gossip.

All of the forces I have mentioned will converge tomorrow. It will be a "special" experience because we have much for which to be thankful.

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