Their Silent Language

A few years before my mother died in 2001, I was visiting her for her birthday. She told me that since it was her eightieth birthday, she was going out to eat with her friend that afternoon.  She pronounced the name of her friend; it was an Armenian name, and I don’t think she pronounced it correctly, because she always said “geranium,” instead of Armenian.  She would wave away any correction I made, because to her, those were just English words any way.

August 19, 2019

I offered to give her and her friend a ride because she said they were going up to Hollywood.  She assured me she didn’t want a ride.  She and her friend liked to take the bus.  They took the bus to go shopping all over the city from their apartment complex where they lived, in what is now called “Little Armenia.”

That afternoon her friend knocked on the door, and the two set off together, arm and arm with their shopping bags, and their bus passes.  I watched them walk off; both smiling and chatting away.  The interesting thing was, that neither of them could understand what the other was saying.  My mother spoke no Armenian, and the little woman wearing tennis shoes, like my mother, spoke no English or Spanish, making any conversation between them impossible.  Yet, they both seemed to be big talkers, fond of expressive hand gestures, and totally in favor of pointing and staring at people or things, to direct the other one’s attention.

When I called her the next day to see how she was doing, she told me that she and her friend had a great time.  They rode the bus to Hollywood, had a slice of pizza and a coke at a sidewalk stand, and sat down on the bus stop bench to watch all of the different kinds of people.  Then to top off the day, they stopped in at McDonald’s and had coffee and apple pie. 

I asked her again, how they were able to converse, and she assured me that they understood each other perfectly. My mother said she knew exactly what kind of food her friend wanted her to order, and she took over in English, and did the ordering. She said they agreed on most things and that conversation could start with the pointing of a finger, and a shake of the head.  Neither one of them was interested in learning the other’s language she told me.  I asked her how she knew that her friend wasn’t interested, and she looked at me as if I was dense.  “She told me of course,” she said. 

She went on to tell me that her friend had a very hard life in Armenia and since she had come to the United States so late in life, she wasn’t coming to build a better future, but to die in a place where there was freedom for immigrants.  I didn’t even try to determine how she had gleaned all that information from hand gestures and pointing. My mother clearly wanted to make sure her friend’s experience in this country was a good one, even though she herself knew poverty and glaring racism.

My mother fought cancer and other health problems unsuccessfully and ended up in a convalescent home prior to her death.  I don’t know what happened to her friend.  I went looking for her when my mother died because my mother would have wanted her at her funeral, but she no longer lived in the apartment where my mother met her.

Fast forward to the Charlottesville incident where a Neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer,   injuring others.  It’s been written that President Trump was told at first, that he “really needed to ramp down his hate speech,” to which he seemed in agreement at first.  But four days later, he issued his famous remarks, “there were very fine people on both sides.”

Trump never used the words, “neo-Nazi,” or “white supremist,” in his now-famous comments.  He never labeled the conduct of the neo-Nazi as an act of hatred, or an act of violence, and the conduct of that individual as cowardly and disgusting.

The act of that individual blew a hole in the bubble that held back much of the expression of racism in this country.  Now everybody was talking about an uncomfortable subject that most people, especially white people, did not want to talk about, racism, as it lives and thrives today.

And everybody talks about it. The closet doors are all open and the voices railing against immigrants seeking asylum, African Americans, people of color, Jews, Muslims, Asians, and anybody who isn’t white are feeling their time has come.

When I remember Trump’s comments, I think about my mother and her friend, and their silent communication of understanding and acceptance.  Although they were in many ways world’s apart in customs and language, somewhere along the way they became members of the community of people of all colors, ethnicities, and languages that comprise the people of this country.  They communicated through a language of common understanding that connected them because they knew that inside we are all the same, no matter what we look like or where we come from. 

Somewhere along the way, they missed out and didn’t get the basic lesson in hate and prejudice that seems to follow generations in this country.  But as we can see, that lesson is readily passed down, because nobody is born saying “they want to kill Mexicans or burn black churches and synagogues. 

Record evidence suggests that in 2018, only five people attended the Unite The Right Rally.  Maybe some of their following declined.  Maybe they found another way to express their hate like the shooter in El Paso.

Now that expressions of hate have become the new norm, maybe its time for those of us who disagree with this philosophy to speak up, each and every time the issue arises.  The power of your protest just might plant a seed of tolerance and stop a needless act of racism.  Even if you only reach one person, that’s one person less with a possible plan.


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