Thursday, December 5, 2013

Share the Wealth

Standing outside of me, looking on, I appreciate more and more my father's admonition to never measure wealth in terms of money, but memories instead. By that standard I've come to realize what a wealthy woman I am after all. Dipping back into that treasure trove is a scene from the last big nuclear disarmament march from the American military base in Aldermaston, England, to London.

It was 1963 and I had only been married a few months. We lived in the Midlands where my husband was on the faculty at the University of Leicester. Hundreds of protesters became thousands as we neared London. Along the way we stopped and joined a group that had surrounded a young man in saffron robes. We had seen several Buddhists along the way, so we joined in and became a part of a conversation about why peace was important but probably not attainable, due to man's relentless folly in pursuing war in the name of peace. I later learned we had been in the company of the new Dali Lama. Yes, the same one who travels the world today preaching nonviolence. Somewhere is a photograph, if my daughter hasn't lost it. It meant, she once said, more to her than money.

 Later that same year, several union organizing friends would receive hefty jail, then prison sentences for going to South Africa to demand release of Nelson Mandela who had been imprisoned the year before. A few month's later, I would duck out of a play rehearsal and nip across to a pub for a pint, only to be met with stony silence and the announcement that John Kennedy had been assassinated.

The following summer my mother announced, as was her wont, that she was coming to visit, and that she had already made arrangements for both of us to meet one of her friends in Paris. Biting the bullet, as was my wont, I agreed -- and would have more enthusiastic had she bothered to tell me that we were meeting a family friend of many years, poet Langston Hughes. He occasionally sent books inscribed to me on our shared February birthday. Seeing Paris with him was an adventure beyond measure. Our outings never began before 10 p.m. and usually ended 'round about sunup, having made the rounds on the left bank, Place Pigalle, the Marais and ending at place much loved by ex-pats, Chez Bricktop. Owned by one Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, the nickname commemorated her flaming red hair in a color found nowhere in nature. Chez Bricktop was the rage in Paris for decades.

We had ribs and potato salad at Gabby & Haynes, where anyone who was anyone in the jazz/blues world ate sooner or later. It was the oldest American restaurant in Paris, owner by a black American ex-GI who married a Frenchwomen and decided he'd had enough of second-class citizenship in the U.S. The night -- rather, the morning -- we went, bluesman Memphis Slim was sitting at the bar, waiting for a table. Uncle Langston, a perennial fixed cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, introduced us. Mother, without any sense of how out of place she looked in spectator pumps and white gloves, extended her hand and said, somewhat haughtily, "How do you do, Mr. Slim." She had no idea who he was. He looked at her through a smoky haze and said, "Hey baby; nice gloves." The look of complete befuddlement on her face was priceless.

A few years later, at my mother's insistence, I bundled up and dragged myself to London to meet yet another of her friends who was stopping there en route to Russia, where he would abandon the United States for life in Russia -- returning once he found life there not as he had envisioned. When I arrived at the flat Paul Robeson shared with his wife, they had tea and cookies waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about music and how I liked living in England and whether I planned to stay there. He said I should, since black people would never have the respect they deserved in America.

Long acknowledged as an authentic renaissance man, he was still smarting from the treatment he received after being cited as a subversive. Life in the '50s was much worse then for those leaning left. Of course, NSA didn't have unfettered access to our conversations then either. When I returned to the U.S. in the late '60s and became a reporter I got to meet all manner of interesting people, including the soft-spoken Miriam Makeba, who was our houseguest for two nights when she came to St. Louis for two concerts with Hugh Masekela. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee belting belter out blues in our living room. Cab Callaway beat sounds out or Acrosonic upright that I never would have if I practiced day and night for a year, which, of course, I wouldn't. I remember Duke Ellington asking for seconds at one of the all-night chitlin' parties my parents had.

A favorite photograph of mine features my father and me with Martin Luther King, Jr. It hangs on my office wall, and the story of how I met Malcolm X still amuses (he was Malcolm Little then, and his nickname, Red," came from his genuinely red hair). A restaurant operated by Black Muslims was a few doors down from my father's newspaper office, and "Red" was in the neighborhood to see how the business was going.

If I hadn't been a reporter I might never had known what a nice guy Sen. Robert Dole is; that both David Brinkley and G. Gordon Liddy, while very different in character, had a wonderfully droll sense of humor; that Nina Simone really was a very strange bird; and that Lena Horne was a kind and gentle person when she wanted to be, which was more often than a lot of people knew; that Whoopi Goldberg once asked my daughter to babysit.

My heart has broken several times since that Aldermaston march. No one like to see a marriage dissolve. Langston Hughes died three years after our fun in the City of Lights; Bricktop died on my birthday in 1984. Duke Ellington and my father are long gone, and each death has etched a notch of sorrow in my heart. But if it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger I'm in good shape: Memories remain, but none will last as long or be as treasured as the knowledge that for all my life I shared space on planet earth with a truly extraordinary man I never met.

The closest I came was knowing men and women to went to a troubled country in 1963 on an unsuccessful mission to have him released from the equivalent of America's Alcatraz. He then spent 27 years in unspeakable incarceration. If I could spend the wealth of spirit I've accrued through knowing, and knowing of, wonderful people, I could probably underwrite a cure for cancer, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

Instead all I can do is donate when and where I can and hope that others, in memory of someone who has touched their lives in a meaningful way, will also give in Nelson Mandela's memory.

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