There’s something about a decent diner that always calms my soul. Sylvie’s hits that sweet spot like no other – a fine place, with fine food and fine people. The girl that owns it – Molly, a sweet kid whose mom would surely be proud of her had she not passed so soon – has our coffees on our table before we’ve even sat down. She says Sal and I are her favorite regulars, but she’s always been a sweet talker.
Anyway, one day we sat together, Sal scanning the Sport and me the Business section, reading out the headlines that catch our eye, when he slammed the paper down and looks me in the eye.
Sal never looks folk in the eye: he’s always been a bit insecure about the one that wanders. “What’s going on? You seem a little subdued?”
He was right. To be fair – I was a little subdued. In fact, I was relieved he had asked, having opened my mouth to discuss what was on my mind more than once before shutting it uselessly. And so, I began.
“I got a phone call from Steffy last night. Steffy my granddaughter? Yeah, well, she’s got a new job. Bless her soul, she walked right in and asked to speak to the manager. They hired her that day. She’s got that self-assurance, you know? Meets the world head on.”
Sal, grunted in acknowledgment, allowing me to continue.
“Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this thing that happened when she was small. Ever since the call, I can’t get it off my mind.”
I reached into my pocket, pulling out a little photo I’d been staring at that morning. It was black-and-white, betraying both its age and mine. The shock of blond hair like a cavalier’s cockade on the grinning little girl, waving me off from taking the picture and just lightly holding on to the carousel horse, showed the trust of a child in the world and life.
“I’d picked her up from Sunday school. She came out with this other little girl, Millie. They were friends, but Steffy was just completely ignoring her. She ran to me without even glancing back. Then, in the car, she was so much quieter than usual. Look at her, you can tell she wasn’t one to hold her peace.”
Sal chuckled, nodding in agreement as he studied the cheeky face that stared back at him, frozen in perpetual innocence.
“So I asked her what she wanted to do, how we could spend our time together. And she’s not into any of it. Eventually, I decide to take her to the Circus Store. You remember, the shop that used to set up, all those circus exhibits, arcades, and clothing under one roof? Yeah, that. She loved the animals, back when you could still see them on display outside of a zoo – she looked this massive snake right in the eye without any fear! And waved at Ivan the gorilla, which was just swinging on one of those old tire swings. I swear he smiled at her. She had that kind of infectious joy, you know?
Well, eventually, she gets tired of that, and I take her to the merry-go-round. See the photo? She rode that thing, maybe four times. It was amazing. I just stared at her in wonder – this little treasure descended from me.
Anyway, eventually we got back to my house. I fixed her some lunch, the usual: she was drawing with crayons I bought for her. A merry-go-round. I served up the grub – sandwiches and orange juice, I remember because we always had the same thing. We sit down to eat, and I go ‘how’s Millie?’ I had a suspicion something was up, just from the way she’d been before, you know?
What she told me broke my heart, I swear.”
“What happened, Randy?” asked Sal, shaking me out of my reverie a little. I smiled at him, but I knew the sadness was obvious on my face.
“She told me that the girls in Sunday school had been making fun of her friend. Called her mean names, said she was dumb, that they didn’t want to play with her – petty kid stuff. I just listened.”
Steffie looks up at me with these big, innocent eyes, and asks “Why would they do that, Grandpa? She’s not dumb. They’re wrong!”
I knew then that I was going to have to ruin that perfect innocence just a little. It broke my heart. I pulled over her drawing, the one of the merry-go-round from earlier. You can see from the photo, it had these ponies, yeah?
Well, it was just an outline – I’d finished lunch before she had a chance to color it in. I grabbed another bite of my sandwich, to fortify myself I guess, and pushed it back to her. I had to figure out a way to explain what had happened, so I asked her what color a horse was.
She gives me the most exasperated look a little girl could ever muster, I swear! And she goes “They come in all colors, Grandpa! I liked the one I rode today. He was red, so I called him Reddy.”
And I nodded, all wise-like, and went. “Are all horses red?” She thought I was an idiot! Tells me, “No, they come in all sorts of colors.” Her favorites were pintos, I remember that.
Then I asked, “Does the horse’s color make it better than others?”
She had this expression like she was explaining something really simple to me, and says. “Horses are just horses, Grandpa.”
That’s when I stood up to clear the lunch stuff away. I let her sit and continue the drawing – she colored the pony in red, like the one she’d ridden that day. I sat back down, admired it and told her what a great little artist she was. She beamed at me, and I felt like I could live on that smile. Then it faded, and I could tell what we’d been talking about before was beginning to sink in.
She looked at me, and asked straight out, “Do you think Becky and Donna were mean to Millie because she’s brown? Brown and smart?” And I didn’t say anything. I just shrugged and asked her what she thought. She knew she was right; she didn’t need me to tell her.
So, I asked her one last thing. I asked, “Did you stick up for her?” She shook her head. The look of guilt and embarrassment on her face told me she’d never forget that day. Now, she’s this incredible adult, and I just know she’d stick up for anyone and everyone that needed it. “I ain’t ever been so proud, Sal.”
“Well, that’s a real nice story, Randy. She sounds like a great lady. You’re a good granddad.”
I took a sip of my coffee, which had cooled significantly but was still drinkable – just.
“So, how about them Seahawks?”
Jim Hills says
Love the story. She grew up to have the right views thanks to a grandfather who saw how it could be for her. Compassion goes a long way. Thanks.
Don Doman says
Thanks for your nice comment. I’m glad you liked the story. You are exactly right . . . compassion does go a long way.
Thanks for sharing.
Melanie Kirk-Stauffer says
Enjoyed your story. Reminds me of the scene and song “You’ve Got To Be Taught” from South Pacific. So much prejudice is a combination of learned behavior, power seeking and or fear. Thanks for sharing your message. I especially liked the part about learning to stick up for what we know is right.
Don Doman says
Thank for the kind words. Nice comparison. (There are some nice dance numbers in South Pacific, too.) There is a haunting scene in the film 42 (Jackie Robinson’s biopic) with a young boy going to a ballgame with his father. The father yells fowl, racial names at Jackie Robinson. The son is first confused and then reluctantly joins in. Carefully, carefully taught.
Thanks for sharing.