After dating for a year or so, Nancy and I had gotten to the point where the topic of marriage was on the table. She’d already informed me that – if I were ever to propose and if she were to say ‘yes’ – it would be with a pre-condition. I would have to agree to accept that she and I would live abroad five years of every decade. That was because Peace Corps has a policy that says you can only stay at the agency for five consecutive years. Then you have to stay out as long as you were in before you are eligible to return. And Nancy had decided she wanted to make Peace Corps her career. A few months later, I agreed to the condition and we took the plunge.
Two nights later, we were staying with her grandmother in a small house on Staten Island. It was to be the only time I would have the opportunity to meet her grandmother because she died within the year. She and her deceased husband were a storied couple and the grandchildren worshiped them. Grandpa Wirth was a giant of a man in both his physical stature and in the grandchildren’s view of him. A lifelong Brooklyn cop, he fit the mold of a swaggering, head-breaking, beat cop. And he was no stranger to racial slurs…particularly concerning blacks.
Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Ethel threw great parties. They were both generous and outgoing personalities. There were lots of stories. Like the one about the fireman neighbor who drove the rear of the giant hook-and-ladder. He had to leave a party early to make his midnight shift. Ethylene insisted he take their full pitcher of martinis along for the ride.
Anyway, back to that night on Staten Island. Once everyone else had gone to bed, Grandma Ethel broke out a final six-pack of Budweiser. She invited me to stick around and I said that I would. She popped two cans, gave me a funny look, and said, “So you don’t have a problem with the blacks?” I immediately told her a story that my brother always told about when I first returned from Togo. I’d found a room in a house on Georgia Avenue in upper North West DC. When my brother came by to check it out, he asked me why I’d moved into the black section of town. I told him I hadn’t noticed til he mentioned it.
“Well would it bother you to know that Nancy’s black?” she asked me. Here let me state for the record that Nancy is as white as I am. There isn’t the faintest trait of anything that would make you think she might be black. Ok, she has a terrific ass. But I mean aside from that. I chuckled and asked why she’d say a thing like that.
She told me a fascinating story that contradicted all the family history. The family lore said that they were all of Dutch descent. Ethel added that their relatives had migrated to Suriname. Her Dutch father then married ‘a local colored girl’. Her mother, she told me, was full black, but her father was white, making Grandma Wirth half black. She asked if that changed my mind about anything. I quipped the well-known line, “Once you’ve had black, you never go back.” She got a real kick out of that.
Several years later, I told my father-in-law what his mother had told me that night. He scoffed at me and said I was pulling his leg. But it stuck with him enough so that he repeated it to his sister, and then to his sister’s kids. They were all convinced I’d made it up. That’s the kind of reputation I have earned.
Sometime later, one enterprising family member searched the records at Ellis Island. She found indisputable proof that her Grandmother arrived in the U.S. with her Dutch father. They had come from Surinam. A registry note beside her name read ‘full African black’.
Nancy and I have delighted in this connection ever since. Then, a short time ago, Nancy had business travel to Suriname. She managed to locate her surviving relatives and she has remained in contact ever since.