What I’ve Finished Reading

A love letter for The Grace of Silence

Dear Michele Norris,

When my friend Thelma gave me your book, she said your family and mine had much in common but the paths diverged in many ways as well. My sense of that analysis grew as I read your odyssey from Minnesota to Alabama and back. We are close in age and both grew up in virtually all-white communities.

I read how your  mother said, “I’m no angel,” and remembered my mother using those exact words. And when I objected, she maintained her own grace of silence by saying merely, “No, no. You don’t know.” I don’t remember the context now, but I’m sure the corrosion of racism contributed to her feelings as much as it did to your mother’s assessment.

But I was struck at the difference in our parents’ reaction to their surroundings: “Mom and Dad were obsessive about looking clean and stylish and sophisticated because they lived in a society that perpetuated the notion that black people, in the main, were none of those things.” On the other hand, my mother thought nothing of outfitting herself at church fairs at twenty-five or fifty-cents a piece. And I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I saw my father in a suit, even though Mother and I both told him how elegant and handsome he looked.

My father did not endure the dreadful treatment your father did during or after his service in the segregated World War II Army. He, too, expressed bitterness at the preferential treatment offered the German POWs. Otherwise, he also had a wholly different reaction to his service. He spoke out often to the family about his expulsion from a Roman Catholic church in Washington, D.C. when he appeared in uniform. The priest gave him a list of churches were he would “feel more comfortable.” He never went back to church except to attend the odd wedding. He would also never watch fireworks or parades. Nevertheless he followed the American dream by wanting things for himself and for me that were prized by whites: a superior education, a comfortable home, good food, and lots and lots of books.

By the way, I disagree with you that the federal government was to blame for the discrimination against black veterans. The fault lies equally with the agents of local governments and individuals who maimed and killed the men who had faithfully served their country.

You and I also had a completely different hair experience. My family never discussed the subject after I tangled a comb in the front and my mother created bangs. Not long afterward, the first day of school rolled around. The kids pulled my braids, and my mother chopped them off. Even though my grandmother had been a hairdresser to the rich white ladies who summered in Old Saybrook, hair care consisted of a thorough brushing every day (well, almost every day), washing periodically followed by a small application of Charles Antell. I found that whole process annoying enough and am thrilled that I didn’t have to endure more.

Thank you, Michele, for giving me a chance or revisit on some of the terrific aspects of my past, and to reflect on things that I missed. Most of all I miss the fact that I can no longer “Look around at … the elders.” They are all gone now or in a place where they don’t remember.


Liz Petry

I’m posting a copy of this review on Amazon.


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