Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the sixth section from the fourth chapter. All other excerpts are on the sidebar, lower right.

Lives Forming

My mother too had always dreamt of flying, but differently. Since childhood she had had the ability in her dreams to fly�not with a plane, but bodily, freely, without impediment or limit. She kept that ability throughout her life, except during the times of her worst depressions in Indian Heights, when weighted down by material riches and spiritual emptiness, the ability left her. In time though she got it back, and never lost it again. I inherited that same ability from her, although she�s always said it came from a previous life, and the gradual freeing up of this one.
Wherever she got it, it is that I suppose, along with so many other qualities, that led her to believe in reincarnation, karma, the power of love over hate, the limits of organized religion as opposed to the limitlessness of spirituality. All this led her on a lifelong quest, from Lutheranism to Unitarianism to Metaphysics, to finally her own set of beliefs, beliefs that remarkably paralleled those of so many of the people she met over the years. She said it was because they were drawn together. Dad said it was because they were all crackpots, and so naturally they were drawn together. Whatever the reason, she always found a common language with the people she needed in her life, and also with the people who needed her.
It was these things I suppose that gave rise to her beliefs in equality at a time when such things were rarely considered: equality of women, equality of race, equality of creed. Eventually she began to cultivate Jewish friends, although they weren�t allowed to live in Indian Heights like us. Through these friends we joined the Unitarian Church and, later, the Jewish Community Center�we, blond-haired Germans essentially. After that Mom went on to join Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, the last of which nearly proved too much for my father, who she was still trying to break the habit of referring to blacks as niggers.
Eventually Mom began attending, and giving luncheons for, the League of Women Voters. Several of the women she met from the League were Jewish. One of them, Barbara Levy, had tried to a purchase a house in Indian Heights. The Levys had recently moved to Kansas City from New Jersey, and had been renting an apartment in Brookside until they could find something to buy. No one had told them about the restrictions in Indian Heights and, being from the East Coast, they likely wouldn�t have believed it anyway.
On a Sunday excursion they�d discovered a two-story stone cottage on Indian Boulevard and decided to buy it. Since Dr. Levy was a surgeon at KU Med, and a well paid one, they anticipated no problem. They were wrong, and when they were turned down, then later learned from other Jews the reason why, Barbara Levy, after going ballistic, told my mother, who went ballistic after she.
Mom learned about it on a Wednesday, the day that Jean and I had our piano lessons with Mrs. Jones. When Mom dropped us off she had been as usual quiet and gracious, sending us inside with our sheet music and a five-dollar bill each; when she picked us up I could see she was livid. Something had transpired in the interim but I didn�t know what. I only knew that instead of taking a right on Indian Boulevard and going home, we took a left and drove to Neuman Realty.
The office was situated in a large model house that reflected Father Knows Best ideals that had never existed, and concepts of equality and justice that sounded good in the Pledge of Allegiance, which the Neumans spat out at every Boy Scout meeting they attended, but had no intention of implementing. My mother had been living with the hypocrisy of it all her life, gradually realizing as a girl the strangeness of it, comprehending as a young woman the wrongness of it, and finally as a mother exploding over the idiocy of it. This was the first in what would be a series of similar explosions, or rebellions, or outright protests. My sister and I were there, in the car, on the day that first explosion took place.
�What are we doing here?� Jean said.
Furiously Mom looked at us in the mirror, grabbed her purse, and got out. �You�re waiting. Don�t move.�
She went into the office, we shrugged, turned on the radio, and listened as WHB cranked out the hits. We were still listening when, ten minutes later, Mom came storming out, got in, and laid a little rubber backing out. We didn�t dare ask what was wrong, and wouldn�t have understood anyway, but this was one of the few times I ever heard her swear.
�Morons!� she said. �Goddamn morons. God I�m so sick of all these morons.� All this under her breath, just loud enough that you could hear it, just quiet enough that you couldn�t be sure.
I wasn�t in the office when the discussion took place, but I�ve heard enough of the story since to be able to piece it together.
My mother going into Bill Neuman�s office unannounced and laying right into him. She didn�t need to introduce herself; he knew very well who she was. He certainly knew who my father was, since they did business together. That was one of the things that threw him�that and my mother�s vehemence.
I can almost picture him trying to backpedal:
��I simply don�t understand your attitude, Mrs. Durrand. Those people don�t belong here. When you and your husband built your house I thought you realized that that was one of our policies.�
�Well we didn�t.�
�Well you should have.�
�Well whether we did or did not it�s an unenlightened policy, and I have no intention of silently endorsing it. You can either sell them the house or I�ll report you to HUD.�
�You can�t do that, Mrs. Durrand. This office is not yours to report on.�
�Well that is exactly what I will do, and you should know that several of my neighbors will do the same.�
�Who, for instance?�
There was a pause, and knowing my mother I�m sure it was a furious one. �Don�t you dare ask me who. You have no business asking me what I intend to do about your company�s transgressions. Transgressions that, unless I�m mistaken, we fought that war to end. At least I know my husband did his part in it. You did too, didn�t you, Mr. Neuman? Didn�t you? Or did you just lay up here and make money on real estate speculation?�
�We are not here, Mrs. Durrand, to discuss my war record��
�No. Only your ignorance.� She turned and started out of the office, saying: �I�ll be sending a report to HUD next week unless I hear that the Levys have acquired the house. You can have your secretary notify me either way.�
That was my mother at her best: cutting when she needed to be, direct when she had to be, and dignified always�falling back on a dignity that the Neumans couldn�t hope to touch, let alone understand. Yes she was quiet, and sometimes melancholy, and on occasion nervous or high-strung in that suburban manner of white women who have too much, know it, and despise themselves for it�but you couldn�t touch her dignity, or remove it from her, so much was she it, and it her.
Yes at our house it was our father�s presence that dominated: his size, voice, passion, drive and vigor. Mom couldn�t help being overshadowed by that. But in her own way her presence was felt also, like a constant undercurrent of warmth and compassion and a yearning to be better, to go farther�inside�than any of us initially ever thought possible. Her contributions to my life weren�t as dramatic as my father�s, or as obvious, but in their quiet way they were of a more enduring substance that, as I grew older, registered on me increasingly, and helped to keep me grounded through all the insane and difficult years that lay ahead.
I never found out what HUD did with the report, but Neuman was finally forced to sell the Levy�s a house the next year, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, and the first few Jewish families began moving into Indian Heights, then, much later, a scattering of blacks. Nothing Neuman could do would stop that, even though he tried, just like the Neumans of the world always have, just as people like my mother will always oppose them.

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