I met them by accident. She was an older African-American woman with a permanent hunch caused by years of hard work as a housekeeper and hours slouched over a needle and thread. She couldn’t see real well anymore, but her hearing was still pinpoint accurate. She could read a room without ever seeing it. In direct contrast, he was a short barrel chested, white police officer. His biceps looked like the size of softballs popping out of his shirt and he wore a permanent “don’t mess with me” scowl.
The two of them were sitting on her porch swing rocking gently back and forth and I was lost, looking for the home of a local minister who I was scheduled to interview for a story on the town’s redevelopment.
When I pulled up in front of her small home, she must have sensed my anxiety. I looked up and down the street, trying to read the numbers on the houses. Before I took a few steps, she was the first to speak: “You look lost young man.”
When I told her who I was looking for, she set me on my way, telling me to walk back up the street and look for the fifth house on the left with blue shutters, but not before telling me that I should be sure to stop back when I was done for some of her sweat tea. Now I was new to the small Virginia town, which was really more the size of a village than a town, but I was smart enough to know that you didn’t turn down that kind of offer. Not if you were smart. Plus, she claimed it was the best tea in the county.
I promised to come back and headed on my way, eventually finding the preacher I was looking for and the information I needed for my story. Fortunately for me though I followed my hunch and went back to the old woman’s house and got an even better story.
Hello 9 – 1 – 1
When I walked back to my car, the two were where I had left them and were chatting like two long-time friends. While I drank my sweet tea, and yes, it was the best I had ever tasted, I learned that the woman lived by herself. She had been married for thirty-five years when her devoted husband who had worked a lifetime on the railroad, passed out one day on the job and died in the ambulance on the way to hospital. They had always tried to have kids, but could never have them. When I brought up the subject, she simple said, “God had different plans.”
In any event, several years later she had a break-in. Three thugs had broken into her house in the middle of the night and made off with the few possessions that she had collected over the years: some pearls that had been her grandmothers, her husband’s wedding band, some knick-knacks, and an old family bible.
“If they needed some extra money, I would have given them whatever I had. If they needed food for their empty bellies, I would have opened my home to them,” she said. “All they had do was ask.”
Before leaving, the bigger of the three thugs had pushed her to the ground, cutting open a large gash on her head and breaking a rib. She had blood rolling down her face and had trouble breathing, her breath came in halting gasps, but she still managed to dial 9-1-1. The young police officer, who had arrived first on the scene, checked to make sure the thugs were gone and stayed with the woman in the hospital, holding her hand, until she got checked out by an ER doctor. The next day the young officer came back to her house and replaced the window that the thugs had kicked out to gain entrance to the house. He also put in new locks in her front and back doors. And as luck would have it, he came back again another day and another day to check up on her.
“I don’t know what I would have ever done without him helping me get back on my feet and helping me feel comfortable again in my own home. He’s been my knight in shining armor,” the woman said grabbing the man by his arm.
While the woman told the story, the man looked straight ahead. You could tell that it was hard for him to accept praise, but you could also tell that the woman meant something special to him. When I asked why, he said that she was a resilient, kind soul. He went onto to say that like her, he came from hard scrapple beginnings, but he believed in better tomorrows.
His scowl seemed to be a permanent fixture, but with the woman right there, beside him, I figured that was my chance to probe deeper into his story. He winced when he saw that my questions had shifted gears to him, but he told me that he had he lost his mother when he was a young boy. She had been diagnosed with cancer and fought it, but the cancer ultimately proved to be too much. After his mother’s passing, he was handed from distant relative to distant relative, but it was never the same. His voice was the sound of a whisper when he shared that he had almost forgotten what it was like to have a mother until the old woman came into his life.
The thugs never came back to the woman’s house and police were never able to track them down with limited evidence, but somehow in the process she gained a son. The police officer ended up buying the house next door to the woman and would come over regularly, usually in the evening, to sit with her for a spell and even help manage her affairs.
In short, they became the best of friends and she was the first to tell friends and everyone she knew in the community about her white son.
Fast-forward to today
When I see the videos of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes (ultimately killing him), when I see black and white throw barbs at each other, when I get down on the state of mankind, I think of the two of them.
I’m not sure what their story says about race relationships and I would not want to make any grand statements on their success or failure, but they remind me that, yes the world is full of selfish, hateful people, but there’s good honest, caring people too, and plenty of them.
In the end, I’ve never been able to shake their story from my memory: the story of how we’re better together, a little old black woman and her white adopted son, a no-nonsense, muscle-bound cop.