Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

Printable version of this story

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- She was English, and her name was Clarice, which she = pronounced "Claris," so that it sounded like the name of someone who was ve= ry clear on things. And Clarice was very clear on things. She was a pros= perous, intelligent, well-traveled woman of 87, who, although stooped, frai= l, and walking with a cane, expressed the strongest of opinions.

Among the things she didn't like were: Impressionist paintings;dinosaurs= ; the entire Kennedy family ("The father was a rogue, wasn'the?"); the term= Ms. ("But it's such an honor to take your husband'sname."); radios and new= spapers ("Don't you find that they take too much ofyour time?"); wineries (= "I don't find them in the least bitinteresting."); eating Mediterranean fis= h ("It doesn't come from coldwater. It's not like Atlantic or North Sea fi= sh,"); and all sorts offoreigners.

If it wasn't for the vagaries of travel, I would never have metClarice. = And I would never have learned that I could have the most tenderand affect= ionate feelings for a bigot.

With my 84-year-old mother, I recently spent= a few weeks inFrance, on a hotel barge cruising down the Canal du Midi in = the southernwine country. The only other guests on board were Clarice and = her closefriend Betty, 84.

In her life, Betty, with her fluffy white hair, big laugh, andendless ci= garettes, had been a nurse, then the wife of a doctor, then themother of th= ree boys, then a widow, and then a nurse again. Clarice hadnever married; = she had run her family's furniture business. In Sheffield,the two women pl= ayed bridge together every week. This was their third triptogether.

As th= e cruise was long and leisurely, the food superb, the cheesesripe and varie= d, and the wines extravagant, the four of us spent a lot oftime talking at = the table.

Clarice's bigotry surfaced early and often.

"I don't like black people," she said over salad the first night."They h= ave too many children. Don't you notice in America that every timea group = of immigrants arrives from abroad, they start breeding?"

Being the descendants of immigrant Jews, my mother and I saidnothing. I= t was a small boat, and there were going to be many meals.

Besides foreig= ners' breeding habits, which seemed to imply areliance on state support, Cl= arice disliked the fact that they kept theirnative dress, cultural habits, = and language.

"At the very least, they should speak English," she said. Betty agreed= , but was more practical about the labor market. "Idon't like them, but wh= ere would we be without them?"

Apart from their bigotry, the two women were good company -- kind and t= houghtful, considerate and well-read.

It was astounding to me that women so frail had traveled alone from the = north of England to the south of France. They were intrepid anddetermined.= I admired their adventurous spirits.

As our friendship progressed, my mother, who is a dancer, began leading = the ladies in morning exercise. She put on a "Best of the Beach Boys" CD t= hat was on the boat, and the three white-haired women waved their arms in t= he air and twisted their bodies and high-stepped across the floor of the sa= loon.

In exchange, at night Clarice helped my mother with her French.

At breakfast on the third day, as Clarice tried to stand, herchair slipp= ed on the polished teak floor and she went down with a wickedthump to her h= ead. She lay there dazed.

"Don't worry, I'm quite well," she said, refusing any furtherattention, = including an icepack brought by the purser. The next day Inoticed that thr= ough wispy white hair, her scalp was black, blue andgreen. But she insisted= firmly that she was well.

My warm feelings for Clarice started there, bu= t they progressed atlunch the next day, when my mother and I were talking a= bout how much wemissed our spouses.

"Don't you find," Clarice said disapprovingly, "that you aredependent on= them?"

"Yes, in some ways. Why?"

Her eyes were moist with tears.

"But if you love someone, and you are dependent on them, there'salways t= he risk of loss, isn't there?" she said.

Suddenly, my heart went out to her. How sad it would be, Ithought, if s= he had never loved because she was afraid of losing love.

After that, whe= n the topic of "foreigners" came up, as it frequently did, mother or I quic= kly changed the subject.

The tactic worked well until Clarice leaned over one day and said, "Yo= u know, Hitler had some good ideas."

My mother's face blanched. I stared.= The conversation moved on.

In the end, Clarice's prejudices left me in a terrible predicament. I fe= lt the warmest and most protective feelings towards this vulnerable and fei= sty old woman, yet I was repelled by many of the things she said.

How could that be? I tried to find an explanation for herbigotry. Was i= t was the bump to her head?

Finally, I asked Clarice, "Do you think of yo= urself as perhaps thelast of a tribe, or of a culture -- one that you love,= and one which willbe in danger of disappearing when you go?"

Again her eyes turned misty. She nodded, "Oh yes, that's it,exactly."=

That insight, if that is what it was, did not make Clarice'sbigotry any = easier to take. Who could condone her Hitler remark? Not I,any more than I= could condone the religious right's bigotry about race,religion and homose= xuality, which infuriates me, or the harm and dangerthat this kind of bigot= ry can bring.

"How can we like her?" I asked my mother. "She's a complex person," my= mother said. "People aren't just one way or another, and you have to take= them the way you find them."

I must confess that before I met Clarice, I never had any trouble with m= oral uncertainty. I found it easy to be politically correct, easierto be se= lf-righteous, and even easier to dismiss -- if not demonize -- thepeople wi= th whom I disagreed.

Now I struggle with the puzzle of Clarice.

Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics= , economics and travel.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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