Several years ago, a dinner mishap altered my perspective.
While visiting with my abundant Southern relatives — gatherings always noisy, crowded and overflowing with food — I helped my two daughters with their plates, and sent them off to find a seat while I navigated the options with their younger brother. As always, he was picky and we were soon strolling toward his sisters, plate populated with cheese cubes and crackers.
My middle daughter, three or four at the time, was angling a scoop of mac and cheese mouthward when my sister struck. One swift smack across the back of my daughter’s hand. The silverware thudded onto the plate, a few pieces of sticky mac took flight.
“Don’t eat that,” the sister warned. “It’s not been blessed yet.”
My girls sat frozen, staring at each other. When I deposited their brother into a nearby chair, the middle daughter crawled into my arms.
“Momma,” she said, pushing my chin so I met her eyes. “Auntie said the food isn’t blessed.”
I nodded, unsure of my voice, and reached to inspect her hand.
“Momma,” she pleaded, her lower lip trembling. “If they don’t bless it, will it kill us?”
I knew two things immediately. One, despite my sister’s height advantage, righteous fury said I could take her. Two, my little mac and cheese addict had already been using, and now thought she would die.
Prayer, I quietly assured my daughter, isn’t a food safety requirement.
Once back home, out of earshot of my children, I retold the story of the unblessed pasta and managed to laugh at the absurdity of it. While our family doesn’t say a prayer before all meals, it isn’t as if our children have never bowed their heads.
Now when I rehash that day, my thoughts center on how people who are raised in the same house, under the same rules, sharing the same experiences can be so different.
Growing up, my siblings and I could be found in church pretty much anytime the doors were unlocked. I wouldn’t go as far as to describe us as the hottest items in the South’s fire-and-brimstone oven, but we nonetheless cooked.
Our parents didn’t go to church to be seen, although they were always friendly and enjoyed extra church activities. They wanted to give their children a foundation of faith, but didn’t object when we grew older and explored other denominations or belief systems.
Perhaps they were so understanding because they had come into their marriage with different faith traditions — my father a Baptist and my mother from Church of Christ. Their negotiated membership in a non-denominational Christian church seemed to please them both and fit their shared need for a faith family.
While so many were quick to describe a person as “a Christian,” the seemingly be-all, end-all of local character references, my father often said so-and-so was “a good man” or “a good woman.” Even in our nearly homogeneous geography, my parents understood being different didn’t automatically define anyone as bad. Implicit was an understanding that good people and bad people exist in all demographics.
It was, and remains, a life lesson that has served me well — and one that I strive to teach my own children, even as their hands are slapped for not adhering to someone else’s rigid definition of what’s acceptable. I hope they never develop a fear of what’s unfamiliar, a worldview of “us” versus “them.”
This week my ruminations regarding the unblessed pasta took added meaning as I was reminded there are many code words to describe people who are different, used to instill an unwarranted fear of “other”
While speaking at a Council Bluffs rally on immigration last weekend, U.S. Rep. Steve King made clear he believes President Barack Obama is not like the rest of us.
“Now I don’t assert where [Obama] was born, I will tell you that we are all certain that he was not raised with an American experience. So these things that beat in our hearts when we hear the national anthem and when we say the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t beat the same for him,” King told the roughly 70 people who gathered in River’s Edge Park.
It isn’t the first time King has indirectly or directly called Obama’s citizenship into question. That whisper campaign reached 150 decibels years ago, despite having no basis in fact.
The determination that Obama’s “vision” or “experience” is so different as to be defined as un-American may have been uttered aloud by King for the first time last weekend, but was given voice as part of a 2012 anti-Obama movie based on an earlier anti-Obama book by Dinesh D’Souza. In the film and book, Obama is said to have a “third-world” or “anti-colonial” perspective, which makes him incapable of viewing and understanding the U.S. in the way those with a “normal” upbringing understand it.
It also is not unusual to hear commentary on Fox News specifically target Obama as distanced from America. Most recently this was said by Keith Ablow, a regular talking head who is part of the Fox News Medical Team, in the wake of the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
“Barack Obama does not have the will of the American people, Americanism in his soul,” Ablow said, insinuating that Obama sympathized with the five prisoners freed from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban.
The rhetoric has gone well beyond a statement that this or that policy is un-American, or even that Obama himself is un-American. If we are to believe King and others, Obama is incapable of ever being American. He is so different, King would like us to believe, that he cannot even fathom what being an American is, much less pretend to be one.
And let’s be perfectly clear here, despite how often Rep. King suffers diarrhea of the mouth, he isn’t some unemployed frat boy trolling the Internet from his daddy’s basement. He’s a member of Congress representing Iowans. Duly elected. More than once.
King believes — or at least wants voters to believe — that Obama can never be truly American because his “experience” is too different from that of King and, at least in King’s mind’s eye, all of us.
Someone please fire up the melting pot. I’m craving unblessed pasta.
l Staff Columnist Lynda Waddington appears Saturdays and Sundays. Comments: (319) 339-3144 or @LyndaIowa or email@example.com