Tuesday, April 12, 2011


On a hot, Tennessee Sunday in the summer of 2005 a friend asked me if he could bring a young couple over to my house to meet my wife, my children, and me. I do not typically like Sunday visitors, and I didn’t that Sunday (I also don't typically like being the center of attention when I am not certain which feature of mine is being highlighted). He really wanted this couple to meet us. They just had their first child, were nervous parents, and he wanted them to meet some good parents. With lots of kids. How can you turn down a compliment like that? I reluctantly agreed.

Less than a half-hour later they arrived. The couple were tall (he lanky, she plump) and maybe five to ten years older than my wife and me. They had a cute, little boy who couldn’t have been more than eighteen months. I wasn’t quite certain how you did this. I didn’t know if it was going to be Q & A or if I was supposed to launch into the eight secrets of child rearing (There are actually more, but they are "secrets", haha, so I want to be misleading). We were still in that awkward stage of niceties.

They were both from Alabama, the Birmingham area. She was former Air Force, his profession I cannot remember. I let slip out that my mother was from Alabama, though I am ignorant of Alabama myself.

“Where?” he asked.

“You probably have never heard of it. It’s a postage stamp of a town. Aliceville.” I thought nothing of it.

There was a quiet stuttering of time as if someone had sucked in a ridiculously huge breath of air.

“I’m from Aliceville!” The look on his face was one of perplexity. I could tell he didn’t believe me. I wasn't sure he heard me. 

“What?” I responded, “Are you serious? I said Aliceville.”

“What was your mom’s last name?” Interesting question.

“Wilder.” He looked visibly shocked. Then he squinted.

“Which Wilder? There were two families of Wilders in Aliceville.”

I should probably interject that this man and his wife were White while my mother is Black. I have yet to divulge that the few times I had visited Aliceville as a child, some of the only White people I ever saw were the ones who owned the local Piggly Wiggly (the owners of which my visitor personally knew, I found out). I was beginning to understand that my Madea, her children, and her grandchildren had grown up on the "other" side of the tracks, the place I had visited a few times as a child.

The conversation immediately energized my Sunday, and I was eager to investigate the matter of which "Wilder" my mom was.

“Hey” I suggested, “Let me call my mom now.”

At that this point, it was probably my sixth mistake in the conversation. Though what I was about to do was a foolish thing, I did it out of sheer ignorance. I had no idea I was about to dredge up some very bad memories for at least two people. So I called my mom, thinking she would be excited to know I had a visitor in the house from her town. She picked up on the first four or five rings. I had her on speaker phone.

“Mom, it’s Robbie. You won’t believe who I have in my house?” I asked my visitor his entire name, told my mom, and waited for a (positive, I suppose) response. It meant nothing to her. I then explained that he was from Aliceville. Her interest perked up.

“Mom, which family of Wilders are you from?” I could hear my Mom freeze. Slowly, she wanted to know what I meant. As the visitor was prepping me with information from one end, I was relaying bits and pieces to my mom. I uncomfortably perceived that all enjoyment had disappeared from her voice, so I took her off speaker phone.

“Ask him what his last name is again.” She tersely asked, which I did, giving her back the info. She was not pleased. Her voice lowered.

“Ask him if his father owned the local newspaper,” which I did. Now, the visitor’s face took on a look of agitated discomfort.

“Yes, his father owned the local paper!” I was still stupidly excited, but for the next twenty minutes, my mother gave me a little history lesson on the Jim Crow South in Aliceville, the advent of the popularity of private education in the South as a means to avoid integration (my visitor's father had helped to found a private school to avoid the "mixing" of races), and she topped it off by filling me in on who exactly I had in my house: the son of a Klan member responsible for the “silence” and “disappearance” of at least a few of my Mother’s neighbors. I looked at my visitor who was sitting on the floor near the couch, looking abjectly embarrassed. He intuited what my mother had relayed to me.

When I got off the phone with my now despondent mother, my visitor gushed like a waterfall.

“Do you know why I’m down here in Nashville?” he pleaded. I did not. “I’m down here to get delivered. My father is dying. I never had a good relationship with him. He's done some bad things. My wife and I just had our son, and we don’t want him to have to suffer for my family's bad mistakes! I was down here to get prayed over so the sins of me and my father don’t get transferred to my son!” He was crying and slightly rocking back and forth. His moment of vulnerability came at a very awkward time, and I did everything I could not to turn our meeting into a confession.

We have all heard it said “The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree.” True. However, the apple from the tree planted by the apple that fell from the original tree is two spaces removed from the original tree. Any number of character similarities in an offspring, though within the gene pool of an ancestor, can be dramatically diminished over the course of one generation or two or three. And isn't that a comfort?


  1. Wow, that story made ME uncomfortable. I think the apple rolls farther from the tree when we share our shame of our family's past.

  2. Sharing it in order to be freed from it? Certainly.


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