Tearing at the Fabric of Racism

by Karuna Poole

Sreejit began his poem, A Couple of Brats, with the line “A political statement until they had us,” referring to the births of his sister and himself, kids with a white mother and a black father.  While I knew that line was true, at least to some degree, his poem still gave me plenty to reflect on.  Recently, I have been thinking of the events that occurred throughout my life that led me to make that particular “political statement.”

Karuna and Al
Karuna and Al in the 70’s

The earliest memory I have of experiencing racism was when I visited Florida during my early grade school years.  I grew up moving place to place in an Army family, but my mother’s home was in West Palm Beach, Florida.  When we visited there one year, probably about 1955, we had occasion to get on a city bus.  As a kid, it had been my experience that the best seats were at the back of the bus so, as always, I rushed to that prized area.  Once seated, I looked towards the front of the bus and saw the look of horror on my mother’s face.  She gestured me to come to the front of the bus, NOW!  I couldn’t imagine what was wrong but obeyed her command.  When I discovered the reason behind her demand, I was FURIOUS.  How could they treat black people, known as coloreds or Negros in those days, in such a manner?  I also remember during that time whenever we drove through the black part of town, it was referred to as N*****town.  I was disgusted, but to the southern whites of that era, it was just the normal way to speak, they knew no other.

My parents retired to West Palm Beach just before my Junior year in high school.  The following Summer, 1965, our church youth group took a trip from WPB to Seattle and back studying “Beliefs Men Live By.”  The youth minister, who was pretty revolutionary, had arranged for two black teenagers to participate in the journey.  During that period there was never any mixing of races, so that type of trip was a really big deal for both the white and black teenagers.

The minister had a difficult time finding a white family to host the black teenagers the night before we left West Palm Beach.  The white families were afraid, knowing their neighbors would have strongly disapproved.  Luckily, my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ted stepped forward to provide the necessary shelter.

The next morning we began our adventure.  I believe it was the first night, when we passed through Americus, Georgia, we glimpsed a Klu Klux Klan meeting through the trees.  That was frightening for everyone.  The van driver ordered the black teenagers to lie flat on the floor until we could get way out of town.  I remember having a strong sense we were being followed.

One of the nights early in the trip, we stopped for the night at Tougaloo College, a black college in Mississippi.  It was the first time any of us had experienced what it’s like to be in the minority in a racially divided group.  During the evening we met with a group of the college students and had an interesting dialogue.

A year later, I moved to Seattle to study Nursing. After I graduated from college in 1970, three female friends and I decided to spend the summer working as migrant farm laborers.  We would start in Florida, work up the east coast (Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania) and then head back to Washington State.  We had a multitude of experiences that summer.

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Karuna, 1970

We had serious car trouble on the way to Florida, so it took us more than a week to get there.  After having more car problems once we arrived in Florida, there was no money left to take our trip.  We spent a week washing windows, cleaning houses and porches and selling flowers.  Next, we found a job picking oranges in Belle Glade for a few days.  At night, we stayed in a heavy canvas tent.  In Florida heat, the temperature inside the tent was intolerable, so the tent went no further with us.

Each morning, we left the campsite at 5 a.m. and joined the bus taking the farm workers to the orchard.  We were the only white people on the bus, but everyone was so nice to us.  Once at the orchard, each woman was paired with a man.  The men used a 20 foot ladder to pick the oranges high in the tree; the women picked the lower ones.  During the days we worked in Belle Glade, the four of us earned between $17-31.  We figured it took 30 oranges to earn 1 cent.  We came back to my parents’ house in West Palm Beach, exhausted but feeling successful and ready for our big trip.

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Atlanta International Pop Festival, 1970

Our first stop was Byron, Georgia where we attended the Atlanta International Pop Festival, along with more than 200,000 other people!  We had to park 3 miles away and hike in.  There was no shade to speak of and it was 104 degrees.  We ended up 30 feet from the stage!  The artists I remember most were Jimi Hendrix, Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens and the Memphis cast for HAIR.  I remember waking up to Richie Havens singing “Here Comes the Sun.”

After the festival, we drove 60 miles north.  We stopped at a state campground and went to pay our fee.  The ranger said we could not camp there unless we had an adult chaperone.  I was flabbergasted as our ages ranged from 19 to 22!  He said that would be true of any campground in the state.  He added, “Lady, this is Georgia!”  We got back into the car drove to a campground 20 miles away.  They accepted us without question.

The next day, we started looking for work.  The white farmers refused to let us work with black pickers.  They suggested we ask for work at the farmers’ market in Atlanta.  We did find a job there.  It was tough work, made harder by the fact that the white farmers treated us like we were prostitutes; why else would white women be doing this kind of work?

We were advised that we could get farm labor work in Fort Valley, Georgia. One of the first things we did when we arrived in town was to go to a laundromat.  A 13 year old white girl told us the hippies who went to the rock festival stripped naked in the car wash, in the grocery store, in the back of trucks.  The things she said were outrageous.  While we were there, a black man walked in and put his laundry in the washer.  She was furious, grabbed her wet laundry from the machine she was using, saying N**** to him and rushed out.  I had the feeling if we had talked to him our lives would have been in danger.

We were able to get some picking work in Ft. Valley, but it was not to pay our expenses so we decided to work in a peach cannery as well.  The woman who hired us said she bet her husband $5 we wouldn’t last more than 2 days.  We definitely intended to prove her wrong.

We were assigned the night shift.  The workers on that shift were almost 100% black.  The day shift was nearly 100% white, the exception being some hard labor jobs.  To keep the job, we were required to work 7 days a week, 8-10 hours a day with one 10 minute break and no dinner.  If we didn’t show up for work, we would be fired.  If the machines didn’t work, which happened a lot, we didn’t get paid, but if we left we would be fired.  After several weeks the night shift was laid off.  By then we were very happy to leave.

Our boss, whom we liked a lot, gifted us with an empty peach can labeled Pride of Georgia.  (It was many years before I ate another canned peach.  The machine we had been running was overflowing with lye that hadn’t been completely rinsed off the peaches before they sealed the can.)

Next we went to South Carolina.  We easily found a job, but finding a place to stay was a problem.  The farm had an area for black workers to live and a separate area for the white workers.  They wouldn’t let us stay in the black camp; saying we wouldn’t last 15 minutes there.  I asked how that could be since the black camp was full of families. The farmer said there were no families in his camp.  Then he thought a moment and said, oh you mean the N******.  To him black children didn’t even qualify as “children”.  Once again, I was outraged.

They gave us cattle truck to stay in, but staying there one night was more than enough.  I decided to talk to the black crew boss, Leroy, and ask if we could sleep in their bus.  He offered us that chance to stay in their kitchen.  I asked if he would get in trouble with the farmer if we did that and he said no, there would be no trouble.  We spent our first evening in the camp singing late into the night with the kids.

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South Carolina, 1970

It turned out that the black workers’ kitchen was in the same building as the white men’s quarters.  During the night they were drinking and we heard them saying “They want to see what a migrant camp is like; let’s show them what it is like.”  Several times, white men came into the kitchen and it was only by our quick talking and shaming were we able to get them away from us.

After talking with Leroy, our plan for the next night was to have his wife lock us in the kitchen so that the white men couldn’t get in again.   However, around 11:00 p.m. when we were singing with the kids and a little girl was brushing my hair, someone spoke up behind me.  We turned around to find three policemen standing behind us.  They said the farmer wanted us off his land, NOW.  We were shocked.  The farmer hadn’t said a word to us about it during the day.  We asked if we could go to the packing shed to talk to him ourselves and they said gave us their permission.  When we arrived at the shed, we discovered that three black workers and one white worker had beat us there.  They had told the farmer that if he kicked us out in the middle of the night, every worker he had would be gone by morning!  Luckily, he relented and let us stay the night.

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Our accomodations

I will mention only one other experience from that summer; and that happened in Maryland.  We had no trouble finding a job or a place to stay there.  The labor office said we were welcome to stay in the farm workers’ camp as long as we realized everyone else would be black.  That camp consisted of 54 buildings.  Each building was divided into three rooms, and each room held a separate family.  Our room had two beds, a light that wouldn’t turn off and a few shelves.  There were huge holes in the plasterboard between our room and the room on the other side. There were showers in the camp, but they couldn’t be turned on.  The only source of water was a spigot several houses down.

I came back to Seattle after that 1970 trip with lots of positive memories, but also angry about the racism I had witnessed.  I decided that I was going to make a difference.  In my young mind, the best way to stop this nonsense was to blend the races through interracial marriage. I started pursuing Al, who by that time had been my best friend for several years.  A year later, we were married in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  The morning of the day we were going to be married, we attended Glide Memorial Methodist Church.  Roberta Flack sang during the church service, and Quincy Jones played the piano. While their appearance had nothing to do with our wedding, it made for a great memory!  After our wedding service in the park, Jane Fonda came up to us and wished us well.  What an awesome beginning to our new life!

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Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. 1971

While the mixing of races as a political stand against racism might have been a naïve way for me to look at solving racism, it always felt right to me.  When I told my father of my plans, he vowed to never speak to me again, and he didn’t.  Still my resolve never wavered.  He told my mother that she could never see me again, but she wasn’t willing to stand for that and started visiting Seattle regularly.

So, was marrying Al a Political Statement?  I’d have to say “yes”, at least in part. More than anything, it was a decision to walk my talk, to make my life a testimony to my beliefs.

Chaitanya and Sreejit in the 70's
Chaitanya and Sreejit in the 70’s
Chaitanya
Chaitanya

As a result of the union between Al and me, two very beautiful, very talented, very loved and loving individuals were brought into this world.  Three years after our marriage, Sreejit was born, and nearly three years after that came his sister, Chaitanya.

Sreejit
Sreejit

Did our marriage and having mixed raced children end racism?  No it did not.  But certainly, between then and now, mixed marriage has gone from unacceptable to much more widespread and “acceptable”.  As individuals in each generation have more contact (of all kinds) with those of other races, we gain more understanding of each other. Every step forward makes a difference.  I am happy to have participated in an active way in the journey.

 

Karuna Poole
Karuna Poole

Karuna Poole is a psychotherapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington.  She is author of, Getting to Joy: A western householder’s spiritual journey with Mata Amritanandamayi and Letting Go of Suffering.  You can find more information on her at www.karunapoole.com or on her blog Living Learning and Letting Go

77 Comments

  1. Amazing experiences you lived, Karuna! Thank you for sharing your stories. And as the mother of a gorgeous, brilliant mixed-race boy who is barely aware of himself racially, I bow to you and thank you deeply.

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    1. A friend of mine in India regularly tells me that if I’m ever feeling bad about myself, all I need to do is look at my kids to remember that I’ve done something right! I am so proud of them both. Thanks for your thanks!

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  2. I loved your Mom’s story! Thanks for sharing it Karuna…it brought back the memories of what I saw happening around me. I wanted to be a hippy child in the 60’s but I was too young so I watched much of what was happening on the tv and through the eyes of my cousin, David. My parents taught us to decide who we liked and didn’t like based on their character (but mom “encouraged” us not to fall in love with a black man because it would be a very hard life). Still, I had the freedom and the fortunate opportunity to hang out with whoever I pleased. Neighborhoods were very divided racially so I did get some looks from neighboring adults at times. Truthfully, most of the kids I hung out with were white because our neighborhood was full of them (28 kids around the same age according to my neighbor who counted us…hahahaa…that cracks me up).

    In school, I was friends with lots of people. I brought them home to join in neighborhood sports games which were often played in our backyard because my parents didn’t freak out over a broken window from a baseball and they felt that yards were for playing in and not manicuring…I always loved that we were (in my eyes) the kool-aide house where kids could be kids.

    I have very many great memories of my childhood but I was haunted by the Vietnam war and racism. I had a wonderful teacher, who had long hair and was a hippy. He showed us films of the Ku Klux Klan and how heartless they were. It left a deep impression. He invited his friend to come visit who had been in the war and suffered shrapnel injuries. We had to get permission slips to look at the scars. I got one. I cried a lot when I was younger over the injustice that was happening in our world. (I still do). Thank you Mr. Norbert Maska for opening my eyes to a world bigger than our little town.

    My cousin, David, who died when I was 19, lived a life where he loved people and we talked often about being who we were and not letting others make our decisions for us. I looked up to him. I was just a child so my decisions were often made for me. I got into a lot of trouble for my mouth…hahahaa….thanks David!

    Well, I have gone on enough. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing and I hope you don’t mind that I shared a little back. You are a true pioneer woman who helped to make a difference. Amen!

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    1. Since I grew up in the Army, I’m sure I had more freedom in playmates than I would have had otherwise. That was a big piece of why the experience of racism was such a shock to me when I saw it

      I loved your stories and am really glad you shared each of them. I’m so glad your parents supported you in the ways that they did.

      I wonder if Mr. Maska would be allowed to do the things he did nowadays. I doubt it. Teachers hands are tied in so many ways, and experiences like you describe are so important,in educating.

      Thanks again.

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      1. I agree. As a teacher my hands are tied. So much political correctness has taken away from real life experiences that help us to grow. My students often live very difficult lives. They don’t know how to cope and don’t understand they are not alone because they don’t get to meet those who have shared the feelings they are feeling. We lecture (ummmm…educate) them on acceptance minus the experiences. Lots of talk and not enough action. That is why for years I was an adviser of a club that does community service…the beauty of young people who could see and reach out far beyond their own little worlds. We have so many amazing young people. I love what I do and am not a conventional teacher…keeps the rest of the teachers wondering what I am up to. 😉

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  3. This is great. I love the story. I grew up in Georgia in the 60s and 70s and know exactly what this means. I remember when I was very young going to see the doctor and there were two waiting rooms—one to the left and one to the right as you entered the office. I wanted to go to the left and went… 🙂 I was told I could not sit in there. Why? I didn’t understand and kept going back. Children don’t know racism. It is taught. My parents were not racist and accepted everyone but they explained there were social rules I must follow to get along in the world. I still wince at that thought. Your mother chose not to follow 🙂 . That’s a good thing—a very good thing. She had such a free spirit. People are still this way in some places—full of hate. Hatred breeds contempt and more hatred. I am ashamed that anyone can feel such anger toward another. It happens everywhere. What a great testimony this is to times not too far back and yet ages. How cool is this story! Wow! Such a cool MOM! – Amy 😀

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    1. At the time in the 50’s I was describing, there would have also been segregated bathrooms and segregated water fountains.

      During my migrant farm labor journey, there were times when white and black workers had separate pay scales. In at least one place, we had access to toilets and they had to use outhouses. And that was in 1970!

      I was very proud of my mother for standing up to him in that way. She never had visited me in Seattle before my father told her she couldn’t!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and others.

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      1. I don’t understand why people allow things to come between family but I am glad your mother put her foot down. I remember the separate restrooms and drinking fountains and having to go through the delivery doors in the back to gain access to stores (if they were allowed) 😦 . I will never understand racism or prejudice so I just try to treat each person I meet as I would want to be treated. Thanks!

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        1. I don’t know how I missed your comment before. Sorry about that. If we all treated each other the way we would want to be treated, we would certainly have a healthy and loving world community. I love the vision!

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  4. Thank YOU for sharing so genuinely!! I so honor your brave spirit…and your ability to stand strong in adversity!! I pray that I would have the same strength, wisdom, and compassion in such circumstances. And in truth…you, Dear Karuna, along with many other radiant souls HAVE SHIFTED THE PARADIGM!!! 🙂 I am forever grateful for your planting the seeds of greater Peace and Oneness on this earth!!

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      1. I absolutely mean it!! I spend much time wondering how I will make a difference in the sea of ignorance. And you remind me that it’s ONE brave choice at a time that will begin seeding a new reality!! I send you waves of LOVE on your journey sweet Karuna!! Namaste’

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  5. how wonderful! my daughters, and their hubs and kids are a fabulous mix up of all races, religions and political views and it is great. though not everyone around them sees it that way, sadly.

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    1. Wow… sounds like a very exciting family to live in!!!!! Very alive and lively I imagine.

      No, everyone won’t see it that way but a lot will!

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  6. I can’t fault any of this, except to warn of the dangers of being too eager to bang the drum. Most so-called race problems in the modern world are actually cultural problems, especially involving those aspects of culture that stem from religious dogma of various kinds. This is by far the worst of all the forms of discrimination. It is also the most dangerous, as we see almost every time we watch TV.

    Race defines the colour of skin, eyes and the shape of the cross section of hair etc.. It also defines the propensity to develop characteristic illnesses. I would agree that difference are more than skin deep and involve characteristics (cool and calm Scandinavians; ebullient Italians…).

    There is also (as I know from personal experience) a danger from over-zealous application of anti-race laws which can result in unfair positive discrimination.

    My own daughter’s predicament is a good example. Almost all of her colleagues are Indian and she is subjected to regular verbal abuse because she is blond, blue-eyed, tall and beautiful. I doubt if I could attract attention to her plight but if the shoe was on the other foot the cops would be round before you could blink an eye.

    Prejudice by white against black is nothing compared with the hatred so often existing between Jews and Muslims or Indians and Pakistanis.

    Most of my boyhood heroes were as black as coal because I’m a jazz fan.

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  7. What an amazing story!! How brave you were to stand up for your values!! I know it was difficult in the US and when I read your story, I am reminded of Lawrence Hill’s parents who shocked many in Ontario and because of them, their son has much history to draw from in his books. Blessings and thank you for sharing. I look forward to checking out these books now that you have written.

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  8. You can be proud of your children…Sreejit has such a calling here…his prompts make me delve in my soul so much…I tell him it saves me $$$ to see a therapist:D I look forward to checking out your books too. What a generous offering, sharing this beautiful post. Thank you, Oliana…I was also married in 1971! My only exposure to racism here was if I opened my mouth…language continues to be the debate, nothing like the oppression black people had to endure and still do in many areas. A former boyfriend explained to me that in the US people are more blunt but honest, in Canada many hide behind diplomacy which skirts around hypocrisy. Sad but true.

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    1. As you know, I love reading your responses to Sreejit’s prompts.

      Yes, racism can and does exist even when it is not nearly as overt as the experiences I described in my article.

      Thanks for reposting the article on your blog!

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  9. I remember those signs in Miami – All Colored Domestics Must Be Off Miami Beach By 6 PM Curfew, No Jews, separate water fountains and take out only for blacks. I was too young but still wondered. I would certainly be enraged today as my grandchildren (some by, some by extended family) are various mixes of African American, Haitian, Cuban, Italian.

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  10. Thank you Sreejit and Karuna, for spreading the word, showing what a close family is like and telling the histories that shaped who you each are in your time. I never spent time in the American South or India, but I started College in 1969, the year after Black Student Unions made some gains for college students. My life has been blessed by urban high school teaching and by people like yourselves who live the changes.

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        1. That is an awesome movie. The new movie, 12 Years a Slave also is excellent. Part of the motivation for writing my piece on Sreejit’s blog was the realization that there are now generations of people who did not live through that era.

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          1. That was exactly my thinking as well. For me, who didn’t live through that era, the realization that there are so many people who did and that it was not so long ago was a bit of a shock! because to me it all ‘seemed’ so so long ago! As a Srilankan living in Australia I get my fair share of racism still and I suppose it is a long journey to get to that point where one wouldn’t know what racism means! 🙂

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  11. A picture of my family (taken at my father’s recent funeral) best shows their legacy. It looks like the UN, with our next generation a beautiful mix of racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Karuna, it is a testament to you and others like you who set out to — and DID– change the world that my nieces and nephews look at the diversity in that photo and see only their family.

    Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story of love. I think you can look back and say that you really did make a difference.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story. My guess is that there are now many, many people in the world who would look at that picture and see it as beautiful!! A powerful, tangible example of change.

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  12. I’m always so impressed when people that challenge what society believes as acceptable, at a risk to their own reputation with their family and friends and sometimes even their own safety, to stand up for something that they believe in. Its a wonderful thing to hear about how the seeds of compassion sprouted in the hearts of young people, who were not specifically taught that racism is wrong and that we should treat all beings as equal.

    Its so much easier just to go with the societal norms of the time. Obviously Karuna wasn’t about to tread the easy path of least resistance! Thanks for your inspiring story, and wow- Richie Havens!! that must have been awesome..

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    1. Beautifully said. Thanks.

      It has been almost 44 years and the memory of waking up that morning to him singing that song is still very present inside of me.

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  13. So delighted to see this post from you, Karuna. We are all a product of our upbringing, but as we mature into adulthood, the choices of who we will become fall into our own thoughts and decisions and not those of our parents any longer. And, as we get older I think we begin to measure our choices and their impact on the products of our love…our children. We are blessed beyond measure in that department..so we must have done something right. Love you, cuz.

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    1. How fun to see you writing here! Yes, we are both blessed in that area and more. I appreciate having been able to talk with you recently about the “Beliefs Men Live By” trip we took together back in 1965! And I also appreciate that your parents, your sister and you have loved and accepted me just as I am throughout my life.

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  14. Sreejit,
    You had me at “none other than my mother”. Yay! We get to “meet” the woman behind the great, contemplative brain of yours! 🙂

    Karuna,
    It is a pleasure to “meet” you by way of this introduction. The thing about living authentic lives is the conviction that we DO get to decide the small and meaningful ways we make our “political statements”. Even the smallest of encounters afford us this opportunity. To outsiders, difference is perceived; to folk that are connected to Spirit, the meeting of souls is transcendent.

    I would love to learn more about how you and Al first cultivated a friendship against the backdrop of the environment you painted so well, even before the two of you wed. You said that the two of you had been best friends for several years.

    Roberta Flack and Quincy Jones?! I’m all in!

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    1. I love how you said that! I appreciate meeting you too!

      Al and I first met in 1968when we were volunteers at the First Avenue Service Center in Seattle, a downtown Center that provided social services to homeless men. It gave them a place where they could be off the streets during the day and if I remember right had facilities where they could do their laundry. I don’t remember if they provided meals. I believe they offered some health services but I’m not sure. I know they did later on.

      After my migrant farm labor summer I moved to Oakland to take a job. (Boeing was on strike at that point so the wives of Boeing employees had gone back to work. As a result, there were no jobs in Seattle for new Nursing graduates.). Al and I started dating then so we were both doing a lot of driving between Oakland and Seattle!

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  15. Thanks for sharing Karuna! My step-brother Tony is the son of a mixed marriage, and the majority of his two daughters’ classmates are all children of mixed marriages. Later this year, I’ll be performing the marriage for my step-sister Becky – also a mixed marriage. So it seems we have come a long way from when you took this bold step, and your courage helped make it possible–after all, cultural shifts can only take place through individual choices. Also, whoever told you that you just have to look at your children to know if you did something right – they were right. PS Didn’t I also say that to you the other day? 🙂

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  16. Wow! Your family sounds like the United Nations photo that barbtaub described his to be in an earlier comment. Interesting that your nieces’ classmates are as well. Exciting! Times have certainly changed! I had forgotten you had also made that statement about my kids to me!

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  17. Reblogged this on Living, Learning and Letting Go and commented:
    My favorite post is actually one that I wrote prior to my starting my own blog. At the time, I wrote it as a guest author for The Seeker’s Dungeon. Since I’d like those of you who visit my blog to have the opportunity to read it, I decided today is the day to reblog it. Take a look!

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    1. It seems like a long time ago to me too! I just checked to see when it was written and it was January of this year. BTW I just moved the story over to my blog so it is there now as a “regular” post rather than a reblog. Would you consider commenting there as well?

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