Light of Mine

Harriet Tubman
Courtesy of Bill of Rights Institute

“Are you Italian? Russian?”

It was a simple, sincere question, asked by a color-blind child, in a modest, dark apartment situated just shy of the Harlem border…

I smiled inside.

We had just delivered Passover-themed groceries to this elderly woman’s home as part of our Dorot volunteer elder outreach visit, and the question was asked by one of my young companions oblivious to the color and ethnicity of this kind, dark-skinned woman who seemed to be seated on a throne, appearing enormous and powerful, with a commanding voice and captivating smile.

The girl inquired about her ethnicity after politely listening to this woman’s intriguing tale about having grown up in upstate New York in the town where Harriet Tubman is buried, where the local prison loomed over her, immense and nearly blocking out the sun, and inspired awe in her as a child. She told us you could see the cemetery where Ms. Tubman is buried from her house. That is where the kids used to play, on fields that eventually were converted to grave sites.

Motioning to a picture above her desk of several people laughing with President Obama, she spoke fondly about the president and how her niece had worked for him. She mentioned she was married more than once, and pointed to the picture of the now-deceased father of her four boys who make her so proud. (It’s OK that he’s dead, she winked at me.) Her second husband was Jewish, a much nicer man, and during their marriage she had been to a number of seders and counted many Jewish friends among her network of acquaintances. She boasted about her 26 grandchildren, and again about the four sons that give her so much pride.

Her eyes sparkled when she told us about the dress she was having designed for the Imperial Court Costume Ball. She would wear golden gloves and a sea-foam taffeta gown. She relished getting all dolled up and holding court with her “royal” friends.

In that cramped, dimly lit apartment, donated to her by Dorot, she spoke about how the organization had helped her during tough times, found her the apartment, lent her couches, and how at first she had refused to move above 58th St. where she had lived 17 years in a beautiful flat with 10-foot high ceilings and a fireplace. Despite its gloomy feel, what had drawn her to this apartment was the light–for 15 minutes each day, a sliver of sunlight passes through the kitchen window, beneath which she has arranged several colored pieces of glass, causing them to magically shimmer for a brief moment each afternoon.

She told us she was a singer. After some gentle coaxing, she sang “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer and “This Little Light of Mine” to the girls.

She gave the girls advice: “Good, better, best; never let it rest ’til your good is better and your better is best.” And when she discovered the girls were Girl Scouts, she told them, “Trust, be good, love yourself. There is no success until you love yourself and feel confident about and know who you are.”

She offered the girls chocolate. I marveled at her generosity of spirit and possessions, despite having so little herself.

She told us then how much she appreciated the volunteer visits and conversations that ensued.

…when that question was asked, I smiled inside, having glimpsed in that instant, like the fleeting light on colored glass, a twinkle of open-mindedness, ignorance of skin color, acceptance of cultural differences, zero racial bias.

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