Friendship, Race and Riots … How does this story go?

THANK YOU READERS! You are sending us terrific stories for, our nationwide project with a daring goal: Make peace 1 friend at a time. This week’s true story is different than earlier stories we have published, because it is open ended. This story by Elaine Greenberg poses a question about our past and our future. Elaine is best known as a musician and cancer survivor who works tirelessly to raise awareness about ovarian cancer and even to help medical schools improve their preparation of young doctors who will treat such cancers. In this story, Elaine looks back almost 50 years at a friendship she thought she understood.

Here is Elaine’s story …

Her name was Mary, and our family adored her. After giving birth to four children in six years—a set of twins in the equation—my husband and I decided it was time for me to have some help in the house. This was 1961 and our home was a small three-bedroom ranch in the area of 7 Mile just west of Southfield in Detroit, a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in the northwest corner of the sprawling city.

Mary would come to our house every other week. I don’t know how she managed to clean our house, take care of our children, then—at the end of her workday—prepare to return to her own home looking fresh, never frazzled. What I do know is that I had four very busy children and I loved seeing Mary walk through our door. I never thought of her as a “domestic.” When she arrived, it felt as if I was greeting a best friend. On days when I didn’t leave the house during her visit, the two of us would chat over lunch as dear friends.

When our daughter Mimi had to have her tonsils removed and I remained in the hospital overnight with her, Mary stayed overnight with our other children. Then, things got worse! Mimi hemorrhaged at the same time a nurse on duty demanded: “Sorry, you have to take her out into the hall. We need that bed.” I was beside myself! Yet, when I finally returned home, there was Mary waiting to take “her baby” in her arms. As she comforted Mimi, she somehow had the energy to comfort me, as well.

One day we decided to visit Mary in her home, and my older daughters, Susan and Fern, asked on the way home: “How come everyone in Mary’s neighborhood is black and everyone in our neighborhood is white?”

I don’t remember what I finally said to Susan and Fern. I do remember feeling stuck for an answer that would sound “right”—when there was nothing “right” to say about our racial divisions.

Each Christmas, even though my family is Jewish, I always tried to do something special for Mary that she wouldn’t do for herself. One year I took her to lunch at the “Top of The Ponchartrain Hotel”—a lovely place to dine in the ‘60s. Another year we bought her two tickets to a performance on the big stage at the Fisher Theater.

In 1967, what we called the Detroit Riot erupted. I know now that many people in Detroit refer to that tragic summer with different phrases. Some now call it the Detroit Rebellion. Of course, we all understand a lot more about what happened in 1967 than we did when fires suddenly were blazing in our city and tanks rolled through our streets. In many ways, Detroit quickly became the center of the dozens of racially charged disruptions that broke out that year. Before it ended in Detroit, 43 people had died—mainly as a result of the untrained National Guard troops that were sent into our city, our daily newspapers later reported—and 2,000 buildings had been burned.

In the heat of the violence, I knew that our home was farther from the fires and the random gunshots than the neighborhood where Mary lived. Many of the 500 people who were injured that summer were innocent victims of stray bullets. So, I telephoned Mary to invite her family to stay with us.

“It isn’t any safer there,” she said.

I heard gunshots in the background. “We’re under the bed,” she told me. There was no point in venturing across the city to our house, she insisted.

Now, this is where I begin to doubt the truth of my own story. Don’t misunderstand. Everything I have described happened exactly this way. In 1967, my call to Mary was in earnest. I deeply cared for her. She was my dear friend. If we could make her family’s life easier during those horrific days of violence, then there was no question: We would help.

But recently I saw the powerful play, “Palmer Park,” by Canadian writer Joanna McClelland Glass. My Detroit and my history are center stage in that play about white and black families struggling to live together in the 1960s. Now, in light of “Palmer Park,” I look back through the decades and wonder: Did I truly treat Mary as a dear friend? Did I make a difference in her life? In my effort to assure everyone that “we really aren’t that much different,” did I really see and hear and understand my friend?

I have not been able to ask Mary these questions. We have lost track of each other, but I think of her often with a fondness that I only feel for people I’ve loved through the years.

Today, I wonder: If Mary wrote our story, what would it say?

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