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As a little boy, I spent time at my grandmother’s in Dallas, Texas. She was the only kosher caterer in town, and she ran her business out of her home. Her kitchen, garage, back entry hall, and dining room were entirely given over to freezers, refrigerators, preparation tables, and bulk tubs of ingredients. For a little boy, it was a magical place of deli mini-sandwiches, fruit plates, and especially, sweets trays. The smells of Jewish foods from the Old World wafted around all day long, and anything I wanted to eat was mine for the asking. Often, it wasn’t even my asking, as my grandmother did the nudging: did I want this? Or that? Or the other? Didn’t I want something? And if I said “yes”, she would turn to Leitha, or Emma, or Pansy and interrupt their work to ask if they could get me a corned beef sandwich or a few squares of cheesecake, or a glass of soda.
These black ladies were the labor that made the kitchen and the catering business go. But they were much more than that. They were almost family, and when I visited they took care of me as if I was their own, and I played with their children, met their husbands, and learned a little about their lives. They were always ready with smiles, and kisses, and hugs, and sometimes I just liked to sit there and watch them work, cutting trays of vegetables, baking enormous cakes, generating party tray after party tray for transport in the station wagon to the bar-mitzvah at the synagogue, the wedding at the hotel, or the mourners at the private home.
As life and the years went on, and family circumstances changed, I visited less, but each time still the women were almost always there, a little older, perhaps a bit slower, but still ready with smiles and hugs and interest in me. I remember asking about John Kennedy, and if everyone remembered his assassination in their city. And then I became an adult, and didn’t visit much anymore. Leitha died several years ago, my grandmother retired her catering business, moved into a high rise recently, and that was that.
So many, here and around the world, watched Tuesday night in awe and amazement as a man with dark skin color was elected to the highest office in the world. For a relative few, the moment brought, and continues to bring, almost inexplicably, fear, but for many more, the moment brought almost inconceivable communal and personal joy, which continues in a bright, giddy afterglow two days since. I was one of those in the second group, for I was cared for, fed, and loved by a cadre of black women working in my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a little boy. For me, part of casting a vote for Obama, and waiting for the election returns to confirm his victory, was an unconscious exercise in repaying my own debt, of reaching back to those days in the late sixties and early seventies spent in my grandmother’s bountiful kitchen in Dallas, Texas, where people with black skin were not only distinctly unthreatening to me, but were life-giving. Over the past months, as the Obama campaign hurdled milestone after milestone, I found myself thinking of Leitha, of Emma, of Pansy. I thought about how they had affected me, how lucky I had been to be around them, so that I could receive this present moment in time with the proper feelings it deserved.
And I wondered, even though Leitha is now gone, how they all might feel about watching Barack Obama elected President. On Tuesday night, as the world’s jaws dropped, its eyes widened and grew moist, and the tears fell, I got my answer, an answer even beyond my imagining. The world felt cozy and wholly unthreatening the other night. Just as it had all those years ago when as a young boy I bounded from tray to tray, all around me the smell of baking bread and cookies, urged on with no restrictions, no admonitions, only smiles and affection, by some of the most lovely ladies ever to grace the planet.
I’m Leo Gold. This is the New Capital Show.