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    Strawberries and Cream with the ‘Bad Boys’

    By John Lewis–

    This holiday season, I find myself reminded of two old family stories. The first comes from my dad’s side of the family and is a story about my paternal Great, Great Grandfather Amos recounted for posterity when he died. Amos was a Quaker minister who with his wife Nancy founded a tiny Quaker meeting in southern Illinois in the 19th Century. 

    “It was said that Mr. Lewis had a very fine strawberry patch which the ‘bad boys’ of the neighborhood used regularly to loot, stealing the fruit and destroying the vines; that one day while such ‘bad boys’ were so engaged, they were surprised by Mr. Lewis. But instead of collaring and soundly thrashing them when they were caught, as they expected and as was done by others to them, Mr. Lewis said to them in a kindly and gentle voice: ‘Boys, the best of the berries have been picked and taken into the house, but if you will come in, you can have some here with sugar and cream.’”

    I like this story, not only because it was told about my great, great grandfather, whom of course I never met, but also because it recounts a very simple act of kindness. I imagine that Amos felt so content, safe, and at peace in his own life that he felt no need to lash out at the so-called “bad boys” in anger. 

    Given that they all lived in a very small town, it is likely that Amos knew the boys and how other townspeople had repeatedly treated them harshly when they were caught misbehaving. Amos not only chose an alternative nonviolent approach, part and parcel of the Quaker way of life, but also to indulge the boys with kindness, sharing the best strawberries with them—with sugar and cream to boot.

    The second story is a very different account from my mother’s side of the family, from my maternal Great Grandmother Jenny, and takes place years later and hundreds of miles away in small town North Carolina. It’s in the form of a letter Jenny wrote in her early 60s to her son, my grandfather, from the Tranquil Park Sanitarium, where it appears she was receiving treatment for debilitating panic attacks: 
    “I am not allowed to write at length but I want to tell you how glad I am that I came here. I have such a cool room with private bath and attentive nurse and a nice cool porch where we gather with congenial company and it’s as pleasant as the mountains and I’m improving all the time. I took a long walk yesterday and slept fine last night. I am not exaggerating. I would not deceive you.”

    The letter continues: “At home you know how it is. I got nervous over things and here I have nothing to think about and everything is so quiet. We have music by the Victrola a great deal. You know how I enjoy music … . I think what a blessing there is such a place provided for suffering humanity.”

    Unfortunately, anxiety and panic disorders run through part of my mother’s family. My grandfather to whom this letter was written had a mental and physical breakdown himself two decades after Jenny did. Jenny returned home from Tranquil Park, but became ill again, and despite further residential treatment, became isolated and suffered mental illness for the rest of her life.

    My great, great grandfather Amos on my dad’s side of the family is, of course, no relation to my great grandmother Jenny on my mother’s side. However, when I reflect on these two stories together, I imagine Amos’ kindness and generosity reaching across time, space, and blood to Jenny in her suffering.

    I am struck by how caring Jenny described the sanitarium staff to be and how comforting the environs were. I find myself relaxing as I contemplate the “nice cool porch with congenial company,” where it’s “pleasant as the mountains.” Listening to music around the wind-up Victrola, doubtlessly the latest in technology at the time, sounds both nurturing and exhilarating. I love how Jenny writes that “everything is so quiet,” in striking contrast to her previously racing mind, swirling in fear and anxiety.  Over a century later, I find myself wanting to care for Jenny.

    The holidays can epitomize the extremes of human emotions, from great joy and generosity to stress, anxiety, and disappointment. Our DNA, life experiences, and relationships greatly influence what we encounter in our hearts and minds this time of year. Stuart and I hope that during this season we all can check in to our own versions of Tranquil Park when we need a break, and when we feel safe and whole, even invite the “bad boys” in to share our best strawberries—with sugar and cream.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on December 5, 2019