My kids weren’t the type to act out, as they say today, at school. For the most part my two girls got glowing reviews from their teachers, but then the apples don’t fall far from the tree, and I had my share of being called to school to discuss something or other one of my girls said or did in class.

For instance, there was the time my older girl asked me how the Easter Bunny manages to carry all those Easter baskets to homes the night before Easter. After all, Santa had a big sleigh and elves to help him out.

It seemed a reasonable question deserving of a reasonable answer. So I explained how the Easter Bunny subcontracted to thousands of other rabbits who then chartered hundreds of buses to bring them and their baskets to the neighborhoods. And that’s why, I told her, it was so hard to sleep the night before Easter with all those buses idling their engines.

She nodded and seemed to accept my explanation, and that’s the last I ever expected to hear on the topic again. How did I know she would repeat the story to her classmates, that it would turn viral, as they say today, and that several parents would become upset and complain to the school when their children brought the story home?


So I ended up discussing the matter with the assistant principal and my daughter’s teacher, both of whom subjected me to the dread hairy eyeball. I wasn’t sure what they expected of me, an apology perhaps. But then I asked them, “How do you suppose the Easter Bunny manages to carry all those millions of Easter baskets …. hmm? We left it with my promise never, ever to repeat the story. At least, not in front of children.

But then it came to pass that my daughter and her classmates were assigned an oral history project. They were instructed to interview a grandparent and ask what they did for entertainment when they were children. My daughter eagerly interviewed my mother.

Some weeks later, during open house, my wife and I were whisked into a private meeting with the teacher. The subject was my girl’s oral history report.

“Quite frankly, Mr. Buckley, I found some of the passages disturbing,” she said, with that gravitas that only a spinster middle school teacher could deliver.

Oh-oh. This presaged a faux pas weightier than some fanciful explanation of the logistics of distributing Easter baskets.

She indicated an account of my mother attending weekend minstrel shows at her neighborhood movie theater.

“Minstrel shows? Is she talking about …?”

“Yes, ma’am, performers in black face speaking in exaggerated black dialect and accompanying gestures and song.

Then I demonstrated, “You know: Mr. Bones! Yassah, Mr. Interlocutor!”

“But … that’s so racist.”

“Yes, but it was the 1920s, and my mother wasn’t thinking of sociological ramifications. She was a kid thinking it was all funny.”

“And this …” She began to read a passage from my daughter’s report. “My Nana and her family used to live across from the old Charlestown State Prison, and on summer nights when they were going to execute someone they would go out on the porch and watch for the lights to dim.”

She had this look, as if she were pleading for me to say it wasn’t true, but alas, my mother had told me the same story.

I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s all true. But again, it was the 1920s; it wasn’t that distant from public hangings in this country, so watching for a dip in the lumination while someone was getting juiced in the electric chair seems pretty benign for the times.”

She remained appalled. She informed me they wouldn’t be entering my daughter’s report in an in-school competition.

Was there a problem with the writing? No. Had she not carried out her assignment? Yes, she had.

I then told the teacher that when she assigned her students to look into the past, she should have been prepared for some appalling revelations. Did she think kids ran with barrel hoops through the streets and played tiddlywinks all the time?

My mother was a child of her time with a world view and values in tune with her time. We regard ourselves as enlightened, but I wonder if folks even a hundred years from now will look down on us as crude and barbaric. We’re barely beyond a time when it was thoroughly acceptable to regard homosexuality as aberrant, depraved and even a psychiatric disease.

Seriously, what will people think of us for putting that guy in the White House?

My mom was a person who took everyone as they came; a contrarian who made it a point to stick up for the bullied and picked on. She took in strays, both human and non-human. She thought minstrel shows were funny … because they were funny. She liked Stepin Fetchit too, and W.C. Fields.

I read stories set in the past and cringe at the golden age often portrayed in them. This doubly applies to stories set in the recent past when the unpleasant attitudes of an age are air brushed out of the picture. You don’t honor the past by ignoring its warts.