The past year has been a rough one for several of my Boomer friends. Less than 12 months ago, my friend and colleague Kerry said good-bye to his elderly mother. In July, one of my girlhood friends said farewell to her mother. And just a little over a week ago my dear friend Maralyn buried her aged father. In each case, my friends were burying their only surviving parent. For them, the passing of their parents represents an end of an era. They have become their own front line.
With all the recent heartache and disaster, and with so much in the news about those who commit acts of terrorism or egregious hate crimes, it is important this Thanksgiving weekend to remember those who have made a positive difference in our lives, especially the men and women who showed us a kinder, more just way to live.
Such was the example of Beth Rickerby, the mother of my oldest and dearest friend Liz, and my Pioneer Girl leader at Campbell Baptist Church in Windsor. This Thanksgiving I pay tribute to this kind and gracious woman.
For me, Beth Rickerby has always been the epitome of beauty, faith, strength and intelligence. Her style and grace were embodied in her Jackie Kennedy-like good looks, her tremendous fashion sense, and the elegance with which she always carried herself. Her composure and self-assurance were not based on any personal conceit or desire to impress. She was just comfortable in her own skin, but for my friends and me she was quite simply the classiest Mom in the neighbourhood. She was also the only Mom in the neighbourhood who went ice-skating with us! Her laughter could fill a room and was easy and contagious, but never demeaning of others. She was fun to be around and she was beautiful.
But she was much more than a pretty face! She was in many ways a real renaissance woman: cultured, articulate, well-read, and talented. A member and volunteer of the Windsor-Willistead Art Gallery, it was not uncommon for her to rent original pieces of art which she hung above her living room mantel, usually scenes from the beautiful Canadian countryside she so loved. As a youngster, I can remember her challenging Liz and me to expand our vocabulary through reading. She said that we were over-using the word “nice” and needed to grow our language skills. She was an accomplished seamstress who often made many of her own clothes. I also have lovely memories of her working in her garden, or singing as she sat at her piano and played her favourite hymns and songs.
A special memory I have is sitting at the Rickerbys’ dining room table in their home on Gladstone Avenue, enjoying a tea party with Beth’s good china, crystal and silverware – a favourite pastime of ours when we were young. Liz and our friends and I were all dressed up in elegant party gowns which Beth had purchased at the Maycourt Club re-sale store where she volunteered regularly. We felt very grown-up and terribly sophisticated!
It goes without saying, that Beth was also a great cook. Her Beef Bourguignon was famous among the many friends she and Ken entertained in their incredible home. She was an understanding teacher too. I have wonderful memories of her teaching me how to use a measuring cup and measuring spoons and patiently supervising me as I made muffins in her kitchen so that I could earn my Pioneer Girls’ baking badge.
Which leads me to the most profound way Beth influenced my life. Henry Adams once wrote: “A parent gives life, but as a parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; she can never tell where her influence stops.” Beth was a real teacher. She mentored me and many others both by what she taught and how she lived those teachings. It was Beth’s deep personal commitment to Jesus Christ, her love of the scriptures, the joy with which she sang our hymns of faith, and her dedicated service to her Church and community, which made the deepest impression on my young life. Every week for nearly seven years Beth ferried me, along with Elizabeth, back and forth to Pioneer Girls at Campbell Baptist Church in Windsor. For at least four of those years she was my Pioneer Girl leader. I have often said that if it had not been for her and her strong witness to Christ and his teachings, I would never have found my way into service in the Church or heard the call to ordination in the United Church of Canada. Beth taught with her total self, openly, honestly, and with integrity. She was very perceptive and never afraid to challenge the system when it needed to be challenged. I remember when my own three sons were little, she told me that “we still had not found a way to teach little boys…. that somehow the system had failed them.” And I think she always strove to find ways to meet their needs and concerns, as she did with all the children who came under her tutelage, boys and girls alike.
THE MOST POWERFUL LESSON SHE TAUGHT ME, however, came one late afternoon in the summer of 1967. The Rickerbys, and maybe some others as well, were having a drink and visiting with my parents in our living room at our home in Windsor. This was not a usual occurrence. My parents never entertained and, in any case, they were almost old enough to have been Ken and Beth’s father and mother. But from the sounds of things, at least from what I could hear from our small den across the hall, they were having a good visit, some animated discussion, and a few good laughs. Then the mood changed. Even though I was only 12 years old at the time, I knew something was wrong.
Remember this was the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Things were very tense across the border in Detroit. Indeed, by the summer of 1967, Detroit’s predominantly African-American neighbourhood of Virginia Park was ready to explode. Some 60,000 people were crammed into the neighbourhood’s 460 acres, living in squalor in divided and subdivided apartments.
The explosion came in the form of the 12th Street Riot, which raged for five days and five nights and which could be heard even from our comfortable homes across the border in Windsor. It was a violent public disorder that turned into a civil disturbance of such magnitude that Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit and President Lyndon Johnson sent in both the 82nd and 101st Airborn Divisions. The result was 43 dead — most of them poor and black –, 1,189 injured – most of them poor and black, over 7200 arrests – again, most of them poor and black, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. The scale of this riot was surpassed in the US only by the 1863 New York Draft riots during the American Civil War and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Tomorrow is actually the 50th anniversary of the 12th Street Riot, a riot that changed the face of Detroit forever.
Back to the scene in our living room that hot July day. The Rickerbys and some others were enjoying a drink and some lively conversation at our home. The subject of the race riots in Detroit was naturally part of the discussion. How could it not be? Sympathies were expressed for Detroit’s black community and genuine outrage at the deplorable conditions in which they lived. But then the conversation took a different turn. It became more personal. Remember this was also the year that the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” came out. The film, which debuted on June 12th, 1967, gave a positive representation of interracial marriage, something that was very rare in those days. Everyone was talking about this movie, especially our parents. The film centered around an upper class white couple played by veteran actors Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who find their attitudes seriously challenged when their daughter introduces them to her African American fiancé. Needless to say, the film engendered a lot of controversial discussion here in Canada too. Would you allow your daughter to marry a black man was the question that came up that afternoon in our living room. I listened quietly but intently from my perch in the other room. What would they say? What would they do if I came home one day with a black fiancé? Or if Elizabeth or Martha announced one day in the future that they were dating a black man? Would they be accepting of our decisions to venture into an interracial marriage? I waited with bated breath to hear their answers. The only person who gave an unqualified, emphatic yes was Beth Rickerby…. And they laughed at her. They all laughed at her…. But independent as she was, Beth held her ground. She was very gracious about it, but she remained firm. She did not give an inch. And in that moment, I knew that something very significant had happened. It was one of those moments of epiphany when the earth seems to shift under your feet and everything begins to change.
Now I adored my parents. I still do, even though they have been gone many years. And of course, when you are only 12 years old your parents can do no wrong. (When you become a teenager, they can never do anything right. But I wasn’t a teenager yet. I was just a young girl who believed that everything her parents did and said had to be right, without question.) But in my own childish way, I think I recognised (even if I would not have been able to articulate it back then) that their laughter was cruel and wrong-headed.
That incident has always stayed with me and I have re-visited it many times over the past 50 years. It informed my conscience and called me to question the values and assumptions that had shaped the basis of my privileged white-skinned childhood. Moreover, it taught me that real beauty is not skin deep but permeates one’s whole being. For all her physical beauty, her elegance, her charm, culture and grace, Beth Rickerby was above all one who possessed deep caring and compassion for others, especially the vulnerable and oppressed. During her final years, when she suffered horribly in body and in spirit, I understand that she could sometimes be difficult. But much more significant than any foibles she may have had was her passion for the underdog. She could be fiercely independent and very outspoken, but thank God she was. People who have no voice often need someone to speak on their behalf. Through her simple words that day, she taught me that “faith without works is dead” and that faith that does not take seriously the concerns of the world’s poor and outcast has no credibility. Beth Rickerby’s faith did not stop at the edge of a well-manicured lawn. It flowed over into the lives of everyone she encountered along life’s path and into all she said and did. It affected not only her dealings with people but also her determination to live with respect in creation and honour God’s good earth.
Beth’s witness that day in our living room taught me something else, namely, that we call can make a difference where we are. For all that we need those who march in civil rights parades, whether they be related to race relations or women’s rights or the rights of our LGBTT or indigenous brothers and sisters, and for all that we should give thanks for the martyrs who gave their lives in sacrifice for those and many other noble causes, we also need ordinary people – not perfect people – but ordinary, decent and honourable men and women who are willing to speak up and hold their ground at the office wine and cheese party or the neighbourhood BBQ or the living rooms of our nation.
This weekend, as I give thanks for the ordinary people like Beth Rickerby who influenced my life for good, I recall a line from George Eliot’s great classic novel Middlemarch, which ends by praising the good deeds of ordinary people. Speaking of the heroine of the story the novelist writes, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”