Rosa Parks died tonight. I’m sure there will be long profiles about her in every newspaper around the world tomorrow morning and moving political cartoons showing her empty seat on that infamous bus. I went into Leah’s room a few minutes ago just as she was falling asleep and told her the news. I asked her if she knew who Rosa Parks was and I was very pleased that she was able to explain Parks’ pivotal role in the civil rights movement—how her refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Alabama on December 1, 1955, led to her arrest and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for 382 days. This, of course, resulted in the eventual demise of legal segregation in this country and brought to national prominence a young preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I don’t know why Rosa Parks’ death has made me so sad tonight. She was 92 and died of natural causes. For all her ordinariness, she lived a truly extraordinary life. Talking to Leah about Rosa Parks suddenly made me think about my mom. I realized with a new clarity how much I miss her, and the gaping hole I feel at her absence in Leah’s life. I suddenly burst into tears in Leah’s room and told her how sad I am that she doesn’t know my mom (she was four when my mother died), how much Leah would love her, and what a fantastic grandmother she was. Leah comforted me and said that she does remember her. Then I came into my bedroom and cried some more. I’m still trying to figure out how to accept loss and sometimes I realize I don’t have a clue. The tears stung but felt cleansing. And for some reason the death of Rosa Parks allowed me to access grief that I usually repress or intellectualize into oblivion.
Years ago I wrote a piece of historical fiction about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended up as the cover story in a book for children called “The Struggle for Civil Rights.” I don’t even have a copy of this book anymore but when I tried to look it up just now I was surprised to discover this online study guide about the story. I loved writing that piece and I love the genre of historical fiction. The rules were that I couldn’t put fake words into the mouths of actual historical figures or have them interact with people who weren’t real. I told the story through a fictional character named Viola Warfield who lived in the same apartment complex as Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond.
In truth, Viola Warfield was the name of the woman who worked for my grandparents for over 40 years. She was a contemporary of Rosa Parks and a hard-working woman just like her. We loved Vi so much and spent more time with her when we were young than we did with our grandparents. It was Vi who taught me how to walk, Vi who got me to finally give up my bottle. We loved her and I think she loved us but I cringe when I remember that during all those years I never once asked about the husband or family members I knew she had or her life outside of my grandparents’ Lake Shore Drive apartment. We were living the Jewish/Chicago version of apartheid. I do remember that when we went to Vi’s funeral in the late 1980s I was shocked to see all those black people in the church. Who were they, I wondered, and how come Vi had never mentioned any of them? No matter how much we loved her, the reality is that she was there to serve US and the understanding was that she would keep the rest of her life on the south side were it belonged. Why can’t I talk to Vi about this now? I want to meet her in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s and hear stories about her family, find out what she really thought about my family members, discuss what it was like for her to care for us during all those years and what she felt about the civil rights movement that we all lived through together.
Rosa Parks lived a life of service. How many millions of people did she inspire because of her simple act of courage? Despite the fact that her name is known all over the planet, she never used it for personal gain or to become rich. Indeed, her Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development always struggled for funds. Every year the Institute sponsors an annual summer program for teenagers called Pathways to Freedom. The young people tour the country in buses, learning the history of the civil rights movement.
“I do the very best I can to look upon life with optimism and hope and looking forward to a better day, but I don't think there is anything such as complete happiness. I think when you say you’re happy, you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven't reached that stage yet.”