Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mr. Vest Goes to Washington

Mr. Sylvester Williams and his son.

I came home a little early yesterday. As always, I let Cinzia and Sasha out of their crates to bring them to the backyard. While I am away, I leave the television on NBC, so the Nightly News was on. As expected, the broadcast was all about the inauguration, and Washington, D.C.’s preparation for the day’s events. I heard many stories that touched me, including the enormous generosity of Earl Stafford who, through his non-profit foundation made it possible for hundreds of Americans to attend the inauguration when it would otherwise be impossible. One of Mr. Stafford’s guests was Sylvester Williams, a one-hundred year old New Orleanian and Katrina survivor. This caught my undivided attention, as I know a Sylvester Williams who would be about that age and was a close friend and neighbor of my grandparents. Sure enough, I saw ‘Mr. Vest’ as we called him, being helped out of a car by two people and gently positioned in a wheelchair.

"Look at Mr. Vest!" I said to the dogs. (Yes, I talk to my dogs.) In response, they jumped around, twirled, then with tails a-wagging went right back to the door, waiting for me to let them out. Oh, well. What do they know?

NBC news anchor Brian Williams (love him, by the way), mentioned how Mr. Vest lived long enough to include cotton picking in his history. I never knew that. I did know that he, along with my grandfather and Mr. Raymond Johnson (another friend who lived in the neighborhood) built the house Mr. Vest would live in with his wife and family for over 50 years. Every day, after putting in a full day of hard labor, these three men continued to work until that house was built. After that, they started on my grandparents’ house around the corner. When that was completed, they built Mr. Johnson’s house a few blocks over. As Mr. Vest explained, things were different back then. People helped one another because it was the thing to do, and a man’s word was his bond. It is the way he has lived his life. He continued to help people well into his nineties, especially the elderly, many times assisting people younger than he. It didn’t really matter. If you needed help and he could give, it was done.

People and times have changed, and some of it is for the better. I go to any restaurant I want, sit wherever I want, and expect the best service. If I have a medical emergency, I go to the nearest hospital. I attend Mass at a church of my selection, go to the movies of my choosing, and sit where I want. I haven’t ridden the bus or a streetcar in years, but if I needed to I’d sit where I pleased, preferably up front. When I shop for clothes or shoes I do so freely and in any store. When I vote, I walk in, sign and cast my ballot. I can’t imagine not being able to do these simple things, but so many of the choices I have now were made possible only through the great suffering of people who came before me. Human beings who knowingly risked humiliation, attacks, imprisonment, and countless other atrocities that included death, all at the hands of other human beings, just to be treated fairly. Why? Because despite what they were told, they knew they were second to none, and deserved to be treated as such. Who am I to take this for granted? Unfortunately, it’s human nature to have less appreciation for those things which we do not earn ourselves. These easy elements in my life were acquired by the blood, sweat and tears of those who considered it just that important. Most of it took place before I was born, but the fruits of this labor will remain long after I'm gone. I could never adequately show gratitude for the price paid by so many, but I hold these privileges dear, and will do my best to make sure those who come after me understand just how precious these gifts are.

Mr. Vest had a huge celebration of his ninetieth birthday at a Baptist church on Paris Avenue. There, I heard countless instances of his service in some way, shape or form. I remember thinking how sharp he was for a nonagenarian. Ten years later, while I can certainly see a physical change, his mind seems as sharp as ever. He has outlived Miss Gladys, his wife, my grandparents, and Mr. Johnson. He has even outlived my parents. It is my hope that they all are watching today’s events from the best vantage point, along with all whose spirits would find joy in this most victorious of times.

I pictured Mr. Vest as a young man, picking cotton side-by-side with others like him, a generation of men and women who played the hand they were dealt, who witnessed just how unfair life could be, but praised God through it all. How, I wonder, would he have responded at that time, upon being told that he would live to see a Black president? There would be doubt, at the very least. At some point he may have even laughed. On this day, however, he cried. Through his tears, he looked up to Heaven and said:
"Thank you, Lord. The Lord has been good to me. I get to see the President, the
first Black President in the White House!"

Yes, Lord. Thank you indeed. Thank you for letting me come home early. Thank you for this glorious day and every last person behind it. Thank you for the generosity of Earl Stafford, and thank you for letting Mr. Sylvester Charles Williams be here to see it.

Copyright © Keri L. Rachal

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