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Charney/My Turn: A powerful choice

“Grandma, if you could have any power, what power would you pick?” It wasn’t a new question. It tended to pop up in the lull between school and home, after vigorous outdoor play and “healthy” snacks, when conversation tilted toward the philosophical “if.” But, my perspective on this topic disappointed, my answers never quite right.

This time, my response was prompted by current events. “Forgiveness, “ I said, “if I could have any power, I would choose the power of forgiveness.”

“GRANDMA!” he shouted, his decibels greased by disapproval. “That’s not a real power,” he complained. “Really, he repeated, “what REAL power?” The acceptable list, fueled by favorite movies and books, “The Hunger Games,” the Harry Potter series or the multiple powers illuminated in DC Comics, included: invisibility, fierce archery, mind control, shape changing, knife throwing, kung fu acrobatics and, of course, magic. But I was determined this time to stick to my “Grandma guns.” So this time I said, “OK. Not forgiveness? Then I choose love. Final answer.”

“GRANDMA!” again the back-seat disapproval.

Time to pontificate, I thought. “Look at Mandela,” I said, “how forgiveness and love of nation made him the leader of his country, prevented civil war, earned him a global following and made him the moral compass of our century.”

“What’s a moral compass?” he asked. “Go on Grandma,” he urged as I described in attention-grabbing detail the horrors of apartheid, the miseries of imprisonment on Robben Island, the bravery of the ANC underground insurgency and the savvy and political success of Mandela’s reconciliation strategies.

“Did you know that most of the people in Africa called him ‘Madiba’?”

“What’s Madiba?”

“It means father. He was a beloved father to the people.”

“Did everyone in Africa know him?” Moses asked. “Did we know him?” So I told him about the idea of six degrees of separation. We didn’t know him personally, but we knew people who knew him.

“Like who?” Well, I said, we know Douglas. When Douglas was commissioner of human rights, he met President Nelson Mandela. President Mandela hugged our friend Douglas and you hugged Douglas so that means you almost hugged President Mandela, right?

And once, a long time ago, Charlayne Hunter Gault, who is a New York Times correspondent, interviewed me. She spent years in South Africa following Mandela and got to speak to him on many occasions. That’s me to Charlayne Hunter Gault to Mr. Mandela. Three degrees, I said — just three degrees.

I continued. “And your great-grandfather, my father, once met a South African named Joe Slovo, who also knew Mandela. Mr. Slovo and President Mandela worked together to combat apartheid and they became good friends: You to me to Great-Grandpa to Joe Slovo to President Mandela. I counted five degrees, which is really close considering the vast geography, far-flung continents and decades. So, yes, we knew President Nelson Mandela — sort of — allowing for five or so degrees of separation.”

“OK Grandma,” my Moses said, not one to give up easily, “what power would you really want and you can’t say love.” Maybe for my 11-year-old boy, love wasn’t in his top ten power lineup yet, but I was still hoping to try harder to instill more of Mandela’s message into my own actions. “How about I choose love and archery?”

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield

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