Where I’m From: How My Father Shaped My Views on Race And Crossing Color Lines

11 Jan

me and my Dad during my high school days, him with his Jewfro, me with my pencil thin eyebrows and cowl-neck sweater

me and my Dad during my high school days, him with his Jewfro, me with my pencil thin eyebrows and cowl-neck sweater

My dad turned seventy-seven this past weekend.  Happy Birthday, Dad! In your honor, I wanted to take a look back at how you helped shape my views on people, in particular, how I feel you shaped my sisters and my views on connecting across color lines, as we grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut.

My dad, Paul Grossman, was born in Staten Island, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn, before moving to Waterbury when he was in the eighth grade.  A great storyteller, I love to recall his tales of mischief–sneaking into the Brooklyn Museum to play hide-and-seek, sneaking into Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play, and sticking pinholes in his teacher’s drinking straw. He continued his penchant for humor and mischief by later setting my sisters and me up in public to do embarrassing things like pretend we were talking mannequins at the local mall, saying, “Welcome to Sears..” at the store’s entrance. We’d also witness far into his adulthood, antics with his best friend, Rod Kelly. At our annual trip to the Danbury Fair with the Kellys and their two kids, Rod, Jr. and Kris, we’d watch down the midway as my Dad pretended to pick pocket Rod’s wallet. Rod’s face would contort into a Jim Carey pantomime of feigned distraught, as he then shouted, “that man just took my wallet!” While my Dad ran in the other direction, we’d catch the stunned gazes of fair-goers holding their cotton candy and foot-long hot dogs, as they followed with their eyes the ensuing “chase.”

My grandmother, Nanny Frances, my Dad and his sister, Carol

My grandmother, Nanny Frances, my Dad and his sister, Carol

I am most grateful for my Dad’s gift of humor because for me, laughter is life’s medicine and has helped me both enjoy life more fully, and get through some dark times, too. Influenced by his admiration of fellow Jewish comedians and film directors, like Lenny Bruce, the Marx Brothers, Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, and the not-so-currently admired, Woody Allen, my Dad recited lines from their stand-up bits and films over and over again at the dinner table. Another favorite of my Dad’s was Richard Pryor, whom my Dad would quote, too.  Of course, some of the humor accepted back then despite it’s no-holds barred, supposedly poking fun at people of all races and ethnicities, is cringe-worthy today, but nonetheless, it was the era that he grew up in that shaped him, and this was the comedy of that time.

My grandfather, Poppy Saul, my Dad, and me, Highland Lake, Winsted, CT

My grandfather, Poppy Saul, my Dad, and me, Highland Lake, Winsted, CT

My Dad’s humor seems to both reflect and inspire his zeal for life, as  does his love of sports, both watching and playing them.  A baseball pitcher while at Crosby High School, UCONN, and later for the Waterbury Twi-Met league, my Dad said when he was younger he dreamed of being the next Sandy Koufax. In Waterbury, my Dad also played adult recreational football, and played basketball at the Torrington, CT YMCA everyday on his lunch hour from the gift shop he ran, for about thirty years.  Growing up, whenever we asked our Dad what he wanted from my sisters and me for his birthday, he’d say, “I have everything I need..I could use some basketball socks, though…”

Known for sharing his love of sports by playing on the green on our street with the neighborhood kids, we’d play football, and running bases, or “pickle” as it was called, and my Dad would always announce the play-by-play of every game as if he were a television sportscaster..”..and Number 24 on her jersey, number 1 in your hearts, is going deep…and she made the catch..touchdown!!…ladies and gentlemen, did you see that..?!  He taught my two sisters how to play basketball, lessons they learned very well, as they were some of the first girls to play on the newly formed girls’ basketball team at Wilby High School.  I know he tried to teach me, too, but I was not made for b-ball. Instead I was drawn to dance and gymnastics.  As a gift when I was in high school, my Dad, who declared, “Jewish men aren’t known to be handy,” built me a balance beam so I could practice gymnastics in our backyard. Even if it was a bit wobbly in its construction, it meant a lot to me.

Aside from his lightness, my Dad, a hard worker, has always been big on values, respect, and “doing the right thing.” A legend he admired back in his Brooklyn days seemed to be a role model for this. I recall my Dad telling of the times he watched the line of fans waiting for hours after a game at Ebbets Field to get an autograph from Jackie Robinson. He said he admired Robinson for his kindness, patience–staying until every last ball was signed–and getting kids to do the right thing, by telling them to get at the back of the line if they tried to cut in. This lesson probably was at least one of the things that served my Dad well when he started coaching and assistant coaching girls’ high school basketball teams thirty years ago, something he still does today.

About the lessons in treating everyone the same I learned from my Dad, well, it may sound funny, but they started when I’d watch him waiting on customers in the gift shops he and my Mom ran in both Torrington and Waterbury. He was passionate about the goods they sold–china, every day dishes, kitchenware, and tabletop goods, and especially passionate about the customer experience.  I’d observe as my Dad, who has always been curious about who people were, struck up conversations with everyone who came in the store. He gave equal time and attention to you whether you were buying a five dollar coffee mug, or a $100-a-place-setting china pattern, whether you were black, white or Hispanic, (though admittedly the store’s customers were majority white), or whether you were from Waterbury, or the well-to-do town of Litchfield. Well, my Dad may have been biased against some of the customers who considered themselves elite due to their address or income.  He didn’t like anyone who put on airs, and would do imitations at the dinner table, recalling the extra sense of entitlement some of these customers had, like requesting urgent delivery of dishes for an upper-crust dinner party the same evening.

I coupled those observations about my Dad with my growing up during the end of the Civil Rights era, when the matter of inequality between the races was still a fresh one, despite living in a diverse mill-town of 110,000 people and attending a high school that was nearly integrated 50/50 in its student body make-up. I remember my Dad, and my Mom, would speak to us from time to time about the importance of treating everyone the same, and that it didn’t matter if someone was black or white, rich or poor, we were all the same, and deserved to be treated the same and that cruelty or mistreatment of someone because of the color of their skin was unacceptable.

When I think back to my sisters’ and my high school days in the late 70’s, I recall my parents, my Dad especially, attending all the basketball games–boys and girls–and how he’d sit next to people of color in the stands, going between seriously discussing the game, cheering the team on, or as my Dad was prone to do, sharing tales. I remember many classmates telling me how they loved my parents and appreciated that they came to all the games and talked to everyone, and many commented that they thought they were so young and cool.

I haven’t mentioned my Mom up until now, but my Dad fell for my Mom when he first met her after moving to Waterbury.  He had a crush on her after meeting her in Sunday School at Temple Israel, but my Mom was 5’8″ and my Dad, in his words, “was this short, skinny, nebbish from Brooklyn,” and he thought he didn’t stand a chance.  My Dad told me the other day that my Mom was the first one to make a move though, when she asked him to a high school dance.  He thought it was a joke, that she wouldn’t want to go out with him. Two days before the dance, my Mom’s mom, called my Dad to see if he wanted to know the color of my Mom’s dress so he could buy the right color corsage.  They went to the dance, and were a couple ever since, eloping at the age of 19, because both their parents thought they were too young to marry. My Dad finished college at UCONN, my mom didn’t, becoming a mom herself at 20, and a mother of the three of us by the time she was 24.

Dad and Mom at small wedding reception

Dad and Mom at small wedding reception

My mom, a beautiful person inside and out, went with the flow when it came to my Dad’s use and overuse at times, of humor, and love of sports, even if she needed a break from both, time-to-time. Getting into the spirit, though, a high-school friend, Davey Clay, reminded me the other day of how my mother once stole one of my Dad’s basketball sneakers out of his gym bag and had it bronzed for a surprise birthday gift. My Dad couldn’t figure out what happened to the sneaker, but loved the gift when it was unveiled. The sneaker sat atop a wood ledge in our den for years, and Davey, upon seeing it, thought my Dad must’ve played for the pros. My Mom and Dad loved each other dearly, and stayed married for thirty years, up until my Mom sadly succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 49 in 1988.  We all miss my mother so much still, but I’m glad that my Dad has a second chance at love and happiness with his current wife, Sue.

My Dad and Mom, 1980's

My Dad and Mom, 1980’s

Wanting to capture how my Dad modeled connecting with people from all races and backgrounds, I reached out to some of my high school friends of color and asked them what they remember about my Dad.  My younger sister Robin’s close school friend and fellow basketball teammate, Ginne-Rae Clay, (Davey’s sister) is someone I got in touch with for her thoughts. Ginnie is currently the Deputy Director of Planning and Economic Development in Bridgeport, CT,  and oversees day-to-day operations of nine city departments. She related to me that she is the first African American, and woman, to hold this position.

Ginnie shared this,  “What I know is all of you girls were so open and warm to everyone you came into contact with and when we met your parents you knew why – it was a family thing. Your family’s affection for the community and it’s diverse population was not about a hand out or pity for any one. It was genuine, you all were very much a part of the community. You all were proud of it. I’m sure there were some folks in your parents’ circle that wondered why or may have turned their nose up at the interaction and respect shown some. There was nothing pretentious about your family. You were all in.”

When I asked Ginne to recall another statement she had made to me some time ago about what people from the black community had said about my Dad, who I remembered, would play basketball in the “black neighborhood” in Waterbury at times, she said, “What I said was your dad was the only white guy that could jog up Bishop St, wearing a Rolex and come out on the other end perfectly safe still wearing the watch. That was the sentiment in the hood for your family. I did not make this up, it was said to me years ago. ”

Ginne-Rae Clay

Ginne-Rae Clay

Davey Jay Clay looking serious (maybe he realizes he's been fooled--that my Dad did not play for the NBA)

Davey Jay Clay looking serious (maybe he realizes he’s been fooled–that my Dad did not play for the NBA)












I reached out to another close family friend, Arthur “Yogi” Rose, who also went to high school with my sisters and me. Yogi, was always a bright, shining star back then, full of spirit, whether chatting friends up in the school hallway, on the basketball court, or especially as he pursued his love of dance by taking lessons at the Nutmeg Ballet in Torrington, despite the jeers he received from probably mostly male friends, who saw dance as not masculine enough. Yogi went on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, despite, what he shared with me, his encounter with a black high school guidance counselor who told him he was aiming too high to try and get into NYU. Yogi has been making his living as a performer ever since, currently working all over Asia, and Canada.

Here are Yogi’s reflections on, and message for my Dad: “Mr.G, One word describes him to me. Smooth. At work, with his kids. With people from all walks of life. I can see him walking, holding his wife’s hand. It was like they just stepped out of a movie. No disrespect to his present partner. I remember I called him like at 3 am once (forgot about time zone difference) to say the Lakers had won the championship. This smooth voice comes over the phone. “I know, but thanks Yogi.” Smooth. Even though the Grossman family lived on white man’s boulevard, aka Columbia Boulevard, Mr. G never made anyone feel small. He was a homeboy with three lovely daughters. Grace, style, charm were all in the palm of his hands. Mr. G you still are the coolest dude I know. May you continue to inspire and lift others up by just being so smooth!!!!!!!! I’ll always love the man who helped me to see that being rich is not about money, although it helps. Being rich was about respect, love and sacrifice. I would like to end with, stay kool.. but, that would be like telling the wind to keep blowing…I got mad love for you Mr.G. Happy 25th birthday.. I don’t believe Wendy when she told me your age. Even if your children are all over 25.. Smooth Mr. G has aged with style.”

Arthur "Yogi" Rose, the NYC dancer days

Arthur “Yogi” Rose, the NYC dancer days


When I shared a little bit of Ginne’s reflection with my Dad before posting this–wanted to keep some of this a surprise–I realized I needed to check in with him, and get some of his own words to explain where he was coming from back then in terms of shaping my and my sisters’ values and views on relating with others.

I was able to catch my Dad for a moment during a phone call this morning.  On his way to coach basketball practice, I asked my Dad what his thoughts were on teaching us to respect all people.  He said, “well, I think for one..me more than your mother, who grew up in more of a white, more affluent, Jewish neighborhood (in Waterbury)..I was lucky that I didn’t grow up with that affluence.  I grew up in Brooklyn until I was twelve or so, and those are real formative years, and I was lucky to go to a diverse school, not even diverse in terms of black and white, but of religious diversity–Catholics and Jews, and Irish and Italian, kids from parents who were first generation immigrants…”  He continued, “For me, it’s not even a question of how you’re brought up, it’s about doing the right thing. Treating all people equal.  I don’t think your Mom and I were preachy about getting along between black and white.  We just lived our lives behaving the same way with all human beings.”

In another phone call this evening my Dad said, “for me, the acid test is, if you can rest your head on your pillow at night, and say that you didn’t knowingly or with intent try to hurt someone or do the wrong thing, then you’re good.  Not hurting anyone in life’s journey is what it’s all about.”

Hearing my Dad’s thoughts, and hearing Ginne and Yogi share their strong impressions of my Dad’s character with me, and hearing many old friends, black and white, share on Facebook fond remembrances of my Dad from so many years ago, in honor of his birthday this past weekend, has both enlightened me, and made me feel proud.  I hadn’t stopped to think about for some years now, how far-reaching my Dad’s light and love for all the people we grew up with in Waterbury, and beyond, was, and continues to be.  I am grateful for how he lived and continues to live his life, connecting across color lines, and the impact it has had on my life, as someone who has always had a strong internal desire to do the same, and to seek justice and fair treatment for all.

As today, the world mourns the loss of the extraordinary artist, musician, David Bowie, I was struck by a quote from an article in The New Yorker, which said, “Bowie realized early on that he was more himself–had more of himself–when he built bridges between different worlds.” This spoke to me deeply, as I feel more myself when I am building bridges between people of color and myself, and seeking to connect others to the same through my writing and conversations and actions in my daily life.

I thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to build bridges, and for inspiring me through your words and actions, to even want to in the first place.  Here’s to many more years of your youthful spirit, your inspiring others, your connections with people from all walks of life, and your  continuing to be curious and accepting of all people.


My  Dad, me and my two girls, Darla and Leni

My Dad, me and my two girls, Darla and Leni

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