My mother’s father was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. His parents immigrated from Hungary; neither spoke English when they arrived. My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines. My grandfather had two brothers. They didn’t learn to speak English until they went to school.
After my grandmother died, my Poppy got more and more nostalgic. He’d tell me stories about his youth, stories I’d never heard, and I typed as he spoke to save his memories. He told me about the time he and his brothers were walking over a train bridge, and the tracks started to vibrate, and they had to jump into the Wabash to avoid being killed by the oncoming train. He told me about the little African-American girl next door named Junie May, his first crush, and how they had a fight, and their mothers talked and laughed in the kitchen afterward, then told them to hold hands and be friends. He told me how my great-grandmother made curtains out of flour sacks and kept the tiny house—a house with no running water and no electricity—as neat as a pin.
He told me about the time the Klan burned a cross on their yard.
My great-grandfather, the coal-miner, was a white Christian. But he was Catholic, which was deemed not a real Christian by the Klan. He “took jobs” from “better” white people, and he needed to be shown his place. So the white-robed Klansmen burned a cross on their yard.
“What do you remember?” I asked my grandfather, who had been maybe five or seven at the time.
“We were so scared,” he said. “My mother got us out of bed because she was afraid the house would catch on fire, and we saw the glow of the flames. We asked why the men were dressed like ghosts, and Mom said it was because they were ashamed to show their faces.”
My grandfather went on to attend Notre Dame (and played football there). He married a girl from down the street, the girl who had loved him since she was ten years old. They had nine children, and somewhere in there, Poppy also got a master’s degree from Yale and served in the Merchant Marines in WWII. One of Poppy’s brothers became a flight instructor, training pilots. The other brother graduated from Johns Hopkins, became a doctor, served in World War II, and died a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force.
But if the Klan had had their way, they would’ve been driven from the country, or have been killed.
This weekend has shown that the Klansmen no longer feel the need to hide their faces. They still carry torches. They still pass judgment on who deserves what in our country. They still try to intimidate people. They still kill people.
I’m unspeakably proud of my non-English-speaking, uneducated great-grandmother—a business owner, a mother, a force of goodness who laughed every day and taught me to curse in Hungarian. I’m humbled to have grown up with a grandfather who embodied intelligence and kindness. And I’m damn proud that the Klan, that group of hate-filled, entitled ignoramuses, found my ancestors unworthy. It’s a badge of honor.