Every year on Mother’s Day, I’m tempted to ask my mother whether she really did send, as family legend has it, a telegram to the U.S. Supreme Court the day the justices decided that women had the right to an abortion. According to usually unreliable sources, she asked simply, “Is it retroactive?”
Somehow I always chicken out, and being the wonderful son I am, I once again present her with another cheaply framed copy of this column.
Yet there are lots of mothers who are real heroines, and now that the Hallmark profit center day has passed, I want to tell you about one of them who, for her children’s sake, left her homeland, took up a new language, endured virulent racial prejudice and raised six children who turned out well.
Now one of her sons is a candidate for high office — and in an ironic twist of fate, there’s an underground whispering campaign to smear him and say he isn’t good enough to be mayor of Detroit because of who his mother is.
Because, that is, she is supposedly white. Naturally, they don’t know anything about who she really is. So I’ll tell you about her.
She was a teenager who had the bad luck to be in Nazi-occupied Austria and who lived with her widowed mother and her sister. She was a merry, lively girl who was saddled with the name Rudolfine, and who everyone called Finnie. They didn’t have much money or food.
They feared the steadily approaching war, and the girls had a bigger, secret fear — that the Nazis would find out that their late father was half Jewish, which probably would have meant a death sentence for them.
Then came the occupation, and months of trying to avoid being raped by the Russians and trying to find enough to eat. Finnie got a rare treat on her 17th birthday in September, when her older sister took her to her first nightclub.
Before long she caught the eye of a trim and dapper young soldier, who walked up to her — and began speaking perfect German. Manny had been forced to give up a college scholarship when a tornado destroyed his home and killed his father, but he had an uncanny gift for languages.
That night, he later said, he knew he’d found the girl for him. She knew it too, pretty quickly. Her family loved him. The military, however, was hostile.
Because Manny Hendrix was black.
They married anyway. They moved back to Inkster, where his brothers had built him a house while he was away at the war. His whole family welcomed the blond and blue-eyed Austrian girl with open arms.
But the wider world was different. Money was tight; she worked as a short-order cook in places where she had to serve truck drivers from the South. They didn’t know who she really was. They flirted with her, and told her she had no idea how awful and shiftless and lazy black people were.
“Except that’s not what they called them.”
They told her if she ever wanted to have some real fun, she should “come down South and watch us string one up.”
Nobody knew. Manny would drop her off a block from work. One day in the early ’50s, somebody followed her home, told the boss. She was working in Dearborn then. The next day, he fired her.
“He said he was afraid someone would find out and hurt me and that then my people would come in and start a fight.” Firing people for racial reasons was legal then.
Finnie thought that was what the United States went to war with the Nazis to stamp out. But she had a husband and six kids to take care of. She saw that they did their homework and ate their veggies and behaved.
When the neighborhood started getting rough, she encouraged her second son to join the Navy, where he excelled. “They tried to get me to go to Annapolis, to the Naval Academy, but that would have meant an 11-year-committment,” Freman Hendrix says.
Later, the family moved to a nice condo in Romulus. The parents stayed happily married until cancer claimed Manny three years ago. Today, Finnie, a young 76, still lives in the condo, where she bakes fantastic desserts and the neighborhood kids of all colors call her “Oma.”
Last week, hours before an important fundraiser for his campaign, Freman Hendrix stopped by to lounge on his mama’s couch and, acting exactly like every 14-year-old boy in the world, pester her about when the pie in the oven was going to be done. He came back from the Navy, finished a business degree at Eastern Michigan University and went to work in the city’s finance department, for a fraction of what he could have made in the private sector.
He became deputy mayor under Dennis Archer. Now, he’s running for mayor in his own right, and is in a tough three-way race. His mother’s attitude: “If he wants to be mayor, that’s OK — as long as he does a good job.”
She grins. Yes, she really knows he would do the best job, but being a big shot isn’t a big deal to her. Having survived Adolf Hitler and Orville Hubbard, she isn’t wowed by celebrity. Nor does Rudolfine Ernegger Hendrix have any use for posturing and bull poopie. She chose, you need to realize, to live with black folk when that was more dangerous than cool. In her household, there was no bashing of anybody by anybody for the color of their skin.
“I think we were all ahead of the curve on tolerance because of Mom,” Freman says. “You know, you can’t choose your parents, but if you could, I’d still choose Mom. I owe her everything I am, and how I look at the world.”
Not that she never made a mistake. One funny one is now being used against her son. Growing up, her favorite boy’s name was Helmut, which works perfectly well in the German-speaking world. So that’s what she named him.
In America, as she soon found out, that was equivalent to naming him Dweeb. So the family began calling him Skipper, and he began using his middle name, Freman, for official purposes.
Today there are those who are nastily referring to him as “Helmut” and hinting that he’s “too white” to be mayor of Detroit. Nothing could be stupider.
Frankly, Detroit has no chance of getting out of the toilet as long as people worry about who’s too black or too white, instead of who’s too full of scheisse.
Yet if being black does count, Freman Hendrix’s mama is the blackest woman you’ll ever meet. When thousands tried to “pass” as white, when just being black could get you killed, a girl with skin as white as snow chose to live as a black person in a city where racial hostilities were never far from the surface.
That’s something worth honoring.
Worth Using Up Fossil Fuel For: If you’re reading this Wednesday, Pointes for Peace is sponsoring a talk tonight, May 11, by Patrick Resta, an Army medic back from Iraq who has a very different view of what’s really going on; he’ll speak at 7:30 at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park.
Thursday night, the East Michigan Environmental Action Council is showing a film called The End of Suburbia, 7 p.m. at Birmingham Seaholm, and afterward I will lead a discussion about the film and the issues. Lest that title gets my neighbors’ hopes up, I’m not going anywhere.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]