Mom and dad were born in the early 1920’s and grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They lived in and around the small town of Elwood, Kansas, which sits on the banks of the Missouri River.
There was a small United Methodist Church which my grandparents had been active in throughout their lives as well.
The remarkable thing about mom and dad was that they actually lived their faith in God on a daily basis. It was as much a part of them as their skin or their personality. The lived to serve and serve they did. Never with pride or adulation, but with quiet and steadfast service. Everyone in town knew they could be counted on.
I never heard my parents say a disparaging thing about anyone the whole time I was growing up. I’m sure they had their own feelings sometime, but always kept it to themselves. Their lessons and examples stick with me even today. The principle of life that we are no better than the next person. That all people are worthy in Gods eyes and therefore, they should be in our eyes as well.
My first name is Louis, but I always went by my middle name, “John”. Throughout my school years I would dread the calling of the class roll when the new teacher would call out Louis Purvis. The kids would all tease me because they had no idea that was my true first name and I would cringe while trying to hide behind my school desk. As I grew up different siblings would tease me about the name Louis and I grew to hate it. I knew my grandpa Purvis had been named Louis and couldn’t imagine how he survived all those years with THAT name.
Skip forward to the early 1980’s and we were at that little United Methodist Church in Elwood for a family reunion. Us being kids, we got a little bored with the old folks and decided to go for a walk to explore the town. It was a sunny Memorial Day afternoon.
My mother then said one of the most unexpected things I’d ever heard her utter. “You can go for a walk, but don’t go on that side of town”. She said this while pointing to the part of town she was talking about.
Later I asked her in private about why we weren’t to go to the certain part of town. She didn’t want to talk about it, but I persisted. I think she was very embarrassed when she finally told me that when they were growing up, that was the part of town where the black people lived and that they weren’t supposed to go there or hang out there.
I suddenly came face to face with segregation in an old Missouri River town. I had never heard my parents say anything even remotely racist, so I was very surprised. I could tell that it was something mom probably hadn’t thought about since she was little and back then that was just how it was. I’m not saying it was right and in fact would say it was very wrong, but it was a much different time in our history.
You may be wondering how these different stories fit together, so stick with me a bit longer.
Fast forward to about 2012 and I am back in Elwood for another family reunion. This time I am in the car with my sister Kathy, who is one of the “older” kids as mom would call them. They had the advantage of knowing our grandparents before they passed.
Kathy and I were reminiscing about mom and I told her the story about mom telling us not to go on the other side of town.
Kathy then told me a story from about October, 1958, when my Grandpa Purvis had passed away. I knew from stories that he went by the name Lou throughout his life.
Kathy related that she was going inside for the viewing and family visitation prior to the day of the funeral at that same Methodist Church in Elwood.
Kathy said an Elderly black gentleman was coming out as she was going in. He stopped her and told her about how wonderful Lou Purvis had been. He talked about how Lou Purvis could always be counted on in his neighborhood to lend a helping hand at anytime. He said his folks would greatly miss Grandpa Purvis.
Kathy thanked the gentleman for his very kind words and told him she would watch for him at the funeral. The man replied Oh No, that wouldn’t be appropriate for him or his folks to be at the actual funeral.
He loved Grandpa, but wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral because of the color of his skin. Apparently skin color hadn’t mattered much to Grandpa Purvis in an age when such things seemed to bother some folks greatly.
It was at that point I suddenly loved having my grandpa’s name.
Call me Lou.