The year was 1976. I was a little kid; we had just moved to a small town in northeastern Alabama, the first family from India to move in that area within a 75 mile radius.
We were moving from the north, and my father was looking for a job as a doctor. People warned him not to go the south; racist, they said it was.
But he came to scope it out anyway, and found the people kind and generous, and they practically rolled out the red carpet for him. The town had just built a hospital, and they were in great need of a physician to serve in that area.
After visiting, my dad called the administrator back in the north and told him he didn’t even know his own country – this place was not racist, the people were nice, he said!
Days in the south are mostly sunny and the skies are a radiant blue. I can’t imagine the south any other way; what a great place it was to grow up, with memories of ample sunshine and bright green grass and fragrant honeysuckle vines growing wild.
When we arrived in town, the mayor showed my father around, introduced him to other people, including the three other doctors in town and on staff at the hospital. They went to visit one couple, both doctors, at their home.
When my dad sat down, the other doctor said, “Go back to wherever the hell it is you came from.”
And he proceeded to tell him he did not belong here, he should leave, etc. The mayor’s face turned beet-red, and some words were exchanged. They left soon, and the mayor was angry and sorry.
My father says he was not deterred; in fact, he had been welcomed so well and liked the town, and wanted to get settled in quickly. Soon after, we bought a house. I remember sleeping on the carpet the first few nights, until we had furniture.
The front porch is covered with a large triangular portion of roof; the gray porch is quite large as far as porches go. Later on, my mother had two wooden benches placed on each side of the front door, handmade by a local carpenter. I remember running my hands over the smooth, shiny lacquer finish. They were beautiful pieces of carved, solid workmanship.
She kept a rectangular cement flower planter on the front, and after many years, the real flowers were replaced with fake ones. Yes… she has a trick: real dirt, but fake flowers. Is that what older people do? I suppose you can get away with that in warmer, sunny climates, where some sort of flowers is blooming all year-long. I just happen to have a picture; here in this picture, she “planted” fall leaves. :)
I only know the story as my dad tells it; he says I am the one who first noticed it, but I do not remember seeing it. We were headed out to church on a Sunday morning when I saw the dead cat.
It’s eyes were bulging, and it had pins and needles stuck in it with some sort of flags, like voodoo or something. Weird, but that is what it was. We called the police and they removed the cat and filed a report. The policeman said there was no way to know who had done it.
So the cat incident was forgotten… for a while.
Soon after my dad began working at the hospital, he was appointed Vice-Chief of Staff. He and the other three doctors were taking turns being “on call” for the Emergency room. He was on call at night and any hour of the day. Those were the days my father did “everything”; as a family practitioner, he treated the whole family, all ages, and even delivered babies back then.
Whenever the phone rang at night, he had to answer it: it could be the hospital regarding an emergency. But something was happening. Someone was calling at all hours of the night, and saying nothing on the other end. Sometimes, the phone would ring 5,6, 7, times at night, after an hour, or half an hour.
Those were also the days when telephones had cords, there was no caller ID, and there were no answering machines. Yeah… the old ancient days; no smart phones. And each time the phone rang, my dad had to answer it.
One day, the deputy sheriff and his wife came to his office as patients. During the visit, my father mentioned the phone calls, and that he did not know what to do, he had to get some sleep, but he also had to answer the phone.
The deputy called the sheriff and they made the arrangements to put a “tap” put on the phone; that was the only way to know who was doing it. These were the days before fax machines, but they were able to work quickly with the judge and law enforcement and the phone company to get a tap installed in quickly.
The night after the tap was put on, seven prank calls were made. My dad was told to write down the exact time and if the person on the other end said anything or could be heard breathing. It was all noted. This was before AT&T… the phone company was called Bellsouth. Ma Bell, they used to call the company.
The next morning, at 8 am, when my father went to the office, the sheriff was already there, sitting in my dad’s office, waiting for him.
“I know who is calling your house,” he said.
“Who?” my dad asked.
But the sheriff would not say. He did say he was ready to arrest them; all my dad had to do was sign a piece of paper. But, my dad not agree… not before knowing who it was and he shared some Indian proverb to explain why. The sheriff agreed with the explanation, and then proceeded to explain the story.
The phone number was traced back to the doctor couple, the same doctor who had told my dad to leave town. When the sheriff went to their house, he laid the handcuffs on the table, and spoke to the man, telling him he was prepared to arrest him. The man was in great distress at the prospect of being arrested. His wife came running in the room with the commotion, and said that their front door had been left unlocked that night, and someone had come into their house last night, and was using their phone. She said they had been too scared to find out who it was and stayed in their room.
The sheriff then indicated after that he knew… it was her; she is the one who had been prank calling. The way she acted, the way she lied, the way they both had responded – the sheriff knew.
My father said not to arrest her. They were, apparently, sufficiently scared at being found out.
And then the cat story also came out… this couple did not have any children. But they did have many cats. And the sheriff had a suspicion they were the ones who put the dead cat on our porch.
In the meantime, my father had made friends with many folks in town who were happy to have him there. The sheriff made my father a deputy sheriff; he took an oath, and he was even given a badge. Interesting, huh?
The couple? They never showed up for their evening and weekend shifts at the hospital, so it was left to my dad and the other doctor in town to always be on call – taking turns each weekend, each night.
The hospital board of directors ended up taking action because this couple did not show up for work and eventually they were dismissed from their jobs. They ended up moving and leaving town.
I only know this story because my dad tells it; it is part of the family narrative now, a story being passed down to grandchildren.
I have to go back to 1969 when he first landed in the U.S, though, so this will be the first in a series of true immigrant stories, because there is much more to tell.
My parents did not pass on an attitude of anger and hatred and resentment and bitterness; this incident was forgotten, not dredged up regularly, which is why I personally had forgotten it. I am extremely grateful for that. The memory of the cat was forgotten because my parents chose to forget and move on. Moreover, they chose not to be intimidated through the harassment, and they chose to stay.
Part of my identity? I am an immigrant… and extremely grateful and thankful to be where I am.
This dead cat story, as well as others that I hope to share in future posts, is an important story of my life as an immigrant here. It is a clear reminder that what we as adults say is being transferred to our kids, our friends, or neighbors. Our kids pick up our attitudes.
I am immensely thankful not to have the memory of the cat I apparently saw; it sounds grotesque and the stuff of nightmares. But I am also thankful not to have grown up feeling hatred, with the nagging feeling that I was not wanted or welcome here. Yes, there have been certain individuals and isolated incidents in which people had that message to convey; but it is not most definitely the defining characteristic of my memories. Imagine growing up like that. But many people do… not just here but also in other parts of the world.
Maybe I was oblivious to some degree, but I also do not recall any instance when I heard my parents speaking ill of those people, even in re-telling the story. Now, however, I am glad to remember and re-tell the story, and for my kids to know, and the hatred and bitterness is notably absent. In fact, we laugh so much and enjoy hearing the stories because it is so interesting to hear and there are so many funny and good parts even to stories like these.
Would I be so gracious, so careful, if it had been me? If it is me? I can certainly share my own stories, too. But like my parents realized and exemplified, these incidents do not define them, and they do not define me. I suppose I do not talk often of them. Truth be told, they are more the exception than the norm, but they exist, making up a small part of my life-story.
And another truth is that though people think of the south as racist, I have personally found the Midwestern city I live in much more racist than the south, more than the small town where I grew up, and more than Birmingham, where I also lived for a while. It’s the history of those places which drives the expectation to some sort of wrongful conclusion. The city I live in has less of a known history but it is much more segregated and racist.
I am reminded of this story for several reasons: my nephew wrote an essay about it last year, my son is writing an essay about it now and interviewed my parents about this story, and honestly, this recent election has brought the issue back to mind.
I personally am not upset, disillusioned, angry, or worried; not that I am in agreement with the words our newly elected leader carelessly tossed out. I simply do not have trust in human-led and man-made leadership; I am under no illusion this is all we need to be great again. I know we need something bigger, deeper, greater than any human leader could ever offer.
What will you do with the dead cats that have been flung at you? Fling them back, sending rotting flesh back and forth? Or choose a different response? Will you fling hatred at immigrants? Or will you choose a different response? It’s a question that has been brought front and center recently, and a question we all need to know how to answer.