Paul Greenberg

They accumulate, the scraps of material there wasn't room for a column, but are too good to throw away. So, like a good seamstress, the prudent columnist puts them away for another time, confident they'll fit in somewhere someday. Or maybe make a patchwork quilt of a column when they're all sewn together.

My mother used to have a big box of such scraps. She never threw anything away. Now and then when I was a boy I'd find one of them incorporated in one of my shirts or a pair of pants. Neat. The economy of it gave me a certain satisfaction even then. I've since learned to do the same thing with written material. The secret of this business is recycling.

For example, I've held on to this gem of wisdom from my granddaughter up in Boston -- Newton Centre, Mass., actually -- for whole days before sharing it. That must be something of a record for a proud grandpa. Here is the entire text of now five-year-old Miss Carolyn Sara Bernstein's sisterly advice to her older brother at bedtime: "It's time to brush teeth, but be careful: Don't use your mind. It will only distract you."

That piece of Zen deserves a place with the response a safety expert got when he was interviewing workers on an assembly line. He was searching for ways to cut the accident rate at the plant, but all he got from a retarded woman who worked there was: "Don't worry 'bout me. It's only them's that thinks that gets hurt."

XXX

The obituary of Her Honor Andree Layton Roaf began with the usual list of black-woman firsts in Arkansas: first to sit on this state's Supreme Court, then on its Court of Appeals. But one first Judge Roaf achieved was missing from the obit. And it still brings a smile to my face. She was the first black bride to have her engagement picture in the Society section of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial.

It was a mistake, of course, in those still racially segregated days of the early '60s. When an engagement picture arrived of a slightly freckled young woman, it was sent to the Society page rather than Colored News, or whatever we called it at the time. Its appearance on the Society page was much noted in town; this time the Commercial had succeeded in scandalizing both the black and white communities.

The next day, bright and early on a Monday morning, the switchboard operator -- was it Myrtis Bobo or Norma Jean Hutcheson? -- said there was a man up front who wanted to see somebody about that picture. And the Society editor was prudently unavailable. That left me, the new editorial writer in town.

Coming out of my cubby, I met a khaki-clad caller at the front counter. A brief conversation ensued.

"Did y'all run an engagement picture of a colored girl on the same page as the white ones yesterday?"

"Yes, sir."

At that the man reached down, took out a large envelope, and placed it on the counter. "This is my daughter's engagement picture," he said. "If you want to run it next to a colored girl's, that'll be fine with us."

Then he nodded goodbye and was gone. My faith in people, in the South, in just plain ordinary decency was restored. No, justice hadn't exactly rolled down like mighty waters, but in those days even a trickle felt like a flood. The man in khaki hadn't made a big deal of it, either, which was another reason it was a splendid moment. I guess that's something else I have Justice Roaf to thank for.

Sometimes the providential works in accidental ways.

XXX

The other day I was reading about the life and adventuresome times of the Comtesse de la Tour du Pin, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. And of all people, I immediately thought of my immigrant mother. She came from a tiny Polish village way back of beyond, a shtetl called Mordt. From outside Mordt, actually. A place so obscure nobody else ever seems to have heard of it. What could she possibly have had in common with an 18th-century French aristocrat at the court of Louis XVI?

I'll tell you. I made the connection on reading the countess' description of her escape from the mob during The Terror. She was hiding out in Bordeaux when, under the pretense of taking a stroll in the public gardens, she managed to slip away and board a dinghy to the ship that was waiting to take her across the ocean to America and safety. "There is no doubt," she would later recall, "that the heave of the oar with which the sailor pushed us off from shore was the happiest moment of my life."

That's when I thought of my mother. Sarah Ackerman Greenberg always blessed the day -- February 10, 1921 -- when she landed at the Port of Boston and first set foot on American soil. It seems a kinsman who had taken off for America after his house had burned down, the last of a series of reversals, had done well enough here to send my mother passage money. And so she was able to escape the poverty, war and general chaos she'd known growing up in the old country. Not to mention the horror to come in Europe.

Sometimes the providential works in accidental ways.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.