"GOD BLESS THE SALT SHAKER"
*names changed for privacy purposes.
I grew up in a very rural town about fifty miles northwest of Gainesville. It's very heavily populated with rednecks and redneck ideas. Thankfully, I was raised in a loving, Christian home where my parents taught us (myself, sister and brother) to love and accept people of all colors, races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. Neither of my parents grew up in the area, (my Dad is from Springfield, Ill, and my Mom from Richmond, VA), so I'm proud to say they are cultured and well-rounded people. Those qualities carried over into their parenting skills - praise the Lord - and they now have three emotionally healthy and diverse adult children. Growing up in Dixie County, there wasn't much diversity when it came to the color of people's skin. There is a medium-sized black population, but the area is primarily white. Racial tension runs high, even to this day.
As a little girl, I remember being attracted to black boys more than white boys, and as I got older the attraction only grew stronger. As a teenager, I remember "interracial" dating being such a hot topic at my school, and with that being said the student body seemed to be divided by a very definite line - those who were down and those who found it undesirable (that's putting it mildly). Growing up, I remember hearing derogatory remarks like,
"It's just not the way God intended it...look at the birds - cardinals stay with cardinals, blue jays with blue jays."
"Black people just....smell different, and they have different diseases."
"Don't have sex with black men or you'll get AIDS...they all have it."
"Why can't you just stay with your own kind?"
"Why would anyone want to do that? Don't you know black people came from a white person and a monkey?"
"Oh, you're boyfriend is black? Well, I don't really like black people."
The list goes on. I think my personal favorite went something like this, "Well, those aren't real relationships...those are just black guys raping white women." I was stunned. When I heard that phrase leave my coworker's mouth, I felt the blood rush out of my face. I'm sure I was as white as a ghost. My legs felt like they were cemented to the floor. I couldn't move. Speechless. I mean, what do you really say back to such a spout of ignorance? People say racism is taught...I believe it. While most of the above quotes are memories from my teen and early adult years, even as a child I remember feeling a bit queasy when hearing strangers use the word "nigger". I wasn't raised that way. My parents weren't that way - they taught me better. I remember hearing my grandpa throw around the "N-word" as if it was nothing. It always baffled me how ignorance still festered in his old age. I thought wisdom came with age...boy, did I learn differently as I grew up. As a little white girl, I couldn't understand why people would use that word or anything like it. After all, being black or white or brown or yellow was only an outward thing...no one can help what color they are. "Isn't it what's on the inside that counts anyway?", I would think as a kid. It [that word] always made me feel gross...and as a grown woman, it still makes me cringe. Ignorance...simply put.
When I was 14, I remember praying that God would soon send me something or someone who would encourage and help me in my walk of faith - someone who had my back and could help me grow in my spiritual journey. From that point until high school graduation, I didn't date much, but I talked to lots of boys - black, white and brown. And one night in December of 1999, I ran into "RayH7" in a Christian chat room for college aged kids. It was called "The Salt Shaker". Now, for those of you who remember AOL chat rooms, you might remember how people would introduce themselves when entering a room. It usually went something like this: age/race&sex/location. There he was, Mr RayH7, 22/BM/VA....typing in black Arial font - bold. I remember it like it was yesterday. I said "hi", only to be ignored. Disappointing. About three weeks later in January '00, I revisited the Salt Shaker....and who was there?....none other than Ray, typing in his trusty black Arial font - bold. ;-) He didn't ignore me this time, and after talking for roughly an hour, I mustered up the courage to send him a private message. It was the beginning of a new chapter.
Ray was a strong Christian, came from a good family, and seemed to have all the qualities a girl could ask for. But things soon proved themselves to be more difficult then I had imagined....I was barely 18, and still living under my parents' roof. He was 22, and on the verge of moving out of his parents' home. He was in Virginia, I was in Florida. He was black, I was white. I tried to be as open as possible with my parents about this new found relationship, but there were issues. Although my parents had raised us to love all colors, there had always been that underlying "interracial" issue. I knew my parents would be accepting in the long run, but that initial shock of "Oh my God...he's black!!" had to wear off. An even bigger issue for them was the online thing. Today, with sites like eharmony, match.com, and plenty-of-fish, dating online is pretty much the norm; but, 10yrs ago - not so much. In the months following, Ray and I got to know each other - well...very well. We spent endless hours chatting on AIM, and sent countless emails back and forth. I have floppy disks full of pictures, conversations, and emails. By the summer of 2000, I remember thinking, "Man, the woman this man marries, is going to be so blessed!" I must add to, that although we had been talking for about 9 months, I had yet to see his picture. He had seen mine, but here I was...falling for a man, who's face I'd never seen! But it was too late, by the fall, I was hooked!! I was just praying that God would make this man attractive to me. When I finally received the email, I was scared to open it. I remember staring at it in my inbox...terrified of clicking on it. What if I wasn't attracted to him? I've invested 2 months shy of a year into getting to know this guy...what if?? I clicked. I opened. What a relief. He was cute!! Praise Jesus in Heaven!
At this time, I was still living at home, and there were already 2 strikes against me - online dating (strike 1), and he's black (strike 2). So, I knew I would have to do all in my power to keep things as open and peaceful as possible with my parents. I knew things with Ray were going to get serious eventually, so I had to smooth my path and keep my windows of communication wide open! Respecting their [my parents] rules since I was still living under their roof was my top priority. I must add, though, that my parents now ADORE my husband. They are nothing but supportive of us, and I know people have given them grief over the years as well. At the time, respecting my parents' rules meant I was not allowed to give out our home address to write real letters, and no phone calls. Thank God for P.O. boxes and e-cards that allowed real-live voice messages. In the summer of 2001, Ray and I decided to make things as official as two people who had never met (in person) could. :)
After finishing up a year of college in south Florida, Ray headed back to Virgina to enjoy some down time away from school. Almost two years in, and we still hadn't met. Would it ever happen? Then the unimaginable struck - September 11, 2001. As we all remember, 9/11 changed the world as we knew it...indefinitely. It also changed our relationship. Being the man he is, Ray enlisted in the USAF and left for basic training on March 23, 2002. I remember the day he left...it was rainy. I sat in my car in the parking lot of Santa Fe College and cried my eyes out. When would I talk to him again? What was he doing? Would our relationship survive this? I was so proud of him, but at the same time....crushed! I was selfish and scared. We were now even further apart - he was shipped to Texas - and our dreams of meeting in person were pushed back yet again. After spending the past 2+ years talking EVERY day, I knew it would be weeks before I'd hear from him again. I was going through serious withdrawals...just like that - cold turkey. He was my best friend, my therapist, my comic relief...and now I would count the minutes until I received word from him. By this point, I had secured my own personal post office box so that we could write. I received my first (of many) letter from him in April 2002...and I still have every one he's ever written. :) After finishing basic training, he went to tech school for a matter of weeks, which was also in TX. By Summer of 2002, basic and tech school were finished...and he got his first legitimate orders. I held my breath, "Please, Lord...don't send him to Afghanistan...please! I need him." As always, God heard my prayer, and while it was a relief that *Ray wasn't being shipped into harm's way....he was still shipped overseas - Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Japan. Japan?! And it was a two year assignment, at that. Would we ever meet? By this time, I had moved out of the house and into dorm life at my now alma mater - Florida Southern College. Being out of the house...we had our first real telephone conversation in fall 2003...three years after we'd first met. We spent endless hours on the phone. 4:00am phone conversations and 8:00am classes don't mix well. I learned that the hard way.
Ray had scheduled leave time for a couple weeks close to Christmas 2003. He was flying home to Richmond to stay with his parents for the holidays. A good friend of mine had family in Richmond and a grandmother who was very ill at the time. She wanted to have one last visit with her grandmother, and it was past time for me and Ray to meet face-to-face. Road trip!!! Finally, just days short of four years into this thing, we met for the first time!!! Hallelujah!! December 30, 2003 - there we were...me, my friend *Kay, and my sister...sitting in a Micheal's parking lot in Richmond, Virginia waiting for him to arrive. The anticipation was killing me...and then, we saw it - a burgundy BMW coming our way. "Dammit, I'm going to puke!" It was really him - alive and in the flesh. What a mix of emotions and nerves. I don't think I had ever smiled so much before that day. My face was frozen in a permanent grin. It was an incredible 3-4 days there. We had our first hug, our first date, our first kiss. This was real...he was real. I could touch him...hold his hand...see his smile...hear his laugh. Bliss! He rented a car, and drove back to Florida with me. He met my parents that weekend. I showed him Gainesville. And then the time was cut short. His leave was coming to an end. We planned our next rendezvous before he headed back to Richmond. It was almost seven months before I saw him again, but on June 28, 2004, I boarded a plane to Okinawa. I had never flown before. I was 22, alone, terrified of flying, and getting ready to fly half way across the world to see my man. After flight drama, an emotional breakdown, a $7-dollar bagel, terrible turbulence, spending an unplanned night in San Francisco, and sitting next to a guy who was very persistent with his flirty desires....I had made it. I was 10,000 miles away from home, immersed in a culture 110% foreign from mine, but I was with him...again! Ahh, the things we do for love.
Ray's tour in Japan was finished the following summer - 2004. Where would they send him now? He got his orders. Is this really happening?! Was he really being stationed in Florida? By the fall of 2004, we were living in the same state. He was stationed in Panama City, where he finished his time in the AF. Although we were finally on the same side of the state line, we were still seven hours apart. I was still in school in Lakeland. We took turns driving back and forth on weekends. We saw each other about twice a month over the next year and a half. I got to know I-98 very well over those 18 months. Late night drives on deserted roads lined with pine trees and rocky beaches. It was draining at times, but worth every lonely mile. Finally, in March 2006...it was time for him to separate from the service. His duties were done, and it was time to get this ball moving. We'd talked about marriage numerous times since about 2002. I was ready. He was ready. So, what now? He moved to Lakeland to be with me. He had nothing more than the clothes on his back, his car, and the two cats that we had adopted earlier that year. When he reached Lakeland, he lived in my dorm room for about a week. We intensely searched for an apartment and a job for him. By the end of the week, we had landed both. God is good! We were finally in the same state, in the same town, only minutes from each other. On December 16, 2006, he proposed. We were married on August 11, 2007. After almost 8 years, I was officially Mrs *RayH7. We honeymooned for a week in the Keys. Breath-taking. We left Lakeland for Gainesville in May '08. We had a beautiful baby girl on January 6, 2010, and will celebrate three years of marriage in August.
People say true love doesn't exist...I beg to differ. Ray and I have been together for over ten years now. If I've learned anything, it's that love is not a feeling. Love is a commitment, a choice. It's not always frills and lace, or smiles and gushy words....sometimes it's ugly. It's hard. It's scary. It's trying. But it's beautiful. As cliche as it sounds, Ray and I complete each other. We've had hardships - distance, racism, broken family ties. We've endured. He is my first love. My first kiss. My first real heartache. He's it. My soul mate...my better half...my heart - together forever. I love you, honey.
"You my soul, you my heart, You my bliss, oh you my pain, You the world in which I live;
You my heaven, in which I float, O you my grave, into which I eternally cast my grief.
"You are the rest, you are the peace, You are the heaven upon me bestowed.
That you love me makes me worthy of you; your gaze transfigures me;
you raise me lovingly above myself, my good spirit, my better self." ~Robert Schumann
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