Linger on your pale blue eyes

The Stris (aka my mom, Sarah Bornstein, seen here in 1970-something, a few years before I was born) sent me a note occasioned by the 40th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington in August.

The march was of course the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, now commemorated by McDonald’s placemats every February (you’re not a true historical figure until special sauce drips out of a Big Mac onto an artist’s rendering of you).

So here it is:

August 28, 2003

On being part of a history by accident

Like millions of Americans, I am thinking about the historic march on Washington forty years ago today. I am thinking about the dream still deferred and the wonders of inspiration one day can provide. I was lucky and privileged enough to be in Washington on that hot August day. But I’d forgotten about my precise motivation for making the three-hour bus trip from Philadelphia to D.C. until I received a call from an old friend.

It was close to 11 last night when I got a call from Sallie Zemlin. I hadn’t seen or talked to her in at least 25 years. But she was one of the members of my synagogue youth group who made the trip to Washington for the march. She was thinking of me, she said, and decided to call. Since I am the only “S. Bornstein” in the Chicago phone book, I’m not that hard to find. It was great to hear from her.

We caught up on the details of our lives, of course, and then she hit me with the zinger.

“So, Sarah, do you remember why you agreed to go on the march?”

“Gee,” I replied, “I guess I just thought it was a good opportunity, and the youth group was paying, and all that.”

“No,” she said. “You had decided against going, remember? And then I called you and told you that Michael Silver was going. That’s why you went.”

Oh yeah. Michael Silver. I had forgotten about him. He was a guy I knew from our religious school classes — he went to another high school, so the bus trip was a good opportunity to flirt with him. He was very bright and very intense and had these beautiful blue eyes. Probing my memory about all this, I remember that it was actually rather selfish of me to chase after Michael Silver. I already had a boyfriend that I had met at camp that summer. But, as the vagaries of adolescence will have it, he liked me more than I liked him, so he was automatically less attractive than someone who appeared to have absolutely no interest in me whatsoever.

Again, searching my memory, I recall that, as usual, Michael barely spoke to me on the three-hour trip to Washington. But about two hours into the journey, as I began to see hundreds of buses on the highway, filled with people, black and white, from all parts of the country, with signs and banners adorning their vehicles, I knew that I was about to be part of something phenomenal and monumental and extraordinary. I had been conscious of the civil rights struggle, of course, and had been part of “weekend workgroups” in the inner city with African-American counterparts (I think we still used the term “Negro” then). But I wasn”t fully aware of or engaged in the magnitude of the movement. Never before had I been anyplace where so many people were brought together by shared commitment to a cause. It was a life-changing experience. And, who knows, if Sallie hadn’t called me to tell me who was going, I might never have been part of it.

So many words have been and will be written about what that day meant to America. Nothing I can say will add insight into the historical significance of Martin Luther King’s dream and its still unfulfilled promises. But it makes me smile to think, as I reflect on my own life and the directions it has taken, that had it not been for a vain girlhood crush, I might never have been part of one of the most historic events of the twentieth century. But then, history is full of accidents like that. And I remember thinking on the trip home, as I was filled with exhilaration, pride and excitement, that I didn’t care at all about Michael Silver.

I told The Stris I wondered whatever happened to Michael Silver. She said she thought he wound up at MIT. Michael Silver, if you’re out there … just be thankful you’re not my daddy!

Thanks for letting me share, Mom.