by Victor Johnson

Our team, Virtual Upskilling for Employment (VUE) discussed each of us writing a blog to close out the year.  It was decided that we would use our individuality to explore a theme, which is a word or words that represent our own journey through 2020. 

I thought about words like perseverance, sacrifice, justice, and injustice.  As I considered the gravity of those substantial words in my mind, my heart kept coming back with a different word: milkshake.  Some of my teammates may have thought I was kidding.  You may think that I was taking the task too lightly.  Let me assure you my choice is not frivolous or spurious. 

A milkshake is a single concoction made of many parts, just as each of us are.  2020 has been, for me, a trying time.  In which different factions, medical, economic, technological, political, filial, and religious have tried to force me to respond to each challenge as one facet a of my being.  I cannot let that happen.  I am a whole person, not the different aspects of my life acting independently.  I can only survive “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” [i] by reacting as a whole person.  If I think of myself, only in political terms or only as a black man, my reactions are based on that one aspect of my being and I close myself off from the resources, possibilities, and strengths of my whole self.  Yet, this is just a small part of why I chose milkshake.

In the summer of 1968 I was sure my teachers had lied to me.  That spring, Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.  The last week of school an announcement had been made that Robert F. Kennedy had been killed.  George Wallace was giving permission to people in my neighborhood to say things out loud that they might have whispered a year before.  Why were people ready to shoot and kill people just because of what they look like or what they believe?  When I walked to school or to the neighborhood store, there were a few houses where I would cross the street before I passed by because the people in those houses had told me, a nine-year old, “Stay off our sidewalk nigger”.  I was one who listened to what his teachers said about democracy, about justice, and believed what they said about the United States as a place where people respect each other even if they disagree.  All that happened that year made me realize at that young age that what I had learned was an ideal and I felt very few people wanted to live up to the tenets of our democracy.  

It was also a hungry summer.  My father had a great job and made good money, but he didn’t share it with us.  My mom stretched the little she got from him as far as it could go.  When the summer break started and no school lunch, I stayed close to home.  I played in the back yard, but still had the lingering questions in my head: Why are we poor?  Do all white people hate me?  Why do rich people only care about themselves?  Why do politicians lie?  How can Wallace run for president when he will only help the people that like him?  Is this all there is to being alive?  My birthday was coming soon, and I knew my mom would make a chocolate cake for me, but there would be no presents.  I was not depressed – I was hopeless!

Then one evening around 7 o’clock I heard the Dairy Clipper coming down the street.  The Dairy Clipper didn’t just have popsicles and ice cream sandwiches.  It had soft-serve ice cream!  Usually we would just look out the window at our neighbors getting ice cream – and wish.  This night, my mom gave my older brother some money and told him to get her a banana split and each one of us could get one thing.  I got a strawberry milkshake!  When we were in the house watching TV, each with our own treat, I looked at my mom.  Maybe she knew what I was thinking.  Maybe she had noticed the fear in my eyes when I didn’t want to walk down the street (I never told her why).  Maybe she knew I thought the world was coming to an end.  Maybe she knew I was wondering how she got enough money from my father for us to have this treat.  Whatever the reason she looked at me and said, “Things ain’t always gonna be bad all the time.  You can make things better.”

I can still taste the chunks of strawberry that I had to suck through the straw.  That memory of her sitting there eating a banana split, me with my little milk shake, and my brothers and sisters smiling with their treats, is engraved in my memory. It took a while for me to realize what she meant by “You can make things better”.  But I never forgot what she said, and I later realized the ideals my teachers shared with me only work if I put them into action. Through school, the Air Force, getting married, becoming a father, and serving others, I had other bad times, including 2020.  Times when it seems that everything will come apart, that democracy will fall, that people die when they could have been saved, when politicians will do or say anything to hold on to power, when it feels like there is no justice, and definitely no peace.  Now, as I have over the years, I remember that day in the summer and my mom saying, “You can make things better”.  I call them “milkshake moments”.  Sometimes I will go get a milkshake, sometimes I will just say, “It’s time for a milkshake”.  Meaning it is time do what I can to make things better.  Time to help my family, a friend, a stranger, to listen to someone without judgement, or simply think of ways to give the people I work with an opportunity to smile. Because I realized that my mom knew she made the world a little better with that one small gesture.  On that evening she conferred to me the power to change the world, first by doing something for the people right in front of me.  I can make things better for myself, my family, my friends, the people I work with, and my community.  When I know it’s up to me if I want the world to be a better place, I think of that milkshake and my mother’s face and her words.  I thank God for her! No lexicon can replace what the word milkshake means to me.

Join me in a toast to the New Year – raise your milkshake, it’s time to make things better!

[i] Hamlet, Act III, scene i – William Shakespeare

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