CINCINNATI — The last year certainly gave us a lot to ponder when it comes to COVID-19: the economy, racial unrest and politics. Long-time friends Byron McCauley and Jennifer Mooney found themselves talking about these topics at length.
“Byron said, ‘Jennifer, I think we’re living through a key point in history. It’s a pivotal moment. George Floyd was killed and we’re in this global pandemic. Let’s start to write it down,’” she said. Her response: "Okay, I’ll start tomorrow.”
The result was a series of letters that the two have now published in a non-fiction book called "Hope Interrupted." Each letter builds a contemporaneous conversation between McCauley and Mooney beginning last summer through the beginning of this year. McCauley is a former columnist at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Mooney is a communications executive. They have been friends for about 10 years and say they have always had long conversations about important events and matters.
“We just started writing each other letters about what this day meant to us," McCauley said. "So, at the end of the day or sometimes the beginning of the day, the next day, we wrote about what happened in America and how did it impact us.”
Because of the pandemic, writing letters was the best way for them to collaborate on the book. Also, Mooney and her husband were in the process of moving to New Mexico as she was writing the book, which also prevented her from working on it in person.
The authors believe their friendship is unique because of their differences. McCauley is an African American man who grew up in Louisiana. Mooney is a Jewish woman who was born in Canton, Ohio, but spent most of her life in Cincinnati. But they have several similarities.
“We talked about parenting. We talked about health. We talked about our own health challenges,” Mooney said. “Byron was really adamant. He said he wanted to be raw. He wanted to be really straight-forward and get deep, and we did.“
“When you talk about when we got deep, it didn’t take very much, because Jennifer and I have always talked about everything,” McCauley said.
That includes fatherhood. Both grew up without their fathers around for the most part. Here's an excerpt from a letter McCauley wrote that talks about how he grew up, titled "The Most Painful Moment":
Jennifer, thank you for opening up about your father. I have had more than 24 hours to digest your letter and I decided that we both owe it to ourselves to be honest and candid. I have much more to say on this, my 22nd year as a father. I want to be able to like Father’s Day, but I never can, never have. If I think about all the friends in my little town when I was growing up, the majority of them had fathers and mothers in their home. They defied the stereotype, or so I imagined. But things are never ever as one imagines them. We idealize the thing that we think we lack. I had a father in my life for precisely nine years. As I noted, my mother became pregnant when she was a junior at Grambling State University. She went home to Plain Dealing, Louisiana, and taught elementary school on a provisional teacher’s license. She wore a rubber girdle to conceal her pregnancy until she couldn’t wear it anymore. I was born during the summertime at Confederate Memorial Hospital, weighing 4 pounds, 6 ounces. It’s a wonder I lived considering her lack of prenatal care and considering I was a little Black boy born in a charity hospital in a dangerously racist and segregated town. I didn’t see my biological dad until I was 16 years old, when I demanded my mother tell me who my biological father was. Imagine never knowing this for 16 years. I was not satisfied, and I knew that something was amiss. Nothing about me matched the people that I lived with. My face, my body type, my feet, my eyes. I always knew a part of me was definitely missing.
McCauley said some who know him will be surprised by what he wrote about his father.
“You know, for me it was cathartic. It’s a secret that I’ve held for a long time,” he said. “I also wanted to give hope to kids all over who might have a similar situation.”
“While I always knew Byron to be a highly likable, gregarious person, I realized how much he was really able to do," Mooney said. "To keep pressing forward, to keep being hopeful in the midst of things in his life that would have cratered some people.”
Both authors say they found their hopes challenged during the last year, hence the title of the book.
"This is something I hadn’t experienced before," McCauley said. "I would say the hope that I have was dashed for a while."
“I believe I was a hopeful person prior, and I did lose some hope," Mooney said. "And wondered candidly how I was going to be hopeful for the world that my kids, my adult children, were now living in.”
Mooney included a letter she wrote about a discouraging encounter she had in a New Mexico grocery store during the pandemic. Here's an excerpt from the letter, dated June 6, 2020:
So get this, I was called a Nazi today in the grocery store. We went to the farmer’s market first, all good. Everyone was in masks and peaceful. Going in the big store always feels risky even though masks are required by law. We were in the checkout line, and I looked over and saw a woman gesturing in the face of a store employee. She was not wearing a mask, the only person I observed in the crowded store without one. She was about my age, hippy wearing, looked like a peace-loving type. He was a young, tall Black man monitoring people at the self-checkout. I noticed that she was yelling and finger pointing. I approached and said, ‘Please move back. You don’t have a mask on or less than six feet away from him.’” She yelled at me and said, ‘You’re the problem. You believe the hoax and you’re being violent.’” He looked at me and said, ‘Thanks,’ and stared straight ahead. I went back to my lane. Don looked as if he thought that I might get into a fist fight. I’ve never been in one, but I kept track of her. I noticed she was in his face again yelling about the self-serve checkout. Again, I approached and she yelled, ‘You’re a Nazi!’ And, I yelled back, ‘No! I’m a Jew.'
“I think what I saw was a white woman bullying a young man. He was probably 23 or 24 years old, because she had whatever her point of view was on current protocol in our state at that time, which was law,” Mooney said.
Both say more conversations need to be had and more relationships need to be formed between people who are not alike.
“What we have to do is lay all that stuff down and be vulnerable and give each other a chance to get to know one another again," McCauley said. “Now is the time, especially now as America seems to still be ripping at each other's tapestry, we need to let that stuff go and be authentic and, again, meet people where they are.”
“We want people to have conversations," Mooney said. “It can be someone who moves in up the block or in your workplace who doesn’t look like you or feel like you. You’ve never known. It’s about knowing them and being authentic with them.”
The authors say they've gotten widespread reaction to their book from across the country. They also have a podcast based on the book and will appear on C-SPAN Book TV this month.