Just because we're retired
We've been there and we've done
Our time has come to be heard
Just pay us some mind
we're worth it!
I gave away
This I have found
Could I but stretch and reach
up to a star
No, size and wealth and strength
and time all faint
Tight leather jerkin.
Holds huntress' human form.
Thinking back, some of my earliest ideas and experiences, came from books. As soon as I learned to read, I read constantly. I can still remember some of them: books by Alexander Dumas and those by Louisa M. Alcott like the series The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and the red, blue, purple fairy books. These I read to my brother who was three years younger than I.
Savannah was one of the cities in the South which had received a library for "colored" from Andrew Carnegie, the railroad/steel tycoon and philanthropist. He gave a total of 2,800 libraries to cities across the United States. Savannah's Carnegie Library was a red brick building which distinguished it from most of the buildings there. A tall stairway led up from the street to the entrance. The interior of the library was somewhat forbidding and presided over by a tall, lean, coffee-colored man whose name was Denegal, who always seemed old to me. In later years, one of my aunts worked with Mr. Denegal in the library after she retired from teaching. Sometimes, I would watch them, thinking what a great couple they could make, both mild-mannered, kindly and intelligent. But Mr. Denegal had an invalid wife at home.
Carnegie gave the building, and the books were inherited from the "white" library at the time that my sister, brother and I were going there. I was just happy to have books to read. Besides, I didn't realize then how deprived the library was. Each of us would take home three or four books and my sister and I, especially, would exchange and read each other's books.
In those early years, I don't remember our discussing race nor did my parents talk about it in our presence. But the knowledge came through a sort of osmosis from many sources, from white boys our age taunting us with a chant about "high yellas" because we were fair-complected, from the babysitter, who would frighten us when we were out after dark by telling us that the Ku Klux Klan would get us if we didn't behave, and from the sometimes hushed conversations between my mother, my grandmother, my aunt and one of my grandmother's good friends.
Our maternal grandmother lived only a block away from our home and my mother, sister, brother and I would walk there many evenings after supper while my father returned to work. My sister and I would sit on the front steps while the elders sat on the porch. There was a seating hierarchy-the two older woman on the wooden porch swing and my mother and aunt on small chairs. I can still remember being surprised as my grandmother and her friend, like young girls, addressed each other as "Betty" and "Sis."My sister and I were seldom included in the conversations, but we listened silently as we looked up at the adults and drank it all in.
The conversation was often desultory and jumped from one subject to another. My grandmother might say to her friend, "Sis, did you see that red dress Frances Law was wearing at Church? It was fire
engine red and was way too tight. I wonder how she was able to move." And the reply would be more caustic because "Sis" was not as tolerant, nor as easygoing as "Betty." Her reply might be, "Yes, she's a real hussy. I don't see how Lucille Taylor (the minister's wife) can stand all those women after her husband." The Reverend Taylor was the pastor of our church, St. Stephens Episcopal, and most of the single women and some of the married parishioners were always in hot pursuit. And it did not seem that the good Reverend was over-resistant.
My maternal grandmother was a tall, lovely woman with long gray hair who presided over her family and home like a queen. I often wondered about her and her exceptional manner, but all I ever learned was that her mother had brought her and her sister to Savannah from Petersburg, Virginia when they were in their teens. There were whispers that they were related to a prominent "white" Virginia family, but after that there was always a wall of silence. In fact, we-my sisters and I-met a number of these walls of silence as we tried to probe into our family background. Perhaps my brother tried also, but if so, I knew nothing of his attempts. Sometime later, he lived in Savannah as an adult while my husband, children and I were in Detroit, New York and Chicago.
Much of what I remember about my grandmother's house is connected with food. We could always have iced tea (forbidden at home) with meals and my aunt would bring out a fruitcake wrapped in a towel that had been soaked with brandy, port wine or whatever at Christmas. Since I loved fruitcake, and still do, that was always the greatest treat. My aunt subscribed to The Chicago Defender, a black-owned, weekly newspaper with a national circulation. My sister and I usually gravitated to the paper because reading news of colored people was a new experience for me. But, if we handled it or money, my grandmother always insisted that we wash our hands well before we ate.
We went far less often to visit my father's mother and sisters who lived only about five or six blocks away. That grandmother was a short, dumpling of a woman whose two unmarried daughters lived with her. I remember little about visits to them except that, in the summer, we would pick the figs off two large trees in their backyard. They were easy trees to climb and, although I didn't like the figs especially, it was great fun. They would give us many figs to take home because my father loved them.
My father was the mainstay of his extended family, financially to some degree and as an advisor and protector. His father died when he was young and-as the oldest of three brothers-he helped his mother, a seamstress, support the family. He finished the equivalent of high school at Tuskegee Institute, the institution for colored where Booker T. Washington presided as president.
He helped his younger brothers through Fisk University, the outstanding school for colored students then operated by the American Missionary Society. My mother, her two sisters and one of her brothers, also attended Fisk.
I was a very young child about
five years of age, living in Los Angeles, on the west side of
town where tall palm trees lined each side of the street. Colorful
flowers peeked out of green shrubs, and the sky was always blue
with big fluffy clouds. When I didn't have anything to do I would
lay on the thick blanket of green grass and watch the clouds
float by. It was one of those days when I first heard about the
girl who had no mouth and no ears. I was in the midst of trying
to figure out the clouds over my head. The rest of the children
on the block were commenting on the girl that had no mouth and
no ears. She lived down the street in the big house with all
the children. It was a big family type home, the kind where everybody
in the family dropped their children off in the morning and picked
them up after work. That's where this girl lived, somewhere in
the basement. On this day, she had gotten out or one of the children
had taken the lock off the basement door. She bolted out, running
after the children, with odd sounds coming from her throat. She
made it as far as the end of the driveway before her grandmother
and grandfather cornered her and took her back to the basement.
"Well, what does all this mean?" I asked. He would always speak to me like I was his equal, instead of his little sister; he would take his time making sure I understood, even if he knew I had never heard of such a thing. He told me how she had been born without the ability of hearing. This was a shock for me because I thought everyone was created the same.
"But she has ears, I saw
them and she does have a mouth and these strange sound come out,"
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I vowed that day that I would
get a closer look at this girl with no mouth and no ears. I waited
until the children had forgotten about her. Then one day after
breakfast, when everyone was in school and I was the only one
around, I asked my mother if I could go out front to play. She
didn't like me out front without my brother or sisters around,
so I told her I wanted to watch the clouds. And I couldn't play
in the backyard because they had turned the ground over and there
was no place for me to play without tracking the mud in the house.
So she agreed and out the front door I went, down the street
to the big house with all the children. I sneaked into the backyard
and found the door that had a lock, but the lock was off. I opened
the door, and she came out. I motioned to her to be quiet; or
else we would both be caught. She was tall and thin, and she
had a head full of hair, but it was uncombed. She made soft sounds,
as she came closer to me. I had my baby doll in my hand and she
acted like she wanted to play with it, so I gave it to her. She
began to play in her hair; I ran home and got a comb and brush,
a Mason jar with water, and some Royal Crown, hair grease. I
ran back to her and sat her on a step and let her play wit the
doll, since she wasn't about to give her back to me. I combed
her matted hair after untwisting it, then I put in some of the
hair bows and ribbons. Then I went back home and got some of
my sister's old clothes and a bar of soap and an old towel. I
wouldn't dare get a good towel for fear of getting a whipping.
I went back to my newfound friend and washed her up and put her
on some clean clothes. Once that was done I stood back to look
at her and for the first time in her life, she looked like someone
really cared about her. We didn't know her grandmother, who had
heard me talking to her, had come down the basement steps to
see what we were up to. She broke down and cried: She had never
seen her cleaned up and her hair combed. I polished her fingernails;
she looked so good I wanted to go up and down the block and let
everyone see how nice she looked. They would be able to see she
wasn't the person they all thought she was.
It was a sunny August day. The trees were full, bursting with bright green and yellowing leaves. It was 1950 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was looking forward to starting the third grade at Houghton Grammar School in the Fall. My new teacher, Mrs. Hickey, was tall, stout and friendly. I got to meet her on Promotion Day, also Flag Day, June 14, 1950. She wore a smart watch and plaid suit with a white blouse with ruffles down the front. A beautiful cameo pin sat on top of the ruffles. The blouse also had ruffle sleeves, which extended beyond the sleeves of the suit jacket, and made her look as if she were a character in a play from long ago.
I secretely liked school. All my friends hated it. Not to say I didn't look forward to summer vacation like everyone else, but I also felt happy anticipation to returning and starting a new year. Returning to a new grade, a new teacher, new classroom and new books, I was on my way to becoming what I wanted most as an eight year old: to be grown up. I loved the idea of being independent, going to work, buying my own clothes, staying up late, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes.
That summer, so far, had been uneventful although I was having a lot of fun with my friends: riding our bikes to the Charles River (unknown to our parents), roller-skating, catching grasshoppers in mayonnaise jars and walking up to the high school. One day on return from a short bike trip around the neighborhood, my friends and I noticed a police car and a milling crowd of people in front of Joan and
noticed a police car and a milling crowd of people in front of Joan and Shelia's house. Joan and Sheila were two teen-age sisters, who lived next door with their single mom. Instantly, my stomach turned and I felt as if I were going to be sick. Anxiously wondering what had happened, my mouth went dry. My heart started to pound as I slowly walked my bike to the edge of the crowd. "What happened?" I asked. I was told that Shelia had walked into the Charles River and killed herself! I could not believe what I was hearing! Why would she do something like that? Try as I might, my eight year old mind could not think of one thing bad enough to want to kill myself. I was frightened and confused.
I felt a deep sadness for the family members, who with the aid of a policeman, pushed through the inquisitive gawking crowd. As a child, the idea of real death was just a passing notion. That day two questions came to mind: 1. Was there no control in life? And 2. Would I ever get to be a grown-up?
At the dinner table that night, the topic was Shelia's suicide. According to my parents and my older sister, Shelia was pregnant and started to show. Her solution: murder-suicide. In my neighborhood in 1950, an unwed mother-to-be was not wanted around. She brought shame upon herself and her family. The most common solution, I later found out, was to ship the girl like unwanted baggage (for that was how she was perceived) to an Aunt or Uncle far away in Ohio or California, never to be seen or heard from again.
After that day, the Charles
River had and still does beckon my attention. It presented to
me at a young age how cruel life could be. And how one's own
family could turn on you in a time of true need.