Edie

We had a black nanny and housekeeper briefly when I was a kid.  Even writing it down makes me cringe from the white privilege. My physical impressions of Edie are clear still: the short, broad shape of her in slacks, peter pan collar, and sweater; a pair of inscrutable dark eyes; the wigs she wore that Mom called ‘fright wigs’ because they were the kind you could only buy at Halloween. What did my Mom know about black women’s wigs?

What I remember about Edie the most is an air of calm; she didn’t bustle and she never seemed frantic. This wasn’t like our family, where it seemed someone was always whipping through the room in a state of agitation. We were always running late, losing things, grabbing paper towels to sop up a spill, scrambling into socks with clumsy fingers.

Edie worked for our family from the time that I was an infant until I was perhaps four. Then she worked for us a little later, but this time just cleaning house. When I was in my teens, Edie hadn’t been cleaning for us in a number of years. But sometimes she would call my mom to talk and inevitably she would ask to speak to my sisters and I directly. Following the cues of my older siblings, I either dodged the call by frantically waving my hands and mouthing ‘no’ or I took it with a sullen expression on my face, like someone being forced into an obligation.

I think the reason we tried to avoid the call was that we didn’t remember Edie much and it felt like an awkward exchange with an elder who wasn’t family. Maybe there was a little sense that her ‘otherness’ was an excuse; we certainly were raised with a lot of racism in the family. Yet this perspective might be a distortion.  I am thinking of an elderly white lady friend of the family with whom I would definitely have felt the same stilted discomfort if we were placed on the phone together.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if my Mom had pulled us aside at some point and made a nice movie speech about Edie and why we owed her a small degree of affection or at least respect.

“That old woman, with her cheap wig and her moth-eaten sweaters, was the closest thing to a mother you had when I had to punch the clock to get this family through the mess Carter made of the economy! And I’ll be damned if you ever, ever make her feel like spending a minute on the horn to ask her how she’s doing is anything but a pleasure! Do you hear me?”

She would have waved her finger at us as she spoke and we – sufficiently cowed by the force of her conviction – would have exchanged guilty glances. Watery music would have underscored the scene and one of us would have suggested we go out, get some ice cream, and take it to Edie’s house. The director of photography would pull away as we all spooned dessert from bowls on our housekeeper’s porch, smiling and laughing, lens flares nudging bubbles of light across the screen as the camera tilted upward through a stand of pines.

Our mom never really forced our hand like that, making us confront our attitude problem.  She did sometimes say, “Poor old Edie, I don’t know why you kids…” She would trail off, distracted by the can she was opening for dinner or something she had been reading in a magazine before Edie called.

A few years ago, my mom told me she had invited Edie to come live with her.  I had always known that Edie and her only child, a daughter, had a strained relationship. The daughter had become a Jehovah Witness and Edie could never come to respect that choice.  With Edie’s mind and body beginning to fail, she felt she had no place to go. Mom set her up in the guest room.

Edie felt haunted, it seemed, in her dementia. She often told members of the family about the man who would come into the house when she was alone, and how she didn’t like him. He would stand at the foot of her bed and stare her down. We couldn’t imagine it was real.  In our old house, back when I was a kid, where Edie had lived in for a while, she used to talk about the noises the ghost made in the basement.   My father swore it was the belching of the furnace.

My mom would further dismiss the ghost theory, “No one ever even died in this house, unless you count the son of the last owner, but he was killed in a car accident at the end of the driveway, so even that doesn’t make sense.”

This time around, we were sure that Edie was just imagining things. Eventually she became so agitated by the idea of the strange man that she didn’t want to stay with Mom and Dad anymore. Her daughter was convinced to come pick her up; she put Edie in a home after that, where she stayed until her death some years later.

I wonder if Edie’s daughter visited her frequently. When her mother called, did she look at the number on caller ID and have the same desire to dodge it that we did as kids?

Edie didn’t ask for anything for herself when she spoke with you. She asked how school was going and when you said okay, she’d reply with, “Mmm-hmm.” You could hear her chewing gum, which she always did.  Then the silence would stretch for a while and she would say, “And how you behaving?” When you’d say you were being good, she’d give another ‘mmm-hmm’ but this one sounded more doubtful. More gum chewing. Then Mom would take mercy on both of us and take the receiver back, getting Edie to chat about people they both knew.

I have a strong sense of myself. I know what I want and how to ask for help when needed. I make a point of fostering only meaningful relationships, knowing I want to make room for conversation only with people who enjoy me as much as I enjoy them. I am guarded a little bit, but I never have to be at the mercy of relationships that aren’t equal.  It is perhaps one of the many subtle advantages of privilege.

What choices did Edie have in life?  Who would she have been if she had the same opportunities as I did? I had so many choices that I’ve been wasteful with some of them. Maybe Edie’s daughter saw how her mother’s life shaped her into someone who took what was offered and accepted it. Maybe the daughter made it a point to question everything, even her faith, and to make a study of using choice to shape herself. This difference between them would have been profound and it was perhaps what distanced them ultimately.

I have a lot of trouble separating prejudice from my musings about Edie. If we were the color-blind society that some would like to pretend we are, than my recollections about her would probably only ponder how children don’t like chit-chat with their elders.  If we were more honoring of age in this country, perhaps there would be little else to consider. Because I would never have made Edie do all the heavy lifting when I got on the phone with her. Instead I would have made it equal.

“How are you doing, Edie?”

The bigger yet picture suggests that if our society wasn’t laced through with race crime, than very likely we would not have had an Edie to look out for us as children. That a white family in a small home with only middling incomes could afford to pay a black woman a very likely small going rate is in and of itself the legacy of slavery. Centuries of abhorrent, racist policies had caused our very different paths to intersect for a while.

I’ve inherited a lot of white guilt, but strangely my mother – who sides politically with so much that disenfranchises people of color – is the only one of us who never hesitated to take Edie’s calls and even gave her a place to stay when she needed it. Edie knew she could ask.

Race is as complicated as people are themselves.  I hope we can solve it, but it will likely take more willingness to connect and less abstract liberalism to bridge the divide. Less expressing that we are all one from the safety of a social media bubble and more sitting at the same table and opening up about our conflicted and incomplete impressions of one another.

 

How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.

 

Wilderness

When I was a kid, I became enchanted with Cinderella stories, but my versions never had princesses.  They had houses and they had witches.  It was the house and the witch who would be transformed and made beautiful.  Homes should always be sweet; women should always be gorgeous. I must have thought this as a kid and clearly popular society is still largely convinced its true.

My favorite place to draw was the dining room because there was no place else to spread out the typing paper I took from my mother’s desk and the assortment of random colored pencils that hadn’t gone missing yet.  There were corner windows in that room, looking out over a pasture and a scrap of back yard.  When the chickens were out, they littered the grass like folds of white towels – the crowns each a smear of blood.  Sometimes when I looked up through the smudged glass I saw my mother coming back from the barn.  Her plaid jacket was frayed at the cuffs and her hair was ruffled messily by the work.  She always seemed tired.

The first iteration.

I would draw a house and a woman softly, the pencil whispering on the page and leaving only the vaguest impression.  The woman would have worried bags under her eyes and a ragged gown.  The house would have loose shudders and a shaggy lawn.  It had to be drawn lightly so that I could cover it over with the magical transformation.  I thought it was cheating to erase the lines, so instead I would add more pigment on top, burying the first and deliciously tragic version under the adorable cheer to follow.

The change.

With bold strokes of my pencil the house would be reimagined with pristine woodwork and flowering shrubbery.  Birds would appear in the formerly barren skies, a few limp letters ‘m’ that are somehow sparrows or larks in flight. Even to grownups one never need explain that these are birds.

A sun with lines of radiant warmth appeared over the trees.

With greater care still the burdened witch became a mighty queen, her eyes ringed with such lashes that the dimly drawn wrinkles were all but undetectable. With my pencil I sketched over her dismal schmatta, layering on top a diaphanous skirt with hundreds of folds. Messy hair vanished under a mantle of exuberant curls; the bitter mouth fold budded  into a hopeful rose.  If I could find the crayon called peach, I’d bring the blood to her cheeks.

I made the messy and neglected into something ordered, manicured, and styled.  If it failed to convince me, I added flowers and more eyelashes.  I might have flourished in marketing.

In truth I was playing at something adults rarely learn to examine, whether or not the picturesque is superior to the authentic.  There is a reason that we have apps to place crowns of flowers on our Snapchat photos; a glow to our Instagram selfie to blur away the pores; the framework of Facebook to describe the perfect weekend, leaving out the parts where we quarreled over which credit cards to use.  We are terrified of loose ends, of things and people gone ragged.  Perhaps the animal in us knows how quickly we can be toppled, the way a rabbit knows that once the fox has them in its jaws, there are only seconds before the end.

The blood widens a pink circle in the snow as the black eyes of the rabbit reflect a cloudless blue sky.  Burying its nose in the warmth of the rabbits breast, the fox eats quickly amid the smell of iron and meat and frosty grasses.  His breath rises up around them, a fog veil to soften the truth that this is how the circle goes unbroken.

If we are to survive on the terms that make us human, cooperation within the growing village of humanity, without losing our grip on the one power that helps us maintain our place, a self-convincing sense of contentment, we must embroider reality, making over everything that we find dim with bright colors.  If our grip on the story loosens and we are forced to see how quickly our shutters rot, perhaps the entire fabric of our narrative will spill out of control.  Grass that needs our hands to chase away the chicory and pokeberry might return to wilderness.

We may go wild ourselves.

Black Man

It was true that he lurked outside the A & P and true too that he stared.  When one glanced away from him, Russell had moved from his typical base – a shuffling path among the shopping carts just outside the electronic doors – to walking right alongside your car.  It was startling how he seemed to have teleported the distance.  Mom always locked the doors when we saw Russell in the parking lot.

“Some say he’s harmless,” she’d say. “But I don’t know…”

a-and-p

We were terrified of Russell Green.  A tall black man of indeterminate years, he was a fixture of our childhood.  At least on days when we went grocery shopping.  Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing he ever did in our presence to evoke our response to him. Except perhaps to be born black – something that in the south is a handicap and a risk in the eyes of many.

Mom once said she’d heard he was quite a scholar in his youth, but that he’d been roughed up by some boys (I always assumed they were white) and had taken a blow on the head. Her tone implied it was pitiable, but she still locked up the station wagon when she saw him.  I didn’t know what to do with his backstory when I was a kid, but in the years since I’ve colored it until he is almost a mythic martyr.  I imagine him as a slender youth, dressed in a cardigan, wearing smart glasses like Malcolm X.  The light glints off of the frames as he sits under a tree, writing an essay for school.  His mother is Oprah Winfrey and she nails it in a calico apron, a modern day queen sitting in makeup for three hours to give her the dry elbows of a hotel maid.

The truth is it is hard to imagine it differently for me.  My understanding of the black struggle has been spoon fed to me through the lens of too many white film makers. Perhaps the legend of Russell was partly true – that he was good in school.  But maybe he would have wanted to use those smarts to get a job at IBM and not to change the world in protest.  That would not occur to me because when white storytellers tell black lives, they talk about blacks who changed America via the remove of a dais and a microphone.

When I try to put the pieces together about Russell – and maybe it is fetishizing to even try or an exercise in lancing the boil of childhood’s racism – I come up short.  He was a black man and some said a mad man and he was a lurker and a looker, but more than that he was a stranger.  The fact that he spent his time skulking or loitering the parking lot of the grocery store gave him an unglamorous fame and because of that he sticks out in my memory.  To be fairer still, the A & P was in his neighborhood and he never bothered anyone, never hurled insults or begged favors.  He was just there.  In an odd way, showing up on the regular gave him name recognition, a perverse argument in favor of the marketing stratagem of consistent exposure.

Nowadays it might not happen so, if for no other reason than that the grocery store would be on the outskirts of town in a well-lit suburban haven on the other side of too many highways for the lost or the deranged of neighborhoods to wander upon.  The A & P of my childhood was on South Street, but all the white grownups I knew called that area Nigger Town. This because this short road of small stucco houses – being evermore bought up and leveled for strip malls and burger huts – was where black people lived.  It had no jurisdiction of its own, no real autonomy and independence from the mechanisms of a white establishment.  So while there was nothing to threaten the status quo on these three blocks except perhaps one mad man walking the rows of the parking lot, daring to stare at white families in their wood-paneled station wagons – it clearly needed a name to delineate it from the rest of town, to demarcate the differences between us and to levy upon the darker skinned a moniker meant to demean.

Then black artists took that same word and made it their own.  Still white people chafe not that it exists but that now it is wielded by black hands, spoken by black lips, linked to new cultural moorings by black ingenuity and will.  We hear the debate: why is it okay when they say it?  I will not speak for black people to answer; they have their own voice.  What little I can do is to peel back every ignorant thing I ever learned to expose and dismiss it, one remembrance at a time.

In the minds of my people, Russell was to be feared and to locked out, but it has become clear to me in my life that the real social menace was on the inside of the glass all along.