Her return seemed almost instantaneous and her arrival continued to be marked by more “fidgeting” in the kitchen, which seemed much louder than it needed to be. I could hear her “duct-taping” the garbage bags closed as she prepared them for disposal- a habit of hers. I am sure our garbage men believed these people have the cleanest garbage they had ever seen.
On the breakfast room table was a white postal receipt with a nickel rolled in it, my
change. She had placed it there for me to find, and had avoided the obligation
of having to speak, or hold a conversation, that went along with handing it to me.
I had to do something now. This thing was escalating and it needed to stop. I couldn’t pinpoint what I could have possibly done three or four days earlier that triggered all this and I resolved that there may not be a separate instance anyway. Perhaps it was just
the pressure that builds over time. Perhaps it was just our unnatural living
arrangement, me being here when in fact I should have been at my own home,
dealing with my own issues. I know I personally would have preferred that, but
that was not the case. Here is where life had brought me and here is where the
remainder of my journey would have to start. I needed to understand my past and
I needed to go as far back as I could go.
I headed back downstairs where my mother was continuing her three day cleaning of her house. “Did you read the paper?” she asked. “I’m going to throw it out”.
“Yeah… Yeah I’m fine.” Our eyes never met during the exchange. And so I continued on to the kitchen (this was not the time for confrontation) and prepared a turkey sandwich which I cut in half. I put half on a saucer for her and began eating the other half. “Let me ask you a question” I said. “What was Middletown like when you were growing up?”
“Racist” was her quick and one word reply.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means white folks treated us badly. It was awful.” You could see the wheels turning in her mind, evident in her gaze, as she looked off into the distance. Her posture slumped as if the weight of the world were on her shoulders. At that instant she just looked
tired. Those memories weighed heavily on her. “We were poor and on welfare. It
What about Grandpa, Jonathan Roberts, where was he? Certainly when he was around you guys weren’t on welfare.”
She shook her head demonstrating the sadness in this memory “I don’t remember him ever being there. I have no memory of him ever being around. Maybe, I was just too young.”
“What about grade school? How was that for you?
“It was racist and awful too.” She shook her head again gently in disgust. “We lived in “Honky Town” over on Sychamore Street and so we went to Garfield Elementary, the white school. The teachers would push us around, call us niggers and generally just treat us badly. It’s awful to even think about…Phoebe and them, our cousins, lived in “Cloverdale”. They went to Booker T. Washington, which was the black school. They didn’t
have a kindergarten class there; they had the first through the sixth grade…And
so, there were six black teachers in Middletown. If there got to be seven then
one of them had to work downtown as the elevator operator because they weren’t
letting them teach white kids…I’m sure though that the kids at Booker T thought
they were better than us…and they probably did get a better education because
they didn’t have to deal with the rest of the stuff.”
“I just remember in the fourth grade where the teacher pulled me out of line and accused me of doing something she knew one of the white kids had done…things like that. They just picked on us all the time.”
“What did you do in school? I mean, who was your best friend?
“Odell” she said without any hesitation. “Odell was my best friend”.
I knew myself that that friendship had lasted for a lifetime. Odell was one of the few people from Middletown my mom would mention, that I immediately, got a mental picture of. Odell was a pretty, dark-skinned woman who was from the Jones family. They grew up on Garfield Street around the corner from my mom. She and Odell had remained the closest of friends and my recollection of her was always this wonderful giving person who was estatic to have me in her presence. Her smile just beemed with a glow that was wonderful. I loved being around her. She married Willy Marvin-that’s what everyone called him, Willy Marvin, using both his first and last names- and had two sons, considerably younger than me, but I knew them well. The youngest, Todd, had drowned in their neighbor’s pool which was incredibly sad; and although Odell was devastated, her smile for me never changed. Odell eventually died from kidney failure after being on dialysis for more than twenty years. My mother didn’t talk about it much but sometimes, in her eyes, you can see that she misses her friend.
“After Garfield” I began, “I guess you went to McKinley, McKinley Junior High School, where I went, or was that there yet?”
“Yes it was there; and that is where I went, McKinley Junior High.”
“Well…how was that?”
“It was better. The teachers were not as mean…I guess because we were bigger, but they still let you know you were black.” My mother’s facial expression changed a bit. She appeared less weighed down. All of the memories weren’t bad. “They closed Booker T after my senior year in high school” she continued, “and Mrs.McBain who had been the sixth grade teacher and principal at Booker T, was made a math teacher at the high school.”
“Mrs McBain, my math teacher”…
“Wow” was all I could say. “Man that’s continuity.” “So what about
high school; what was your favorite subject?”
“I didn’t really have a favorite class or subject. We didn’t have anybody, any mentors. There was no one there to guide us, to tell us not to do stuff. We were pretty much on our own. The white teachers didn’t care about us…I went to high school only half a day in my
senior year. The second half of the day, I worked at Booker T as a secretary.
There was room for only one black girl to work, that was our quota, and so I
was the only one.”
That I did know about my mother. I knew she was a good student and I knew the other kids, her colleagues considered her very pretty. But I had never considered that it wasn’t all wonderful for her. That level of hatred and racism had never been part of my life. I knew it was out there, and had even experienced it myself, but frankly, I had quickly ignored most of it as I had learned, early in life to focus on my goals. In a way that explained her fierce concern with racial politics, though in contrast, a lot of her friends were white people with whom she worked and socialized.
“So how did you and Charles Adams meet?”
“We met at the skating rink at the community center in Cloverdale…It was the worse day of my life. I should not have messed with him… I should have gone to college. To this day I hate him.” She shook her head again in disgust, “I should have never fooled around
“Ouch” I thought. “That had been said with conviction.” More importantly, it was a
confession that needed to be out in the open. For all of my life she had
resisted allowing those sentiments to make it to the physical world. I guess
she always thought that she was protecting me and my sister, but I know I had resolved
that those were her feelings long ago. I had no problem with it. I just wanted
to have it out front so we all could deal with it. I wanted her to confront her
feelings because I had always believed that subconsciously those feelings were
being directed at me as his son.
She paused for a long while collecting her thoughts. “I’m pretty sure that it was the drugs and the alcohol that made him crazy” she continued.
“Eureka” I screamed in my mind. That certainly would explain the over-reaction I get every time I have a beer. I guess had she admitted that earlier in my life, no beer would have ever been necessary. Or at least it would not have been necessary out of youthful
defiance. Her reactions weren’t just crazy. Whether I knew it at the time, or not, she did have reasons for her reactions.