It was the beginning of the 1960’s.
President Kennedy was talking about going to the moon. And the first communications satellite had been sent up. Meanwhile, the realities on the ground were not so hopeful.
Khrushchev, the leader of the USSR, was talking about extending communism and threatening to blow up the U.S. There was a very “us versus them” feeling in the country and it existed not only with the USSR, but also between the races and the sexes. There were Jim Crow laws, and passive protests, and full out race riots. Only about 30 percent of American wives worked outside of the home and many families considered it a waste of money to send a daughter to college.
In this world of the early 1960’s, Laura began her day in white suburbia pretty much like all the other white suburban housewives. She got her daughter off to school and her husband off to his job. Then she did some housework and dressed herself in the proper housewife attire of the day.
But after that, things weren’t as clear. She didn’t have any friends to share morning coffee with or meet for lunch. Though she attended church regularly, she didn’t belong to any social groups there. She was never involved in local paper drives or bake sales, and she avoided the PTA. She stayed almost entirely to herself, avoiding neighbors and letting the phone ring if someone tried to call her to invite her out shopping. She even dressed in the most neutral of colors as if she were always trying to blend into the background.
She was hiding from her past, you see. For in those days, nobody went to therapists or even talked lightheartedly about “shrinks.” Family secrets were kept secret, or simply ignored. So, Laura had no one to help her cope with her past. She had to keep it hidden and handle it in the best way that she knew how. The trouble was, though she could hide from the present by refusing to answer the phone, she couldn’t hide from her past. So it always came back to haunt her.
It would start with the scent of her grandfather’s cigar. Somehow it would waft into whatever room she was in, overpowering even breakfast and laundry smells. She knew it only existed in her imagination because he was long dead, but telling herself that wouldn’t make it go away. Before long she started to hear echoes of her own little girl whimpers. They would seem to come from the very walls of the old Victorian house that Laura now lived in with her daughter and husband. Those whimpers would make her gag with remembrance. That’s when she would reach for the tranquilizers the doctor had given her.
The doctor didn’t know about her past. Even doctors of that time tried to avoid talking of such things. But he knew she was “high strung.” So he kept her well stocked with pills to take whenever she felt excited or depressed. That is, until he was arrested for performing illegal abortions. The pills were addictive, but people weren’t as cautious about things like that back then. In Laura’s case, the pills were less dangerous than her memories. As the drugs took hold, the scent of her grandfather would fade and she could remember instead the nicer people who had populated her childhood in Tennessee.
First and foremost there was Carole, their colored maid. “Colored” was the polite term they used for African Americans in those days. Carole would come in every day, hardly ever taking a day off. She never said much. But she was always patient with young Laura and never scolded, not even when she got dirty while playing. Carole would just wash the little girl’s hands and tidy her dress before her grandmother saw her. Laura’s grandmother expected her to live up to the family’s ideal of an upper class Southern girl. She was supposed to be quiet and unassuming, with never a ruffle or banana curl out of place.
Laura’s grandmother expected Carole to follow certain ideals too, but it never seemed to bother Carole. No matter what Laura’s grandmother said, even if she said it very loud, Carole’s dark face would remain impassive. When the older woman’s tirade had finished Carole would only say, “Yes, Ma’am.” On the rare occasions that Laura’s grandfather spoke to Carole, she would nod her head and keep her eyes averted.
Looking back on it as an adult, Laura suspected that Carole knew what her grandfather was doing to her. And that she probably also knew her father had done the same thing before he gave up custody of her. “Not all mens are like your father and grandfather,” Carole would say to Laura when the child jumped at the sound of a man’s voice, or cringed with fear at a male neighbor’s polite salutation. Why would Carole have said that, Laura asked herself, unless she knew?
Since Laura was the only child and the only heir to the family name, she was kept apart from other youngsters. Her grandparents told her that someone of her class didn’t go to school with ordinary children. So they hired a private tutor. He was almost as afraid of Laura’s grandparents as Laura was. Besides not being allowed to go to school, the child wasn’t allowed to have pets because her grandmother said they were messy. Often after her tutor left for the day, there was only Carole for company. She would sit quietly nearby while her young charge read or played. Carole never read anything herself. But she liked it when Laura read aloud to her and she would often compliment the child on her inflections.
As far as Laura was concerned, Carole’s life ended and began at the doorway of her grandparent’s rambling old house with its musty furnishings. She had no idea if Carole was married or if she had any of her own children. Laura could have asked, of course, but she really didn’t want to know. She liked to pretend that she was Carole’s daughter. Knowing about Carole’s real life would have ruined the fantasy.
It was through Carole that Laura met the other two friendly people in her young life.
Mr. Mobley was a white man that everyone in town knew and tried to ignore, because if everyone ignored him he wasn’t really there. They ignored him as a courtesy to his family because everyone knew they tried to keep him inside under the care of some hired person. Unfortunately they didn’t have a lot of money to pay these caretakers, so the caretakers came and went very often. When a new one started work Mr. Mobley would inevitably get away at some point and wander through the town. It was at those times that the locals would ignore him. They knew he was harmless and would be brought back inside and away from their view soon enough.
Mr. Mobley was about Carole’s age, but he had the mind of a small child. His favorite thing was to gather flowers and give them to passersby. It didn’t matter if they were from other people’s gardens. He didn’t understand the concept of property and most times the neighbors bore his visits to their grounds without complaint. He thought all flowers were there to be enjoyed and from his point of view he was simply trying to share his enjoyment. He didn’t talk much. He usually just came up to you and held out a freshly picked flower, while smiling shyly.
“Say thank you,” Carole would urge Laura, if he should happen to try and give her a flower.
“Thank you,” Laura would say as mannerly as she knew how.
Mr. Mobley would hunch over, partially hiding his face in embarrassment and say, “You’re welcome.”
Laura wasn’t afraid of Mr. Mobley like she was of most men. Despite his real age, he always seemed younger than she was. Her grandmother didn’t like her talking to him. But Carole used these meetings as an opportunity to teach Laura to respect those with handicaps. In turn, Laura had tried to teach that same lesson to her own daughter.
Laura’s third friend back then talked enough to make up for the quietness of the other two. It was Grandma. Everyone called her that. She was an ancient African American woman who could have been anywhere from eighty to a hundred. But she still possessed a sharp mind and tongue.
Carole would bring Laura to Grandma’s one room house whenever she needed to run errands. The old woman would sit for hours telling the little white girl stories from her past. She would question Laura on her school work too and sometimes ask about her parents and grandparents.
Grandma never showed the same deference to Laura’s family that most folks did. Most of the local white folk almost bowed to Laura’s grandparents when they saw them. Even when her grandparents weren’t around, these white folks would speak of them in hushed respectful tones as if they could hear and see them by some kind magic. Those of darker skin avoided her grandparents whenever possible and didn’t speak of them at all if they could help it, at least not around Laura.
Grandma, however, talked freely about them. And it was clear from her tone that she had a very low opinion of them. One day, when Laura happened to be walking to town with Grandma and Carole, her grandfather passed them on the street. He didn’t acknowledge them and Grandma gave him a stone cold look that said more than her sharp tongue ever could. Had Grandma known what her father and grandfather had done to her? Or maybe Grandma’s look had more to do with how her grandparents treated other people. Laura would never know.
But when she sat in one of Grandma’s two straight backed wooden chairs and listened to the old woman talk, everything at home seemed far away. At Grandma’s house it was easy to pretend that she was Carole’s daughter and that Grandma was her grandmother. The fact that their skin colors didn’t match never seemed to matter. Laura thought Grandma and Carole were more like real family should be. In Grandma’s cabin, she got comforting hugs and the closest thing to love that she ever had back then.
But of course that had all been long ago. The tranquilizers the doctor gave her only made it easier for Laura to pretend that she was back there at Grandma’s. In the real world of the 1960’s Laura had a husband and a daughter of her own. But she didn’t take part in that real world much. When her daughter came home from school, she often found Laura sitting warm and safe in her memories of Grandma’s watery tea and scratched floors. Generally, her daughter would leave Laura to her dreams and go off to watch television. But one day Laura’s daughter was too excited to leave her to herself.
“Guess what?” her daughter asked eagerly.
“Hmm?” Laura asked, pulling reluctantly out of her dream.
“Our class is doing a song in the bazaar.”
“The church bazaar?”
Laura’s daughter went to a private school attached to a church. Every year they did a special fund raiser. Mostly it was just gambling with a bake sale attached. But in order to encourage attendance, they put on a mini-show at the same time with the school’s children performing little numbers. They knew that lots of parents and fond relatives would turn out to see the children sing and dance. And that afterward they would probably gamble or buy something. Laura’s daughter was in the first grade at that time and this was to be her first show. It was all brand new and thrilling to her.
“That’s nice,” Laura said. She didn’t think to ask what song they were doing. She assumed it was some sort of child’s song, maybe from the Mickey Mouse Club.
“I’m going to need a costume,” her daughter rattled on. “A bright dress, maybe in polka dots. Teacher said we should put water in powdered chocolate and smear it all over our faces. We’re supposed to look like colored people. The girls need big bright ribbons in their hair too.”
“Say that again,” Laura said.
“We’re supposed to take powered chocolate and make our faces all dark and wear bright clothes.”
“They’re putting on…a minstrel show?” Laura asked, her eyes trying hard to focus.
Laura’s daughter had no idea what that was and she didn’t ask because her favorite television show was coming on just then. Before Laura could get any more out of her, she was on her way into the livingroom.
A minstrel show, Laura thought to herself. They weren’t unheard of in the early 1960’s, though they faded out soon after as the civil rights struggle heated up. Minstrel shows began before the Civil War, with white people in darkened faces depicting African Americans in less than flattering ways. After the Civil War, African Americans began performing in minstrels shows as well. And they also performed in black face, as the format demanded. Some would call minstrel shows an American art form because it gave birth to certain types of American music. Others would call it insultingly racist. Either way, Laura couldn’t help but imagine Grandma looking at her with disapproval at the thought of her daughter appearing in one.
That night after a meal of TV dinners, Laura sat alone in the kitchen as she always did. She was starting on her second shot of rye whiskey by then, her mind flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Her daughter was watching sitcoms. Her husband hadn’t come home yet and she didn’t expect him till very late. Sometimes she resented his staying out like that. But most times she didn’t mind it because it meant she didn’t have to deal with the discomforts of intimacy. Being asleep when he came home gave them both an out. It also gave her plenty of freedom to drink.
“Give thanks to God that He made you white!” Laura remembered a preacher from her childhood thundering from the pulpit.
But Laura hadn’t been able to do that. She was always too busy wishing that Carole and Grandma were her real family. Now it was many years later and she was living up North. But evidently things hadn’t changed all that much. Her daughter was living in an all white town, going to an all white school, with all white teachers, putting on a minstrel show. What would Carole and Grandma say to that?
The next morning Laura called the school and asked to speak to her daughter’s teacher. She’d told her husband about the minstrel show at breakfast, but he hadn’t wanted to get involved. She knew he wouldn’t. He didn’t like confrontations. So it was up to Laura. She asked her daughter’s teacher if it was true her class was putting on a minstrel show at the church bazaar.
“Not a whole show,” the young white woman said. “Just one number.”
“Well, my daughter won’t be taking part in it. It’s an insult to black people.”
“This is supposed to be a religious institution. I can’t believe you’d teach something like this to children.”
“It’s a perfectly respectable form of entertainment.”
“No it’s not. It’s an insult. And I won’t let my daughter take part.”
“Very well,” the teacher said, controlling her anger. She thought the number had been a brilliant idea. The principal had too. And no other parents had called to complain. How could anyone see such a happy song as an insult? She’d heard that strange things went on at Laura’s house. This only proved it. “Your daughter will have to sit in on rehearsals because I can’t leave her alone in the classroom. But she’ll be excused from the actual performance. Now, I’ve got to get back to my class.”
Laura’s daughter wasn’t at all happy when she got home from school that day. The teacher had told her she wouldn’t be able to take part in the show and she didn’t understand why. All the other kids thought it was weird and their parents in turn probably did too. The little girl cried and screamed at her mother and accused her of being the meanest mother in all the world. She didn’t know that one day she would be proud of her mother for taking this stand. It was one of the few times in her life that Laura had been brave.
“It’s an insult to black people,” Laura said again.
But it was more than that. In Laura’s mind it was the only way she knew to say thank you to Carole and Grandma. They had shown her love when no one else would. She owed them this much, even though it wasn’t much in the scheme of things and they would never know about it.
Copyright 2009 by Mary Anne Gruen