Saturday, March 31, 2012

Surveillance: Party Lines and Water Glasses

At the risk of sounding like some troglodyte, I'm going to start this post with the reminder that when we were growing up in the 1950s/60s, phones were black devices that sat on hallway tables and each house had only one; TVs showed images in black and white, we had 3-5 channels, and each house had only 1 (usually located in the "parlor" -- living room was a term coined later); and people talked to each other face-to-face, usually across a cup of coffee or tea, to catch up on what had happened that day.  Our "entertainment" was simple and wholesome, for the most part, but when the gossip got "hot," the only way others found out was the beat of the tom-tom -- that sharing of info that usually happened in kitchens or back porches, transmitted by women who wore aprons to cook dinner and who wrapped their hair in bristly pink rollers every night before they went to bed.  Those women were our mothers.

It is only now that I look back to the projects where I grew up that I realize just how "entertaining" the stories of other people's family business was to my mother and her sisters (my aunts).  Though they usually shoo'd us out of the room as they stirred sugar into their tea and shared shortbread cookies, many times I chanced punishment and sat behind the kitchen door, holding my breath, to hear the latest gossip.  But sometimes I was lucky and the gossip happened right in front of me.  Such was the case with what transpired with the family who lived next door to us.

Though I don't remember their names, I do remember the faces of the female members of the family whose voices traveled through the paper-thin walls that separated our apartments.  The mother:  thin, hollow dark circles under her eyes, black straight hair to her shoulders, a frightened grimace that stretched her mouth every time she tried to smile (which wasn't often).  She wore gray or light blue shirtdresses, never shorts or peddle-pushers like the other women in the neighborhood.  Most of the time, she ventured outside her apartment only to hang her wet clothes on the clotheslines strung down the middle of the center of the projects. And when she did go out, she didn't talk to anyone, except my mother, and only occasionally.

The two daughters resembled their mother so closely that they could have been miniature versions of her.  The older one, only a year or two younger than I, had large brown eyes, the kind you see on an animal ready to be slaughtered.  The younger one, probably a year or two younger than my sister, tended to laugh a bit more often than her sister or her mother, as if she had no clue what her life would be like a few years later.  I think back now and wonder whether I might have noticed bruises on either of them, but at that point in time, it was normal for kids to be regularly spanked so I probably wouldn't have thought it was unusual.  I had bruises myself from time to time.

I mention the bruises because it was the mother who sported black eyes so often that there would be weeks she didn't come out of the house and my mother would hang her clothes out for her or offer to cook something for dinner.  The stories surrounding what happened to our neighbor brought the afternoon tea/gossip to a hush.  I think everyone in the neighborhood knew something horrible happened in the apartment next door to us, but no one ever said anything, until that night.

The three of us kids shared a bedroom on the second floor of our apartment and the staircase downstairs acted as our "buffer wall," but there were evenings that even that dead space couldn't stop the screams and thuds coming from the apartment next door.  On one of those nights when the noises woke me up, I padded into the hallway.  When I reached the top of the stairs, the sounds of a woman screaming and crying were so clear, she could have been downstairs.  Rubbing my eyes, I started downstairs, and I saw my parents crouched at the bottom of the stairs, heads together, talking so animatedly between them that they didn't notice me.  It wasn't until I was within a step of them that I noticed my mother holding one of our juice glasses to the wall and pressing her ear against it.  She saw me in that instant, held up a hand to indicate I shouldn't speak, and said quietly to my father, "Don, we need to call the police.  He's going to kill her tonight."

They argued for a few moments.  My father didn't want to get involved.  My mother thought they didn't have a choice.  Each of them concerned that if they stepped in, either they would have to take care of the woman or, on the other hand, the man might unload his anger on them rather than on his own family.

I think of how long the argument ensued now and how I ended up in that woman's same predicament many years later, and I wonder why my parents waited so long to offer that poor woman the help and safety she needed.  But that was another time, a time when men had the "right" to "punish" their wives and children without interference from others.  It breaks my heart that the cries of our neighbor went unheard until that night when my mother finally won the argument and made the call to the police.  Ironically, our phone was a party line and my father had to interrupt the people we shared the phone with in order to make the call to the police.  That is another story, but finally, he was able to dial out and within moments, the sirens and blue lights filled our neighborhood.

The next day, the projects erupted with the story of how the father had been dragged away in handcuffs that night, about how bloody and beaten the mother had been, and about the silent children who clung to their mother as she was taken to the hospital, about the children who had no other family members to take care of them, about the children who were so bruised along their backbones and legs that their skin was no longer white.

The father never came back to the neighborhood.  I'm unsure to this day whether he was simply thrown in jail or whether he chose to desert his family.  But I do remember that the mother started coming to our kitchen to share tea and cookies with my mother after the bruises healed and about how she started smiling and laughing before she and her two girls finally had to move.

Perhaps we have more privacy now, but I wonder if it's worth it.  I wonder if all of our societal "party lines and water glasses" make for our global neighborhoods now, but if someone hears us crying on the other side of the wall, are they still likely to pick up that phone to save us, or would they be more inclined to switch the channel or to send another message on Facebook before taking the step and the chance of endangering their own safety to intrude on our family life and speak about what is right.

Though my mother never had a license to drive and never worked, though she never went to college and often didn't go out of the house for weeks on end, she knew that a husband didn't beat those he loved and she knew how to fight for what was right and how to reach out to those in danger.  There aren't many times I can remember that have made me more proud of my mother than the night she tore the screen off the tragedy that almost happened in the apartment next door to us, and I think if that woman and her children are still alive, they probably sent up more than one "thank you" to my mother for the gift of life and independence she gave them.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Race in the Sixties: Confusion and Conviction

During our playtime in the backyard on hot summer afternoon  my friend Debbie and I decided we needed to be the same.  We stripped all our clothes off, lay down on the grass and proceeded to see whether I could tan as darkly as she had.  We were four, and we had absolutely no clue that she was African-American and I was Caucasian.  Hell, we couldn't even pronounce those words!  All we had realized was that our skin color was different, even though WE were the same inside.  We played the same games, we had the same rules in our families ("come home for lunch," "no going outside after dark," "no talking back to Mom/Dad"), and we both knew that we'd be going to school next year at the Hamilton grammar school.  What we didn't realize was that all the adults knew why we were different . . . and neither one of our mothers was particularly thrilled that our naked young bodies were on display for the world to see.  We had no clue that "bad men" might think dirty thoughts when looking at us, and we certainly had no clue that adults who looked like us might not like each other.  We liked each other, and that was all that mattered.

Both our mothers punished us that day.  Mine made me sit in my bedroom with my clothes still off, waiting for my father to come home to give me a spanking.  I can still remember looking out the bedroom window toward where my father would park his car, and feeling incredibly humiliated.  Ironically, my father never came in my bedroom to give me a spanking, and I suspect that he and my mother disagreed on my punishment.  That was fine with me.  I had suffered enough.

What they didn't realize was that they had taught me a lesson that went much deeper than "don't go outside naked."  They had taught me about the difference in race, and it pissed me off.

Debbie moved shortly after that.  I have no idea why, and I never saw her again, but when I got to school the following year, there were other girls and boys whose skin looked like hers, and I wanted to be friends with them.  My mother swore throughout my childhood and young adult days that I was a rebel from the very beginning, but if embracing different races and cultures and being curious about other people made me a rebel, so be it.  I was and am fine with that.  I believe my life has been a lot richer due to my interest in other people than it would have been if that first "lesson" had turned me into a person who saw the world in only one color.

When we moved to the projects shortly after that time, there were few Black families who lived there, but the family who lived across the street from us (the Johnsons) was a family I both respected and admired.  Their mother, a tall and stoic woman, raised her two boys much more strictly than any other mother on our block.  She took no guff whatsoever.  That was abundantly clear.  And their father, a little more friendly than she was, took a back seat to her.  But I spent most of my time watching the two boys.  They were young teenagers then, addicted to basketball and popular among their circle of friends.  And incredibly handsome.  I fantasized being their age and going on a date with one of them, though it had by that time become clear that white girls didn't date Black boys.  So what?, I used to think.

My parents had always told me when I asked about my own race that I was "Heinz 57" -- a little of this, a little of that.  "Am I Chinese?" I would ask, and my mother would nod and smile.  "Am I French?"  Another nod and smile.  "Irish?"  Yup.  "African?"  Absolutely.  "A little of this and a little of that," she would repeat.  "Heinz 57."  So, it wouldn't make a difference who I dated, right?  My mother would reply that she would love any little baby that came from whatever relationships I had.  Perfect.

Throughout my school years, I had friends of all races (though I must admit there were very few Asians in our neighborhood, so I can honestly say I didn't become friends with anyone from an Asian country until I went to college).  Little did I realize during that time period that my own family was a minority.  There weren't too many families in the Italian-Irish area where we lived whose ancestors came from Sweden.  When I returned to Everett for my 40th high school reunion, I realized that most everyone in my graduating class had an Italian or Irish last name.  And though I had what I thought were lots of African-American friends, they were in the minority, too.

By the time I reached high school, I understood all too clearly that the division between the races was an ugly one, and again, I felt that anger rise in me.  JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. were angry too.  They worked on two different sides of the social spectrum, yet I respected both of them for what they did, and still, to this day, feel they are my heroes.  They validated the questions I had:  Who had the right to tell someone else they weren't good enough?  When would people come to the conclusion that everyone had the same needs in life -- the need to be loved, to be part of a family, to be respected?  Had someone discovered a line in the Bible that said one race was better than the other?  I had taught enough Sunday School classes to realize that the Bible said just the opposite.  I had also come to realize that the Bible said not to kill, thus the war the U.S. was embroiled in also made absolutely no sense.  That rebellious nature my mother had identified early in my life was what I came to define as self-righteousness.  There were certain things that were just plain wrong.  Prejudice was one of them.

Other friends came into my life then.  And sometimes the friendships required a lot of work, especially when Black girls started realizing that they were being treated unfairly by people who looked like me.  It broke my heart when one of my friends turned against me just because of the color of MY skin.  I knew why she had done it, but logically, I had thought she knew ME for who I am instead of the color of my skin.  That was when I realized that my anger was one millimeter of what she felt.

And there was another boy, a senior in high school when I was a sophomore.  I really, really liked him, and I would have been quite happy if he had the freedom to ask me out.  But I was a sophomore, and he was a senior, he was Black, I was white, and he was a star athlete.  There were many reasons why that relationship would never exist.  I surreptitiously watched him with my girlfriends' brothers, seeing the natural affiliation of athletes (no matter the color of their skin), and I knew that he was not only athletic but also smart, and could tell that he was truly kind, as well.  When I shared my crush on him with one of my friends, she looked at me as if I'd truly lost my last marble.  "You could never go out with him," she exclaimed.  "Eeewwwww."  When I asked why, she stuttered, then said, "He's a senior!"  What was unsaid was profound.

Since that time, I've broken that dating "rule" many times over, yet I've discovered that it is still something with which the majority of people don't agree.  Mixed couples still aren't "accepted" in most circles, but dating others outside my race has enriched my life in many ways, and I won't stop.

Because of what I learned in those early years and the anger I felt about it, I marched with those who protested against the division in race, starting in high school and continuing throughout my life.  In fact, just recently, I made a trip to the Mississippi Delta for a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Civil Rights.  It dawned on me during that trip that my upbringing in New England never prepared me for what the rest of the United States experienced.  I think I'm thankful for that. I'm also thankful that my New England "toughness" gave me the freedom to say how I felt about the ways in which people have treated others unfairly.  And I'll always be thankful to my mother for giving me the freedom to be "Heinz 57."