Original autographed photo of the singer Zarah Leander

Image

Original autographed photo of the singer Zarah Leander

Frau Watts as I called her, or Barbara Watts as she called herself in the US, or Hilde Watts as was her real name, was the wonderful woman who taught me German and so much more. She was like a grandmother to me. We used to listen to her favorite singer Zarah Leander together. I didn´t realize just how gutsy she was until I saw a documentary about the Austrian and German women who fell in love with and married American officers and GIs after WWII here on German TV. They were highly stigmatized and seen as traitors and sluts by most Austrians and Germans. Philipp Watts from North Carolina was her true love, so she married him. She met her dashing young officer at the Opera one night in Vienna and eventually moved with him to the US; living her entire life in another and very new culture. I loved her so much and listening to Zarah Leander reminds me of her. My friend Miriam found this original autographed photo of Zarah Leander in an attic here, put it in a pretty frame and gave it to me for my birthday. She is such a dear, thoughtful friend.

Advertisements

Lady L and Mrs. T

Standard

This photo was probably taken when my Nan was in her 20´s or early 30´s. So, 1940´s or early 50´s.

As she was later analyzing why being made fun of by a 17-year-old in a public high school in Germany for growing up in a predominately African-American or black neighborhood in the US as a white girl had pushed all of her psychological buttons, she began to contemplate the very strong and lasting effect her unique childhood had had on her. The whole incident had started because a boy from Kenya, Bakari, the only boy of African descent at the entire school, had started to violently act out in response to the racist taunts he was forced to endure due to the ignorance and just plain meanness of many of his fellow students. At a parent-teacher conference, Jennifer, or Frau Taylor as she was universally known as at the small town, German school, had attempted to comfort Bakari and his father by telling them that she knew what it was like to be ostracized based on the color of your skin. Of course, she could never begin to imagine the struggles of Africans or African-Americans, but she at least had an inkling of what it might sometimes feel like to be so irrationally excluded based on the quantity of melanin in your skin. She knew what it was like to be excluded from a game of kickball or not invited to a close friend’s birthday party, because she would have been the only white kid playing or the only white kid there. She tried to assure Bakari that he was strong and the better person; and, in short, to not let the bastards get him down! Bakari stopped acting out at school in the weeks and months after the conference, but Frau Taylor had given the gossipmongers of the school a little too much to work with.

As an adult, she had very little contact with her childhood Hope Valley North neighborhood friends and it saddened her. She had always been over aware of race, racism  and race relations. She would sometimes think to herself that it was one of the reasons she enjoyed living outside of the US. One example was the fact that she would sometimes unconsciously call her female friends in Germany “girl” when talking to them in English, but would have stopped herself instantly if she had done so in the US, for fear of sounding like she thought she were black. She also had a pretty shirt with an African inspired print pattern, which looked quite good on her and that she only felt comfortable wearing outside of the US. She would never wear it in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina for fear of receiving similar looks to the one the African-American woman assisting her at the AAA office had given her the one time she had worn it in her hometown. It often made her sad when she was home visiting and realized she was modifying her behavior in certain situations for fear of appearing clueless, racist, or insensitive or in the language of her youth, she feared being seen as a “stupid white girl” in the eyes of African-Americans.

She had always wanted to write about her childhood experiences, but felt uncomfortable even attempting it. She imagined people thinking or saying, “Just who does she think she is? or “Oh, cry me a river, poor little white girl grew up in a black neighborhood.” The last time she was home, she had seen a very cute little girl, who happened to be African-American, with her mother while she was grocery shopping. She realized she would never say to the mother, “Oh, you have such a cute little girl”, which she might have if the mother had been white. Even if the little girl had been biracial or an adopted African-American child, as long as the mother were white, she would feel comfortable saying something. Otherwise,  she would instantly think of the scene from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which the white mayor’s wife remarks on who cute and well cared for Sofia’s children are and asks Sofia if she wants to be her maid. Sofia later is beaten and imprisoned for having refused the mayor’s wife with the words, “Hell no”. Heather shied away from doing or saying anything which could possibly bring painful racial memories to the surface for African-Americans when she was home.

In 2006, she went to see the musical The Color Purple  on Broadway with a female friend who was visiting from Japan. Sachiko spoke only basic English and it was difficult for her to follow the plot. As she explained the plot and background of the story to her during intermission, she noticed the amused or puzzled looks on the faces of African-American women who turned around in their seats to see the white woman, who apparently knew the plot of The Color Purple by heart, attempting to explain the purpose and perspective of a novel and play about African-American women’s struggles for identity, love and respect in the American South to a Japanese woman. Later, in the line at the restroom, she encountered a middle-aged, white Midwestern woman who whispered to her in an embarrassed tone, “Do you understand a word they are saying during the play because I don’t?” She remembered telling her that she understood every word and realizing that she did have a rare depth of knowledge of African-American culture for a white woman.

At age 16, she had worked as a cashier at the local Harris Teeter grocery store to save money for a high school exchange year in Germany. One day Lita’s mother came through her line. She was very happy to see Mrs. Rodriguez and it struck her that it had been years since she had seen Lita. She had lived up the street from Lita from the beginning of 3rd grade to the end of the 7th. During that time she became a fixture at Lita’s family’s house and it was still a wonder to her how kind and welcoming her mother had always been to her. After all, she was the shy, bookish, slightly chubby little white girl from up the street. Jennifer’s own mother had drilled into her how important it was to be polite and respectful to teachers, other children’s parents and adult authority figures, in general. She had adored and nearly worshipped her mother as a child, basking in the warmth of her approval and easily moved to tears if she did anything which caused a cloud of embarrassment, anger or disappointment to temporarily block those rays of love and approval. So, perhaps it was her eager politeness and helpfulness which had won Lita’s mother over. Or perhaps it was the fact that her own husband, nicknamed “Lucky” Rodriguez, was Puerto Rican and She was African-American. Heather would later in life experience first hand that it wasn’t easy being an interracial couple in the American South.

Lita’s house was a treasure trove of difference for Jennifer. She could still see her mother’s dressing table before her and she still saw it from the perspective of a child, who can just see over the rim. Her memories of Mrs. Rodriguez´s dressing table were from furtive, rushed glances through the bedroom doorway or from when Lita and she snuck into her mother’s room one day after school before her parents had gotten home from work. She dared not touch anything because they really weren’t allowed in her mother’s room when she wasn’t there. The dressing table’s surface was covered with such a huge variety of hair creams, perfumes, lotions, make-up and bottles which contained products she didn’t even really know enough about to be able to identify.

Lita was beautiful. She had given Jennifer her first lesson on the very potent effect beauty has on humans. Lita was universally popular and Jennifer never once witnessed her being made fun of by the other children in the neighborhood for being biracial. For Lita had “good hair”, she patiently explained to Jennifer one day. She was rightfully proud of her black, curly, shiny, thick hair which came down past her shoulders. To help Jennifer better understand, she gave her an example. Jessica, a biracial little girl who also lived in the neighborhood and had a German mother and an African-American father, most definitely did not have “good hair”. Jessica’s hair was brittle and very tightly curled. It was a light, lack luster brown. She was chubbier than Jennifer and, of course, than Lita and was very “light-skinned”. The day Jennifer had heard an African-American boy on the school bus chanting at poor Jessica, ” Your daddy’s black and your mama’s white. No wonder you didn’t turn out right.” was still very much alive in her memory. Soon thereafter, Jessica would later project her own insecurities onto Jennifer by laughing and declaring to Lita that, “Jennifer is real light-skinned”.

Jennifer remembered what an outsider she felt like when Jessica said this. She wanted so very much to be black. Lita would describe to her how much she loved to go to the hair salon with her mother and how proud her mother’s gaze on her would become as the other women praised Lita’s good hair and exclaimed how lucky she was to have such a blessed daughter. Jennifer also had curly, thick hair, which was a reddish-blondish brown and for which she was also lavishly complimented on when her mother took her to a very different, mostly white, hair salon. The two institutions which seemed to be most stubbornly racially divided in her hometown were the women’s hair salons or men’s barber shop and the churches.

“My hair would be good if I were like Lita”, she thought to herself and imagined herself with long, thin, tawny-colored limbs that would not sunburn so badly, wishing the freckles which covered almost her entire body forever gone.

Lita was, for lack of a better word, cool. She had the Michael Jackson Thriller poster on her bedroom wall and had come up with her very own rapper name, Lady L. She knew all the best hand games with all the most forbidden lyrics, like Rockin’ Robin and Miss Lucy. Her big brother, who would reluctantly take Jennifer along with Lita in his car to the local swimming pool, as she was very bad for his image, was the president of the student council and the prom king at the local historically black high school, Hillside, Lita would later choose to attend. Marcus was also an amateur rapper who owned his own turn table. His bedroom shelves were filled with the verbal boastings and musings of the likes of The Fat BoysRun DMC, Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Lita and Jennifer would sneek into his bedroom when he wasn’t there and gaze in awe at this forbidden domain. Lita would transform into Lady L in front of the turn table and muster up the courage for a few fledgling attempts at rapping and beat boxing.

Lita must not have felt very comfortable at Jennifer’s house because she never stayed for long. Jennifer’s family genuinely liked Lita and her mother, encouraging the friendship, but Lita never lingered. She would come to the door and ask if Jennifer could come out and play and wait for her on the front porch unless bid inside insistently by Jennifer’s mother. It might have also had something to do with the fact that Jennifer’s two younger identical twin sisters pretty much took over the house from the day of their birth when Jennifer was nine. This also attributed to Jennifer’s tendency to see Lita’s house as a much needed refuge.

Besides, where else could she hear Lita and Mrs. Rodriguez practicing gospel songs at the organ in the family living room for Sunday’s upcoming service or Mr. Rodriguez reminiscing with his old band mates about their good times in the 60’s and singing old hits like Sixty Minute Man by The Dominoes? The future Mrs. Rodriguez had been in the audience one night at one of their shows and the rest, as they say, was history. Jennifer and Lita would sit on the stairs which led to the upstairs den and sway to the vibrating, deep voices of the band members singing their old stand-bys in complex harmonies. In her adult life, Jennifer could be transported right back to that stairwell, feeling the shaggy carpet rubbing against her calves, involuntarily bobbing her head and tapping her feet when she listened to Sixty Minute Man. She sometimes wondered if Lita could as well, and if Lita’s memory of the song included her, too.

When Jennifer tried to imagine Lita’s childhood perspective, her childhood efforts to include Lita in her broader life must have been nothing short of traumatic. There was the one time that Jennifer’s very Southern and unfortunately very racist, grandmother was down from Virginia for a visit. When Lita came to the front door asking for Jennifer, Nan, as she was called by all her grandbabies, answered the door and announced in the loud voice that, ” a little colored girl is here to play with Jenny!”. Or there was the time that Jennifer attempted to have a sleep over which integrated all of her friends. Lita was the only African-American girl at the sleep over. She was heroic thorough out, but the horrified, pursed face of one of the white mothers when she picked her daughter up in a black neighborhood and laid eyes on Lita must have been a bit much to bear. Or there was the time that Jennifer’s father insensitively took both Lita and Jennifer out in the country to a very white, very Southern barbeque given by some older and very rural work colleagues. The image of Lita sitting uncomfortably on her chair across from an older, very Southern lady of the house who perused her as if she were the latest specimen at the zoo, offering her a very white Cabbage Patch doll to play with, was forever burned in Jennifer’s memory.

At the the end of 6th grade both girls tried out to be cheerleaders at the local, predominately white junior high school. They had practiced jumps, cartwheels, round-offs and cheers for weeks in preparation for the try outs. Jennifer was clumsy at best and was not surprised she had not been chosen. She had done all the practicing mostly to support and please Lita, anyway. But, Lita was spot on. Jennifer was so surprised when Lita was not selected for the squad and remembers the look of disappointment and anger in Lita´s face on the way home in the car. Years later, she would remember that look and would realize that that was the moment Lita decided to go to predominately African-American schools. Lita chose to go where she was celebrated, not just tolerated.

When at age thirteen, Lita failed to invite Jennifer to her birthday party she was devastated. But, in retrospect, Jennifer now thought, maybe Lita had just been trying to spare her the same ordeal she herself had been through so often at the hands of Jennifer’s good intentions. Jennifer would always remember it like it had happened last Tuesday. She was at Lita’s house as usual after school one day. Mrs. Rodriguez came home from work and assuming that Jennifer was invited to Lita’s upcoming thirteenth birthday party, started to discuss the party plans as she laid her purse down on the dining room table. Lita’s face fell and she rushed out of the room, banging the door to her room shut. Mrs. Rodriguez, gave Jennifer a worried look and went into the hallway, attempting to carry on a conversation with Lita through the shut door. “Why don’t you want Jennifer to come to your party?” she asked. Lita replied in the tortured, impatient voice of an about to be teenager, “Cause she’ll be the only white kid there!” But, she is one of the few of your friends I really like. You know I don’t approve of all of the kids you’re hanging around with these days!”, Mrs. Rodriguez countered. But Lita just announced in an exasperated voice that her mother didn’t understand and Jennifer excused herself, saying she had to go home. She slowly, soloumnly made her way up the street to her house and back to mainstream America. For as much as Lita’s rejection had hurt her, she could still turn on the TV and know it was OK, even good, to be white. Lady L didn´t have that luxury.

Her summers with her beloved, but tragically racist grandmother had confused her still. Nan praised her for being lily white and having hair the color of a ripe wheat field in the late summer sun. She told Jennifer that her freckles were beauty marks and loved looking into her blue-green eyes, seeing herself reflected there. Jennifer was the “spittin'” image of her grandmother with the personality of her great grandmother, Mama T.  Nan was the daughter of a poor, hillbilly tobacco farmer from the mountains of Virginia and Mama T was of the Gastonia, North Carolina Fayssouxs, descended from old French Huguenot Southern elites in Charleston, South Carolina. Her great, great grandfather had been Dr. Peter Fayssoux, a physician and wealthy rice plantation owner, who had been the Surgeon General for South Carolina during the American Revolution. She had married well beneath her for love, running away with a dashing and decade older railroad man in a fit of passion at the tender age of 15. Nan’s family was even further beneath Mama T’s origins; and Nan had been so surprised that Mama T accepted her so wholeheartedly into the family when she married Jennifer’s grandfather, that she became fiercely loyal to her mother-in-law. They remained bonded and quite the informidable duo until Mama T’s death at age 94. The male members of the family didn’t stand a chance against their combined forces. You were almost always going to do as they wished; you just didn’t know it yet.

On a good day Mama T was confident and refined, with a high class Scarlett O’Hara type Southern accent in which she dropped all of her r’s. She had a biting, sarcasitic sense of humor, was highly intelligent, and had long since mastered the fine art of manipulation to get what she wanted. On a bad day, Mama T fell victim to a family history of depression that well pre-dated the war referred to as the Civil War or the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on your perspective. The darkness would descend upon her and no matter how hard she tried to resist it, to release herself from its hold on her, its seducing oblivion, she could not.

Nan, in contrast, was about as subtle as a blow to the head, possessed a profound kind of common sense, was physically strong, emotionally generous, determined, stubborn, and visceral. She spoke with a lower class heavily “r”ed mountain twang, and was never depressed a day in her life. She possessed the strength to not only turn Mama T’s ideas and desires into realities, but to keep the intrusive outside world at bay. Nan knew how to protect you on the bad days.

Nan and Mama T saw so much of themselves in Jennifer and wanted her to suffer less than they had. Later, when Jennifer was older, and after a heated phone conversation in which Nan had yelled at her through the receiver about how incredibly stupid and unacceptable she found it that she was in an interracial relationship, Nan tearfully pleaded with her, saying, “Don’t you see that I am jus’ tryin’ to protect you, Shug? I have always jus’ been tryin’ to protect you!”

If there is one thing Jennifer always regretted, it was the years of very infrequent contact she had with her Nan in her young adult life. She just couldn’t accept Nan’s blatant racism and chose to distance herself from her. Only in her early 30’s could she just accept Nan for a woman who had grown up in a very different era and who would always have unrelenting limitations. For no one on this earth loved Jennifer as ferociously as Nan, except for Jennifer’s own mother who expressed her love in a much quieter, less visceral way. So, Jennifer sought Nan out after she turned thirty; visiting her as often as she possibly could, calling her as often as she could, expressing her love and gratitude towards her openly.

There must have been something about that birthday that matured her and sobered her a little. She would let herself slip into Nan’s backwoods Southern accent when talking to her and assure her by starting the conversation with a long drawled out, “Hey Nan!” and ending it with words like, ” I luv you, Nan, I miss you, I am doin’ good, don’t you worry. I could sure use one of your corn cakes or some of Mama T’s honey dew, though. I miss the way you used to let me sit on your lap and how you would run your fingers through my hair. I loved how you would give me sweetened whiskey when I had cramps or ask me to sing Amazing Grace for you and tell me what a purty voice I had. I remember all the stories you ever told me about the mountains and running that farm when you were still just a teenager. I remember everything. I remember you telling me that if I prayed to the Lord for strength when I was low, that he would give it to me. I remember you telling me that this stubborn gut belief was the only thing that got you through the early death of your own mother. I will try to not be so disappointed by life. I will try to be strong like you, Nan. Bye, Nan.” Jennifer would bask in the obvious pleasure in Nan’s voice when she would say her name and tell her she loved her.

When Jennifer was 35, Nan died of kidney failure after a mulish, stubbornly cheerful endurance of dialysis treatments for years on end, shortly before her 88th birthday. As karma or as Nan referred to it, “the universal law of what comes around goes around,” would have it, Nan’s doctor for the last years of her life was an African-American nephrologist. Jennifer’s aunt would tell her that she would come into Nan’s hospital room to witness them laughing together and Dr. Ellison said he always looked forwarded to seeing Mrs. T because she never complained and even tried to cheer the other patients up as they were going through the painful process of dialysis treatment. For ironically enough, when Nan had finally been confronted with interacting with an African-American man on a regular basis, her only reaction was to sing his praises every chance she got.

He returned the favor when he signed her memorial guest book, writing,”Mrs. T was a great person whom I had the pleasure of taking care of 3 times a week. She will be missed as she touched my life in joy and laughter.”

Even Jennifer’s now mellowed and repentant grandfather would loudly announce to Dr. Ellison every chance he got that he had, “voted for that there O’Bonner,” meaning President Obama, of course. Jennifer cringed when her aunt told her this story, but was so pleased that Hell had indeed frozen over in July and that her grandfather was at least making an effort. Jennifer thought to herself that this may have had something to do with Nan’s new found habit of annoucing, “Arthur, you are a goin’ to meet your maker purty soon now, and I sure have been good to you. So, you had better be sweet to me and everybody else from here on out!”

Jennifer gave the eulogy at Nan’s funeral, which had the congregation laughing through their tears and singing Amazing Grace and Down in the River to Pray, having flown home from Barcelona, Spain. She had tried to make it back to Virginia in time to say good-bye to her Nan in person, had missed the chance by a day. She remembered getting the news in an e-mail from her aunt that Nan wouldn’t make it much longer and having gone to an Internet cafe to make the call to Nan’s hospital room. She sat in a booth, mere meters from where the waves of the Mediterranean were lapping on the shore, in a sparkling city too far away. Nan was heavily drugged, but still coherent enough to talk. Jennifer told her how much she loved her and sobbed into the receiver that she wished she could be there and that she was on her way. “Spain, Lordy Lordy, Jenny, you are in Spain!” What are you doin’ there? I thought you were in Germany?”, Nan exclaimed. Jennifer tried to reassure her, saying, “Don’t you worry, Nan.” It ‘s nice here. I’m safe.” “I luv you so very much and I am comin’ . I am so sorry you have had to be in so much pain for so long.”. “OK, Honey, okay, I luv you, too. Bye-bye, ” were the last words Jennifer ever heard her Nan speak.

In reality, Jennifer was not safe in Barcelona. Her own lack of self worth had gotten her into a very dangerous set of circumstances indeed. She was in a relationship with a suddenly and ever increasingly abusive man and she was shocked at her own entropy and inability to just end it and leave. She never had thought such a thing could happen to her and hadn’t her mother raised her to be smarter? Wasn’t she a feminist? How could this man have such a hold on her? The first time he hit her, she was so in shock that she couldn’t believe what had just happened to her. The second time he hit, he hit her hard, but luckily she had already made her decision and was on her way out the door and to the airport. The decision had suddenly come so easily when she got the e-mail from her aunt. Internet access at home was hard to get at the time in Barcelona, as Spain suffers from a serious lack of infrastructure in areas most Americans take for granted. She had no cash on her and the Internet cafe up the street only took cash. She asked Ricardo for five euros in cash, so she could go call her grandmother in her hospital room and he refused her out of spite. At that moment, something clicked and she was laid low no more. A bit of the woman who had wrestled Jennifer’s own grandfather to the ground on the morning after their wedding and forcibly taken his wallet from him when he had refused to give her cash for the day’s shopping, woke up inside of her. The inner strength Nan had always striven to infuse her with was finally tapped. Someone was actually trying to stop her from talking to her Nan on her death bed! The obvious solution was that she needed to put as much distance between that person and herself as quickly and as permanently as possible. She found his wallet in the bathroom, where he usually laid it, and took his ATM card out. She knew his PIN number since he was too lazy to run most of his errands himself, got the cash, called Nan, and then booked her flight home with a credit card in the cafe.

Jennifer remained convinced that she would have never finally finished her Master’s thesis later that year or had the courage to put herself first for once, if it had not been for Nan’s transmitted strength and her mother’s patient support.

The reason her family had moved into a predominately African-American community when she was 8, was two-fold. First of all, her father was an almost incomprehensibly selfish man. The house the family bought was inexpensive compared to a comparable house in a white area and the black neighborhood was conveniently located near to his work at a lab at DukeUniversity.  Jennifer’s hometown was a very strange city indeed and the juxaposition of a predominately African-American middle class  and working poor population with a rich, white, elite University with a mostly white, nouveau riche Northern or white, upper class Southern student body would be the breeding ground of many a tragic and polarizing conflict. Secondly, Jennifer’s father had grown up in a very racist Southern family, whose ancestors had been slave owners and had included Confederate officers, a Confederate spy and at least one known member of the Ku Klux Klan. He had a massive amount of white guilt and wanted to somehow separate himself from his past or break the pattern of bigotry. He had been a very vocal protester in the 60’s and loved to expound on how he and her mother had been tear-gassed and that the group of protesters had been let into the hall where B.B. King was playing, by the legendary musician himself, so they could escape the fumes. She later learned from a friend of her father’s that he had actually forcibly occupied a campus building at Duke with a group of more militant students in an anti-Vietnam protest and that it was this action that caused him to lose the much coveted full scholarship that had made Nan, with her hard won 8th grade education, so proud. He would recall his own father’s rantings against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whenever any news of him would come on television, telling Jennifer, “I knew Martin Luther King must be somebody great if my father hated him that much.” For him, having Jennifer grow up in a black neighborhood was a grand social experiment or a sure immunization against any racism she might actively or passively absorb from his family or the world at large.He never considered the fact that he was using his own child as the guinea pig for the testing of his dubious hypothesis. As much as it saddened Jennifer that her father lacked any normal sense of parental urge to nurture and protect his offspring, as an adult, she was strangely grateful to him for his decision. She did not regret it and would not change it. She wouldn’t be quite the same person if they had stayed in their nice, very white neighborhood near Five Points in Raleigh, where she had grown up from age 2 to 7.

When Jennifer was 14 her mother finally decided that she wanted her to go to a well-ranked junior high and high school. She also saw the pain the rejection, which had come with the hormones and peer pressure of the early teen years, had caused Jennifer. She recognized the ever increasing racial divide and didn’t want her daughter to be further isolated. She didn’t want her younger daughters to have some of the same negative experiences and, for her, the negative outweighed the positive Jennifer had experienced. Unlike, Jennifer’s father, she did possess a very natural protective instinct towards her children. She doggedly pursued buying a bigger house in a white school district and my father took a corporate job to support his now larger family.

Jennifer remembered the one time that Lita came to visit her in her new house and neighborhood. Again, Lita did not linger and Jennifer never did go to Lita’s house again after she moved out of the old neighborhood.

The only time since seeing Mrs. Rodriguez in her check out line when she was 16 that she had personally received any information about Lita was when she was in her third year of college. She had luckily enough been placed with an African-American roommate, who was shocked at how well they got along. One day, Lori called the room and really needed her to go across the hall and get a phone number from another student named Keisha. After entering Keisha’s room, she began talking with another student who she came to find out was from her same hometown. The students name was Tamyka and she was a very pretty, young African-American woman. After giving Lori the number she needed, Jennifer couldn’t resist going back to ask the woman she had met if she knew Lita Rodriguez. The woman gave her a surprised side long glance as a reply and then slowly said, “You know Lita?” “Yes, how is she? We were childhood friends, ” Jennifer asked hopefully. Tamyka’s eyes got a bit bigger and then she decided to take pity on Jennifer and tell her what had become of their mutual friend Lita. Lita was pre-law at NC Central University, a historically black college in their hometown, whose law school had produced some of the most influential Civil Rights attorneys. She was active in Central’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority chapter and was admired and loved by Durham’s African-American community.

Jennifer was not at all surprised and so happy to hear Lita was doing so well. Later in her adult life she would often reflect on her apparent inability to maintain her hard won friendships with African-American women. She had never again had contact with Lita and had only run into Lori once, years later,  by accident outside of a restaurant. Of course, there were exceptions, but her friendships across the racial divide of the American South just had never been sturdy or long-reaching enough to somehow form a lasting connection. “Well”, she thought, “wherever you are Lady L, I am glad to have known your warm laugh, flashing eyes, quirky sense of humor, supreme sense of inner worth, contagious enthusiasm for making mischief and fearless knack for facing whatever’s coming next.”

May the Circle Be Unbroken

Standard

Nan´s mother, Hattie Lea, on her wedding day in 1912.

I laid awake listenin’ to the sound of the rain on the tin roof, willin’ the rain and the night to never stop. For I knew that when the mornin’ came, I would have to rise up and go about the business of livin’ in a world which no longer included my Mama’s lovin’ presence. I would have to keep on keepin’ on and I just didn’t know where or how I was going to find the strength to do so. My Mama had been a Godly woman, but had caught the sickness, anyway. It had gone to her chest and like an unwanted house guest, had stayed there, wearing out its welcome out til late in the night. I sang church hymns to her and laid cold, damp cloths on her feverish, too hot to the touch forehead, assuring her that we would soon go for a walk together along the heavily ferned gully of our pebble-bottomed creek, letting the clear water cool our feet and feeling that soft moss between our toes. “Jus’ you wait and see, Mama. The Summer is goin’ be fine.”

Mama didn’t make it til Summer. She died on a sunny Wednesday mornin’, in May of the year 1931, a few weeks before my tenth birthday. I wasn’t the oldest daughter in my family. Vida was the oldest. So, how come it all fell on me? How come she didn’t pull her weight? She just laid up in the bed with her magazines a dreamin’ of someplace out west called Hollywood that I didn’t think sounded so great, anyway.

Charles was the only boy and there were plenty of folks comin’ out of the woodwork to offer him a place on their farm. He was snapped right up and poor Daddy and us girls were left to fend for ourselves. Daddy was a proud man and it had laid him low to lose his sweet Hattie.

It had been bad enough to go without her during those years at war in France, Belgium and Germany, which he would still cause him to bolt awake in the night, in a cold sweat, remembering the things he so much wanted to forget. Now his sweet darlin’ was forever gone. She had only been travelin’ though and had passed on over the other side.

My Daddy was a war hero and I could still scare off those raggedy Walker boys from up the way with his old gas mask if  I needed to. Those damn Germans had gotten their revenge on my Daddy and many of the rest of the men of the Rainbow Division, the 42nd.

He and the men in his battalion had been gassed in the Argonne Forest of Northeastern France during the liberation of Alsace-Lorraine in World War I, and he had lost a lung and the use of one foot, while over one hundred thousand of his brothers in arms lost their right to breathe or walk again, at all, ever. Seeing as how her Daddy had been one of the chosen few to survive the Battle of the Argonne Forest in which  more Americans lost their lives than in any single battle in American history, she was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. So many American men had died fighting to liberate land which was not even their home. But, her Daddy had come on home and he could still work like a mule, one-lunged, limpin’ and all.

I loved school and was a good student. Miss Winters praised my well-practiced cursive handwriting in particular. I knew what a luxury it was to be able to go to school and continued making the long walks to the little one room school house in our town, Rose Hill, as long as I could. I would drag my little sister Lea along with me in the early mornings whether she wanted to go that day or not.

But, one pretty spring day when I was 14, I walked past one of Daddy’s tobacco fields on the way home from school. Daddy was leanin’ against the wooden fence, gulpin’ for breath and soaked to the skin in his own sweat. Our horses, Pet and Polly, had made their way to a grassy patch and were chewin’ happily and the plough lay idly to its side behind them. “Daddy, are you OK?” I hollered out to him.  (to be continued)

She Knew how to Protect You on the Bad Days

Standard

This is the photo which hung on Mama T, my great grandmother´s wall and which I always looked at as a child. It is of her aunt, her mother´s sister , Mary Ruth née Brower,who her father married after her own mother died when Mama T was around 14 years old. This photo has always inspired me and reminded me of where it is I come from.

Ahhh, the railroad men. My great great grandfather, Harris Adams Fayssoux ´s (Mama T´s father) is standing to the left with the papers in his hands. He was a station master and railroad conductor. He was one of the men who worked to rebuild the railway system of the South after it had been dismantled as the Civil War concluded. He brought home a 25-year old, dashing, strident railroad man (Papa T ) for dinner one night and the rest was history.

My great grandmother, Mama T, or Ruth as she was known in her youth. This photo was probably taken around 1921 when she was 22 years old.

The young Mama T revisited in the guise of her great granddaughter.

She wished she could write like Hemingway or at least create an instant children’s literature classic on the back of a pub napkin like J.K. Rowling. Depression seemed like such a, yes, depressing topic. Who would want to read about that? Writing about her struggles with depression also felt like beating a dead horse instead of getting back on him after a fall. She was now in that oh so fun stage of recovering from her last bout of depression in which she said to yourself, “Oh, shit, what have I done? My entire life has fallen apart before my eyes and the worst part is that I couldn’t make myself give a rat’s ass at the time”. She supposed she should have written a Facebook status which read, “Virginia is depressed yet again, check back in 2 months.” Of course, that would have only been possible if she had not been in her inability to answer the phone, check her e-mail or go on-line phase at the time. She knew this all sounded like the biggest cop out and or load of bullshit in the world. She really did wish she were just lazy or making this all up, just your average, everyday drama queen. Unfortunately, she was not exaggerating and she knew what it is to be lying on the bathroom floor, the door locked, going through her list of reasons why killing herself is just not acceptable.

Reason # 1      My mother loves me and it would hurt her too much.

Reason # 2      I know it feels sometimes like my sisters really wouldn’t miss me that much, but it would probably psychologically scar them and I love them and somehow know they love me.

Reason # 3      It would hurt my friends and extended family who love me.

Reason # 4      Given the state of health care in modern America, if I failed I would never be able to pay off the medical bills.

Reason # 5      Somewhere deep down inside I really do believe that taking the life that God granted me would be a sin and would take my soul to a very dark place indeed. It spoke volumes that her father did not appear on her list.

Every psychologist she had ever been to, and there had been more than a few, attributed her depression to her father and the very broken, unhealthy way he was able to relate, if you can call it that, to her as a child. That, and the fact that she was like some sort of genetic dumping ground for her father’s old Southern, and yes that usually means cuckoo for cocoa puffs, family. Her ancestors were depressed before there was a name for it. They were a mix of the violent, depressed, paranoid Southern elite who started the Civil War or the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression and the violent, depressed, paranoid, poor Southern redneck farmers who actually had to wring the life out of the enemy somewhere in the mud.

Her grandmother, or Nan, as she told all of her grandchildren to call her, told her once as a child that her great grandmother, or Mama T, as she was universally referred to by her family,  would use the excuse that she couldn’t go outside while the sun was shining because it would ruin her treasured lily white complexion. She supposed that her great, great, grandmother had always retired to her room with the vapors for 2 months at a time when she was afflicted with the sickness. Virginia knew that a family with such a long history of mental illness could only have defied Darwin’s law of survival of the fittest for so long because they had other people, namely African slaves and their descendants, doing their work for them generation after generation.

She remembered walking over to Mama T’s house from Nan’s on a warm summer morning because she longed to hear another of Mama T’s fascinating stories about the days before cars and airplanes. That morning Mama T sent her away by yelling through the screen door of her back porch that she just couldn’t see anyone that day, that she was having one of her bad days. Virginia was so bewildered and saddened at that moment. She was barefoot as Nan would announce that she was too tender footed when her parents would bring her to Nan’s house in Virginia every summer. She always prescribed a summer of barefooted, outside adventures as the cure for whatever ailed her. It must have been near the beginning of summer because her feet were still sore from walking over the small white stones, which made up Mama T’s gravel driveway. By the end of summer, her feet were toughened up and she could go where she pleased. It was already so hot and humid that walking outside felt like walking through pea soup and an ulterior motive for going to Mama T’s was that she would always slice her up some cold honey dew melon from her fridge. She remembered seeing Mama T’s shadow through the screen door and the pain, urgency and embarrassment in her voice as she had to plead with her great grandchild to leave her in peace that day. The innocent sting of rejection she felt as a child helps to remind her of how her depression makes her loved ones feel sometimes. The unanswered text message or call, having to leave a message yet again, the radio silence for months on end…

She wished she could explain to them what it felt like when the blackness descended upon her and how hard she tried to resist it, to release herself from its hold on her, its seducing oblivion, sometimes successfully, but more than she would like, not.

Nan always protected Mama T when the blackness descended. When Virginia arrived in her kitchen, dejected and pouty after her walk to Mama T’s that day, explaining that Mama T had sent her away, Nan took her in her arms and explained, “Lord, Ginny, Mama T’s just having one of her bad days. You and me are going to go over there tomorrow and get us some of that cold honey dew,”  Nan was the daughter of a poor, hillbilly tobacco farmer from the mountains of Virginia and Mama T was descended from old French Huguenot Southern elites in Charleston, South Carolina, the Fayssouxs. Her great, great grandfather had been Dr. Peter Fayssoux, a physician and wealthy rice plantation owner, who had been the Surgeon General for South Carolina during the American Revolution. She had married well beneath her for love, running away with a dashing and much older railroad man in a fit of passion at the tender age of 15. Nan’s family was even further beneath Mama T’s origins; and Nan had been so surprised that Mama T accepted her so wholeheartedly into the family when she married Virginia’s grandfather, that she became fiercely loyal to her mother-in-law. They remained bonded and quite the informidable duo until Mama T’s death at age 94. The male members of the family didn’t stand a chance against their combined forces. You were almost always going to do as they wished; you just didn’t know it yet.

On a good day Mama T was confident and refined, with a high class Scarlett O’Hara type Southern accent in which she dropped all of her r’s. She had a biting, sarcastic sense of humor, was highly intelligent, and had long since mastered the fine art of manipulation to get what she wanted. Nan, in contrast, was about as subtle as a blow to the head, possessed a profound kind of common sense, and was physically strong, emotionally generous, determined, stubborn, and visceral. She spoke with a lower class heavily “r”ed mountain twang, and was never depressed a day in her life. She possessed the strength to turn Mama T’s ideas and desires into realities, and Mama T loved her for it. Nan protected Mama T from the outside world, just as she protected me and made me feel so very loved as a child. Nan knew how to protect you on the bad days.

Past Revisited

Image

Past Revisited

I just love this photo so much because it reminds me of the old black and white photos of my great great grandmother and great great grandaunt, which hung on my paternal great grandmother´s living room wall and which fascinated me so much as a child. I really don´t look much like my beautiful mother and sisters and those photos gave me a reference to who it was I looked like. I was so wonderful to see myself in those women and realize that I was pretty in my own way and in their way.

Lady L

Standard

As Jennifer was later analyzing why the incident had pushed all of her psychological buttons, she began to contemplate the very strong and lasting effect her unique childhood had had on her. Why had being made fun of by one of her female students at a public high school in Germany for growing up as a white girl in a predominately African-American neighborhood in the US caused her to react so emotionally?

As an adult, she had very little contact with her childhood Hope Valley North neighborhood friends and it saddened her. She had always been overly aware of race, racism and race relations. She would sometimes think to herself that it was one of the reasons she enjoyed living outside of the US. One example was the fact that she would sometimes unconsciously call her female friends in Germany “girl” when talking to them in English, but would have stopped herself instantly if she had done so in the US, for fear of sounding like she thought she were black. She also had a pretty shirt with an African inspired print pattern, which looked quite good on her and that she only felt comfortable wearing outside of the US. She would never wear it in her hometown of Durham, North Carolina for fear of receiving similar looks to the one the African-American woman assisting her at the AAA office had given her the one time she had worn it. It often made her sad when she was home visiting and realized she was modifying her behavior in certain situations for fear of appearing clueless, racist, insensitive, or in the language of her youth, what she really feared was being seen as “a stupid white girl” in the eyes of African-Americans.

She had always wanted to write about her childhood experiences, but felt uncomfortable even attempting it. She imagined people thinking or saying, “Just who does she think she is?” or “Oh, cry me a river, poor little white girl grew up in a black neighborhood.” The last time she was home, she had seen a very cute little girl, who happened to be African-American, with her mother while she was grocery shopping. She realized she would never say to the mother, “Oh, you have such a cute little girl”, which she might have if the mother had been white. Even if the little girl had been biracial or an adopted African-American child, as long as the mother was white, she would feel comfortable saying something. Otherwise, she would instantly think of the scene from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which the white mayor’s wife remarks on how cute and well cared for Sofia’s children are and asks Sofia if she wants to be her maid. Sofia is later beaten and imprisoned for having refused the mayor’s wife with the words, “Hell no”. Jennifer shied away from doing or saying anything which could possibly bring painful racial memories to the surface for African-Americans.

In 2006, she went to see the musical The Color Purple on Broadway with a female friend who was visiting from Japan. Sachiko spoke only basic English and it was difficult for her to follow the plot. As Jennifer explained the plot and background of the story to her during intermission, she noticed the amused or puzzled looks on the faces of African-American women who turned around in their seats to see the white woman, who apparently knew the plot by heart, attempting to explain the purpose and perspective of a novel and play about African-American women’s struggles for identity, love and respect in the American South to a Japanese woman. Later, in the line at the restroom, she encountered a middle-aged, white Midwestern woman who whispered to her in an embarrassed tone, “Do you understand a word they are saying during the play because I don’t?” She remembered telling her that yes, she understood every word and realizing that, for “a stupid white girl,” she really did have a rare depth of knowledge of African-American culture

At age sixteen, she had worked as a cashier at the local Harris Teeter grocery store to save money for a high school exchange year in Germany. One day Lita’s mother came through her line. She was very happy to see Mrs. Rodriguez and it struck her that it had been years since she had seen Lita. She had lived up the street from Lita from the beginning of the third grade to the end of the seventh. During that time she became a fixture at Lita’s family’s house and it was still a wonder to her how kind and welcoming her mother had always been to her. After all, she was the shy, bookish, slightly chubby little white girl from up the street. Jennifer’s own mother had drilled into her how important it was to be polite and respectful to adult authority figures such as teachers and other children’s parents. So, perhaps it was her eager politeness and helpfulness which had won Lita’s mother over. Or perhaps it was the fact that her own husband, nicknamed “Lucky” Rodriguez, was Puerto Rican and she was African-American. Later in life Jennifer would experience first hand that it wasn’t easy being half of an interracial couple in the American South.

Lita’s house was a treasure trove of difference for Jennifer. She could still see her mother’s dressing table before her and she still saw it from the perspective of a child, who can just see over the edge. It’s surface was covered with a huge variety of hair creams, perfumes, lotions, make-up and bottles which contained products she didn’t even really know enough about to be able to identify.

Lita was beautiful. She had given Jennifer her first lesson on the very potent effect beauty has on humans. Lita was universally popular and Jennifer never once witnessed her being made fun of by the other children in the neighborhood for being biracial. For Lita had “good hair”, she patiently explained to Jennifer one day. She was rightfully proud of her black, curly, shiny, thick hair which came down past her shoulders. To help Jennifer better understand, she gave her an example. Jessica, a biracial girl who also lived in the neighborhood and had a German mother and an African-American father, most definitely did not have “good hair”. Jessica’s hair was brittle and very tightly curled. It was a light, lackluster brown. She was chubbier than Jennifer and, of course, than Lita and was very “light-skinned”. The day Jennifer had heard an African-American boy on the school bus chanting at poor Jessica, „Your daddy’s black and your mama’s white. No wonder you didn’t turn out right.” was still very much alive in her memory. Soon thereafter, Jessica would project her own insecurities onto Jennifer by laughing and declaring to Lita that, “Jennifer is real light-skinned”.

Jennifer remembered what an outsider she felt like when Jessica said this. At that moment, she wanted so very much to be black. Lita would describe to her how much she loved to go to the hair salon with her mother and how proud her mother’s gaze on her would become as the other women praised Lita’s good hair and exclaimed how lucky she was to have such a blessed daughter. Jennifer also had curly, thick hair, which was a reddish-blondish brown and for which she was also lavishly complimented on when her mother took her to a very different, mostly white, hair salon. The two institutions which seemed to be most stubbornly racially divided in her hometown were the women’s hair salons or men’s barber shops and the churches.

“My hair would be good if I were like Lita,” she thought to herself and imagined herself with long, thin, tawny-colored limbs that would not sunburn so badly, wishing the freckles which covered almost her entire body forever gone.

Lita was, for lack of a better word, cool. She had the Michael Jackson Thriller poster on her bedroom wall and had come up with her very own rapper name, Lady L. She knew all the best hand games with all the most forbidden lyrics, like Rockin’ Robin or Miss Lucy. Her big brother, who would reluctantly take Jennifer along with Lita to the local swimming pool as she was very bad for his image, was the president of the student council and the prom king at Hillside, the local historically black high school Lita would later choose to attend. Marcus was also an amateur rapper who owned his own turn table. His bedroom shelves were filled with the verbal boastings and musings of the likes of The Fat Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Lita and Jennifer would sneak into his bedroom when he wasn’t there and gaze in awe upon this forbidden domain. Lita would transform into Lady L in front of the turn table and muster up the courage for a few fledgling attempts at rapping and beat boxing.

Lita must not have felt very comfortable at Jennifer’s house because she never stayed for long. Jennifer’s family genuinely liked Lita and her mother, encouraging the friendship, but Lita never lingered. She would come to the door and ask if Jennifer could come out to play and wait for her on the front porch unless insistently bid inside by Jennifer’s mother. It might have also had something to do with the fact that Jennifer’s two younger identical twin sisters had pretty much taken over the house from the day of their birth, when Jennifer was nine. This also attributed to Jennifer’s tendency to see Lita’s house as a much needed refuge.

Besides, where else could she hear Lita and Mrs. Rodriguez practicing gospel songs for Sunday’s upcoming service at the organ in the family living room or Mr. Rodriguez reminiscing with his former band mates about their good times in the 60’s and singing old hits like Sixty Minute Man by The Dominoes? The future Mrs. Rodriguez had been in the audience one night at one of their shows and the rest, as they say, was history. Jennifer and Lita would sit on the stairs which led to the upstairs den and sway to the vibrating, deep voices of the band members singing their old stand-bys in complex harmonies. In her adult life, Jennifer could be transported right back to that stairwell, could still feel the shaggy carpet rubbing against her calves, and the involuntary bobbing of her head and tapping her feet when she listened to Sixty Minute Man. She sometimes wondered if Lita could as well, and if Lita’s memory of the song included her, too.

When Jennifer tried to imagine Lita’s childhood perspective, her efforts to include Lita in her broader life must have been nothing short of traumatic. There was the time that Jennifer’s very Southern and unfortunately racist grandmother was down for a visit. When Lita came to the front door asking for Jennifer, Nan, as she was called by all her grandbabies, answered the door and announced in a loud voice, “a little colored girl is here to play with Jenny!“ Or when Jennifer attempted to have a sleep over which integrated all of her friends, Lita was the only African-American girl at the sleep over. She was heroic thorough out, but the horrified, pursed face of one of the white mothers when she picked her daughter up in the morning in a black neighborhood and laid eyes on Lita must have been a bit much to bear. Or there was the time that Jennifer’s father took both Lita and Jennifer out in the country to a very white, very Southern barbeque given by some older, rural work colleagues. The image of Lita sitting uncomfortably on the edge of her chair across from an older, very Southern lady of the house who perused her as if she were the latest specimen at the zoo, offering her a very white Cabbage Patch doll to play with, was forever burned in Jennifer’s memory.

At the the end of 6th grade both girls tried out to be cheerleaders at the local, predominately white junior high school. They had practiced jumps, cartwheels, round-offs and cheers for weeks in preparation for the try outs. Jennifer was clumsy at best and was not surprised she had not been chosen. She had done all the practicing mostly to support and please Lita, anyway. But, Lita was spot on. Jennifer was so surprised when Lita was not selected for the squad and remembers the look of disappointment and anger in Lita´s face on the way home in the car. Years later, she would remember that look and would realize that that was the moment Lita decided to go to predominately African-American schools. Lita chose to go where she was celebrated, not just tolerated.

When at age thirteen, Lita failed to invite Jennifer to her birthday party she was devastated. But, in retrospect, Jennifer now thought, maybe Lita had just been trying to spare her the same ordeal she had put her through. Jennifer would always remember it like it had happened just last Tuesday. She was at Lita’s house as usual after school one day. Mrs. Rodriguez came home from work and, assuming that Jennifer was invited to Lita’s upcoming thirteenth birthday party, started to discuss the party plans as she laid her purse down on the dining room table. Lita’s face fell and she rushed out of the room, banging the door to her room shut. Mrs. Rodriguez gave Jennifer a worried look and went into the hallway, attempting to carry on a conversation with Lita through the shut door. “Why don’t you want Jennifer to come to your party?” she asked. Lita replied in the tortured, impatient voice of a soon to be teenager, “Cause she’ll be the only white kid there!” “But, she is one of the few friends of yours I really like. You know I don’t approve of most of those kids you’re hanging around with these days!” Mrs. Rodriguez countered. But, Lita just announced in an exasperated voice that her mother didn’t understand and Jennifer excused herself, saying she had to go home. She slowly, solemnly walked up the street to her house, making her way back to mainstream America. For as much as Lita’s rejection had hurt her, all she had to do was turn on the TV to know it was OK, even good, to be white. Lady L didn’t have that luxury.