If somebody’s buttering you up, you can be sure they’re fixin’ to take a bite.
It is all too easy for children in a large family to get lost in the crowd of siblings and grow up believing that they are not special. It is equally difficult for the parents of large families to think of their children as individuals rather than an often overwhelming group. This is especially true in single-parent homes, because the parent is distracted trying to keep from losing their mind struggling to make ends meet, while dealing with each child’s needs and personality. All of this is compounded if the relationship with their co-parent is shaky.
That was how it felt for me after I became a single mother. So in 1979, about a year after I settled into post-divorce life, I started looking for ways to spend time alone with each of my five children so that each of them would know they were valued. I eventually decided that the best way was to take one of them on my monthly trip to the grocery store and to K-Mart, where I shopped for items I wasn’t allowed to purchase with food stamps. I looked forward to the day when I would no longer need food stamps and the small monthly check I received to supplement the earnings from my home-based secretarial service. But the check and those food stamps were a welcome help, even with the humiliations I had to endure every month doing paperwork and meeting with social workers who wouldn’t look at me and who talked down to me.
I made that decision in December, so our Mommie and Me days would officially begin in January. I wrote January, February, March, April, and May on pieces of paper, then folded them and placed them in a bowl. I then wrote each child’s name on the wall calendar in my home office, one name on the first Saturday of every month according to the month they drew from the bowl. In the months after, it was both amusing and heartwarming to watch the kids take what they thought was a sneak peek at the calendar when the end of a month drew near, to see whose Mommie and Me day was coming up.
Twelve-year-old Tania had drawn the first Mommie and Me day. Like every morning, I got up early on the first Saturday in January to lounge in bed with a cup of coffee and my journal before the kids got up. They know not to disturb me during my quiet time, but anticipation of our time together caused Tania to wake up early. She has a way of slipping into my room as quietly as a panther, crawling under the covers on what she calls the “passenger side” of my bed, then purring so softly as she wanders back to sleep that I hardly know she’s there.
I woke her again at 8:00, and by 9:30 we were bundled up and ready to take on the first Saturday morning of Minnesota’s most treacherous month. Outside, the day was gray, a sure sign that it wouldn’t be as cold as it would be if the sun were shining. We walked to the corner and stepped gingerly over a patch of ice that lined the curb, then found our rhythm by the time the Pearsons’ brown-and-white spotted mongrel wagged his tail and barked his friendly “Good morning.” We trekked up Blaisdell Avenue, grateful that the homeowners and landlords had shoveled from yesterday’s snowstorm so we could maintain an uninterrupted pace until we reached Butler Drugstore on Twenty-sixth and Nicollet.
Tania and I have always enjoyed silence together as much as conversation. That morning we communed peacefully as we took in the aromas of freshly brewed coffee and bacon and eggs that sneaked through the closed windows of the houses and apartment buildings we passed. We laughed as we listened to the rhythm our boots made with each footfall and watched our breath float away as it seeped through the scarves that covered our mouths.
I always learned something new about my kids on our Mommie and Me days. As the child ambled or skipped along beside me, it was enlightening to find out what they were thinking, how they viewed their particular world. On that January day, Tania was concerned about her grades. We were both disappointed in her performance in school. I couldn’t figure out why the most academically gifted of my children was heading for a D in Science and an F in English.
Finally we made it to the drugstore. Just as I pulled my gloved hand out of my coat pocket and was about to reach for the door handle, Tania said, “I’m tired of getting the same old grades all the time.”
I looked up at my tall, lovely daughter and wondered where this conversation was going to go. Sometimes I am still amazed when I remember that she had grown taller than me at such a young age. It’s clear that she takes after her father’s side of the family, who are all over six feet tall.
“Well, dear, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that this year.” She ignored my sarcastic tone.
“No, Mom, that’s not what I mean.” Her voice sounded like tinkling bells, even when she was whining. “All they ever give us are A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, or F’s. I’d just like to get an H or an M or maybe a P or a Q, for a change.”
I could tell by the way she said it that this was a serious matter to her. She is a sensitive girl and would be hurt if I let the laughter I was feeling escape from my lips.
I continued to ruminate on the issue of grades while we sat in the warmth of the drugstore, sipping our hot chocolate. Tania’s question made me think about this in a new way, as conversations with my children so often do. It hadn’t occurred to me until now to wonder why the people who designed the grading system followed the logical order from A through D, skipped E, and went directly to F. I simply accepted it. Now, like Tania, I wondered why they don’t switch the letters up every now and then. It might give kids incentive to try a little harder if they knew they might see an M or a P or a Q on their next report card.
WE SIPPED OUR DRINKS SLOWLY, savoring the warmth of the drugstore, and listened to the post-holiday chatter that was going on around us until we shored ourselves up enough to face the cold again.
Once inside K-Mart, I grabbed a cart and set my purse inside the child seat where I placed my kids when they were toddlers. Christmas songs still blared over the loudspeakers, interrupted occasionally by a scratchy voice that announced the day’s Blue Light Special.
We took our time shopping, strolling down every aisle glancing at some items and stopping to inspect others. When we reached the sporting goods section, Tania suddenly stopped.
“Mom, it’s still here!”
“What’s still here?”
“The ten-speed I showed Dad.”
I turned around and there it was, the metallic green bike with Schwinn soaring along the crossbar in hot pink—and it was marked down 40 percent. I thought for a moment and calculated the numbers in my head. If I handled my finances well and if we didn’t have any emergencies, I could finish paying for the bike by April 27, her thirteenth birthday. I backed it out of its place in the bike rack and Tania happily rolled it to the layaway counter.
OVER THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, she asked several times if she would have the bike in time for her birthday. Each time, I gave her a vague response. What if something happened and I wasn’t able to get it out? I didn’t want her to be disappointed or to feel like I had lied to her. Besides, I wanted to surprise her.
Happily, I was able to finish paying for the bike in time for her birthday, which I let her celebrate with a Friday night slumber party. I got the kids off to school that morning, then made my way to K-Mart as soon as they opened their doors. I made the final payment and bought enough matching ribbon to make an enormous bow to tie onto the handlebars, then hopped on the bike and rode it home.
Excited for her slumber party, Tania bounced through the door after school with her two best friends, Heather and Ruthie. The oohs and ahhs I heard as she and her two friends stroked the bike made me smile, even though I was irritated with Ruthie, who as always bragged that whatever Tania had, she had something better.
The day was bright and sunny so Tania took the bike for a few spins around the block. I joined Ruthie and Heather on the front porch, cheering each time she flew past the house screaming with her arms flung in the air like she was riding a roller coaster.
Usually, when one of my kids has a sleepover, the others spend the night with one of their friends, always happy to enjoy a night away from home. So by 7:00, most of Tania’s guests had arrived and her siblings had left for their own adventures. Just as I finished popping popcorn, I thought I heard a knock on the door. But I wasn’t sure. The room my three daughters share is next to the kitchen, which sometimes makes it difficult to hear what’s going on in the front of the apartment. Especially when there is a group of teenagers in the room giggling and talking loudly.
I took the popcorn in to the girls, then made my way down the narrow hallway, glancing into our other two bedrooms and the bath with its makeshift shower. I was satisfied that all of the rooms were sparkling clean and hoped that the salty aroma of the popcorn covered the lingering odor of the spray I used to keep the cockroaches down when I had scrubbed and dusted earlier that day.
When I reached the living room, I rested my hand on the doorknob and paused briefly to inspect the sparsely furnished room. Though the kids and I had lived there since my divorce, I was still caught off guard whenever I noticed how the chocolate-brown carpet made the whole apartment seem dark, even on a sunny day or when all the lights are on.
I took a deep breath and opened the door to a smiling thirteen-year-old who introduced herself as Caitlyn. Blonde and buck-toothed, the girl was a replica of the man who accompanied her. I invited the pair in and directed the girl to Tania’s room, then turned back to her father, who stood frozen in the doorway staring at me, his mouth agape. I wondered for a moment if maybe I should call Caitlyn back. Maybe she hadn’t told her parents that the girl who was throwing the slumber party was Black. I quickly dismissed that thought. Tania’s guests reflected the makeup of our neighborhood, which was very diverse, both racially and economically. The families were used to communicating with people who were different from themselves, and the children played together and visited each other’s homes all the time.
Unsure of what to do, I looked down at my feet and waited for the man to speak, feeling certain that the uncomfortable silence was amplified by the stench of mildew that characterized the old fourplex.
Finally he cleared his throat. “I believe I know you,” he said with surprise in his voice.
I looked up at the lean, neatly dressed man and searched his face to see if there was anything familiar about him.
“Weren’t you in University Hospital about twenty years ago?” he asked.
My oldest son, twenty-five-year-old Steven, was born at the University of Minnesota Hospital, but how did he know this? I continued searching his face but still nothing rang a bell.
“It was twenty-five years ago. My oldest son was born there,” I said.
He stood there a moment longer and then said, “Do you remember an intern named Ben? Visited with you almost every day.”
I scanned my memory. Nothing came to mind at first but then, as clearly as if it was happening now, I saw myself sitting up in a hospital bed wearing a pink bed jacket my mother had bought me. There is someone in the chair beside my bed, a chubby white guy with a blonde crew cut and a bad case of acne. “Whoops,” he laughs and drops a knight from a chess set onto the blanket that covers my legs. When he leans over to pick it up, I say, “Stop it, Grease!” I slap his hand and then I burst out laughing, too.
“That was me!” the man almost shouted.
The man at my door looked very different from the guy who used to visit me in the hospital so long ago. This one was tall and slim, his hair was neatly cut and his skin clear.
“How did you recognize me?”
“You haven’t changed at all.” A wistful look washed over his eyes. “You were the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I came to visit you nearly every day, even on my days off. Almost got myself in trouble,” he said with a chuckle.
I stared at him, flabbergasted. I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.
Just then my neighbor who lived across the hall came into the building carrying a bag of groceries. She eyed the man suspiciously. I greeted her as she unlocked her apartment door, hoping the hint of desperation in my voice would make him go away.
“I remember dropping things on your bed just so I could touch you,” he said. “Marveled at your dark skin, so different from mine.” Then he shook his head and walked away, leaving me dumbfounded. I floated back to the kitchen to unwrap the frozen pizzas I had planned to make for the girls, stopping at the bathroom for a quick glance in the mirror.
Me . . . beautiful?
When I was a child I didn’t see myself as beautiful or smart. My siblings and I took piano lessons and dance classes, but our parents did not encourage our creativity or our individuality. That puzzled me because my stepfather, Barney, played guitar professionally. Mom was also creative. She made our clothes and was imaginative in the kitchen. But whenever they saw me reading a book for pleasure or writing a poem, or just sitting and thinking, they would chide me.
“You better stop all that daydreaming. You’re gonna have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart as white girls if you want to get anywhere in this world.”
In addition to their creativity, my parents were both successful professionals in their day jobs. Mama owned a beauty salon and Barney was the first Black auditor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Now that I am an adult with children of my own, I understand their concern. I know their concerns were based on history and their own experiences. They had to pay a heavy price for their successes.
It is hard to immunize ourselves against the racism America was built on. Looking back, I can see how the self-hatred of internalized racism played out in many ways in our home. It wasn’t unusual to hear Barney say something about someone who “can’t talk” during dinnertime conversations, referring to someone they had seen at a party or a Black person on television whose speech patterns or dialect showed that they were not well educated. Nor was it unusual for Mama to say something about families who lived in the projects.
Conversations that focused on skin color were not rare. I remember an incident at Mama’s beauty shop when I was about twelve years old. Beauty and barber shops have always been places where folks in the Black community gather to relax and let their hair down, literally and figuratively. Typical of 1950s beauty salons, Mama’s shop smelled like chemicals and old grease and sparkled with the sounds of laughter, hand-clapping, and clicking curling irons. That day I flopped into the chair, dreading the familiar operation that I knew was coming when Mama, dressed in the crisp white uniform that hairdressers wore back then, wrapped a plastic cape around my shoulders and tied it behind my neck. Then she picked up a straightening comb and placed it in the stove that heated her straightening combs and curling irons.
Mrs. King, a large woman who was always there to spread the latest gossip, said, “Yeah, girl, she sure shoulda known better, black as that niggah is.”
Mama pried the bright red top off of a black-and-white can with Madame Belva’s Hair-Rep printed across the front in large letters, its name promising to fix hair that was somehow bad and in need of repair. In went two fingers, then out they came, carrying a blob of thick grease. She smoothed it into my hair section by section, to make it easier for the hot comb to slide through the sizzling grease from the roots to the ends of my hair, making it straight as a stick. Just as she turned the chair around so I was facing the mirror, Mrs. King said, “Got them red eyes, too. You know he got to be evil. But she black too, so I guess they understand each other.”
Laughter exploded all around me. Everyone in the shop—the other hairdressers, their clients, and the other women who, like Mrs. King, were there just to pass the time away—howled as though it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. I looked at the reflections of myself and my mother standing behind me, and Mrs. King, whose wide hips drooped over the seat of her chair. Mama’s skin, and Mrs. King’s, reminded me of peaches, but my skin is cinnamon brown. Compared to them and my sister Joanne, I felt black as coal.
That glance in the mirror convinced me that I was fighting a losing battle just by being alive. It wouldn’t matter how smart I was or hard I tried; I would never be respected, neither by whites nor by my own people.
BY THE TIME I reached my mid-teens I was mad at the world, determined to do the opposite of anything my parents wanted me to do. My girlfriends and I started hanging out in the projects, and I had fallen in love with Lonnie, which led to the October night that landed me in the University of Minnesota Hospital’s maternity ward.
On arrival at the hospital I was placed in an empty room with four beds, one that would be my home for the next six months. I changed into a hospital gown and crawled under the covers quaking with fear. I listened to footsteps up and down the hallway outside my door; the efficient sound of nurse’s squishy rubber soles, the clicking high heels of female visitors, sometimes alongside male companions whose steps sounded sturdier. What was going to happen to me here, I wondered? This hospital was not new to me. I was born with a heart murmur, and my mother had been taking me to the heart clinic since I was a little girl. But I had never seen any of their patient rooms, and this was the first time I had seen a maternity ward anywhere.
Because the University Hospital is a teaching hospital, many women shared my room during my stay, all for short periods of time—a few hours, a few days, some for a few weeks. Some were rich, some were poor; most were from cities, towns, and rural areas around Minnesota, a few were from other countries. Most were there because, like me, they had medical conditions that needed to be watched. I was the only one who was there because of a judge’s sentence, and I was the only one with dark skin.
Throughout my six-month incarceration, I attended daily occupational therapy sessions, and a teacher came once a week to keep me current with my eleventh grade studies. I was grateful for those activities as they allowed me a little bit of time away from my makeshift jail cell. I was also happy when my older sister Joanne came to see me. Ever since we were children, she always made me feel safe and cared for. But I dreaded Mama and Barney’s visits. They often brought me gifts, but Mama’s hurtful, accusing words and Barney’s disapproving scowls negated the love that those gifts should have represented.
During one of their visits, Mama and Barney told me I couldn’t bring my baby home. “Why?” I asked through bitter tears. Instead of answering they said something like, “We think you know why.” But I didn’t know why.
Their refusal to let me bring the baby home set off a rush of visits from social workers who came with the purpose of persuading me to give my baby up for adoption. My primary social worker, Mrs. McGarrett, was a cross-eyed, thick-boned woman with yellow teeth. I laugh now when I think back on the dowdy woolen coat she always wore and the crown-shaped hat that sat at an angle over the salt-and-pepper bun pinned furiously at the back of her neck, making it look like her hat might topple off her head at any moment.
I never knew when Mrs. McGarrett was going to show up. The only warning was the unmistakable sound of her heels marching down the hall to my room. She would plop down in the chair beside my bed and look around, taking note of whoever was sharing my room. Then she would turn her attention to me and launch into her spiel, gesticulating stiffly with her right arm. “Off with her head,” her gesture seemed to command minions that only she could see, causing me to cross my arms tightly over my chest, refusing to look at her. Instead, I would lean back against the two thin pillows that propped me up in bed and dare her invisible gang of knaves to try it. No one was going to take my baby away from me, no one was going to convince me to give the baby away, and I’d be damned if anyone was going to chop my head off.
The chubby young intern named Ben with the blond crew cut started visiting around that time. At first he came once a week, then twice, gradually increasing his visits until he was there nearly every day. He read to me and told me silly jokes, taught me to play chess, and listened to my worries. I was happy for his company, thought it was part of his job to spend time with long-term patients.
One day an attractive woman with long brown hair and violet eyes was brought in to wait out the first stages of her labor. The nurses settled her into the bed that faced mine, and as soon as she was comfortable her husband, a doctor I recognized because of his height and booming voice, came in and pulled up a chair beside her. I watched as he kissed her tenderly and stroked her hair, then handed her a textured green, purple, and gray bag he had carried into the room. She reached into the bag and pulled out a pink-and-blue blanket attached to two long skinny needle-like things and a ball of yarn.
I watched in awe as the woman looped a strand of yarn around the finger of one hand, slid the needle into a loop on the needle she held in her other hand, then looped the yarn around the first needle, and pulled it through. The two long needles clicked rhythmically as she knitted row after row. My mother spent many hours at her sewing machine making clothes for my siblings and me, but this was the first time I had seen anyone knit.
The woman knitted for hours, her face reddening with each contraction until they became too intense. Then she quietly handed the knitting to her husband, who tucked it back into the bag and boomed for an orderly to bring a gurney. They wheeled her out of the room, leaving her knitting bag behind. I waited until I was sure no one was watching, then snuck over to her bed and took the blanket out and studied it for a while, making sure to return it to the bag before the doctor and his wife returned to the room following the birth of their baby.
The next day I asked my occupational therapist to teach me to knit. We laughed through my first attempts. She was right-handed and found it an interesting challenge to help me, a left-hander, pick up the stitches I dropped and place them in the correct spot. It wasn’t very long before those first attempts became a long skinny scarf. The first few inches carried the telltale jagged edges characteristic of a new knitter, then gradually changed to edges that were even. Once I got the hang of it, knitting became easy, and I fell in love with it as an art form.
Mrs. McGarrett had the authority to persuade the court to refuse my request for custody of my baby, and she never missed an opportunity to remind me. At first, I hid my knitting from her and my parents, refusing to let them in on something beautiful that I was doing. But I always let them see how well I was doing with my schoolwork, hoping somehow that if they saw that I was a diligent student, they would eventually believe that I could be a responsible mother. But one day about a month before my son was born, I was knitting a pair of booties when Mrs. McGarrett showed up. I decided not to hide them when I heard her marching down the hall.
She sat in the chair beside my bed and watched the yellow yarn slowly take shape. Finally she asked what I was knitting.
“Some booties for my baby,” I replied, refusing to look at her.
“Where did you get the yarn?” she croaked, as though it was her business to know.
She didn’t say much more that day, just watched as though she was seeing me for the first time. When she returned the next week, she said she might be able to find a foster home for the baby.
I dropped my knitting needles and turned to face her, noticing a softness in her gray eyes that hadn’t been there before. Still, I was suspicious. There had to be a catch.
“We can place the baby in a foster home,” she said, “with the understanding that you can have custody once you turn eighteen and are released from the court system. That is, if you stay out of trouble and if you haven’t changed your mind by then.”
I didn’t see the chubby intern again. And I didn’t give him another thought until that Friday night when he brought his daughter over for Tania’s slumber party.
LATER ON the night of Tania’s birthday party, while I was waiting for the pizzas to finish baking, feeling like the unforgettable woman I’d read about in corny love stories, the phone rang. I floated over and picked up the yellow wall phone, humming, “Unforgettable, that’s what you are . . .”
I answered with a lilt in my voice. There was a pause on the other end.
“Hello?” I repeated.
The male voice sounded hesitant. “Uh, this is Ben, Caitlyn’s dad.” He paused again. “I need to ask a favor of you.”
“No problem,” I replied with a smile in my voice.
“A lot has changed since I was an intern,” he said. He had my full attention now, and I had a feeling that my dream was about to end.
“Yeah. A lot has changed in my life, too.”
We both laughed nervously.
“I have a family now and I’ve built a successful practice.”
“That’s great, Ben,” I replied, looking around at the depressing changes that had taken place in my life.
“I need to ask you not to repeat what I said to you earlier.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if anyone ever found out, my life would be ruined.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“You don’t understand.” He paused briefly, cleared his throat again, struggled to say something, then hung up.
Incredulous, I stood a moment longer before slamming the phone down. What was really going on with this guy, I wondered?
As I stood there I began to think about something I had seen on episodes of St. Elsewhere and Marcus Welby, M.D.—the part where I heard them say something about an oath they had to take, which in part said, “First, do no harm.”
When Ben stood in my doorway, he had said, “Almost got myself in trouble.” Was that an admission that by spending so much time with a young, pregnant, vulnerable girl whom he had a crush on, he had violated that oath? When he referred to me as a “creature” while defining me as beautiful, had he really seen that young Black girl as a human or was he viewing her as something less than human, perhaps as a toy? Or worse, as a thing that he could violate without giving it a second thought, like the slave owners who violated my foremothers?
So many questions raced through my mind in that moment that I almost forgot about the kids until Tania came into the kitchen with Caitlyn following closely behind her. “Mom, I smell something burning.”
Frantically, I grabbed two pot holders and opened the oven door to retrieve the ruined mess. Tania and her friends provided a sad-faced audience as they watched thick, black smoke pour out of the oven while I smoldered inside, like the pizzas. I wanted to cry, but no way was I going to let Caitlyn see that her father had humiliated me. She had no clue what had just happened anyway.
Deflated, I sat down at the kitchen table trying to figure out what to do. I had spent all of my money on the party and didn’t expect any more until the first of the month.
Tania was the first to speak. “Do we have any more pizzas?”
“No,” I replied, shaking my head.
“I have the money Dad sent me,” she said.
“And I have five dollars from babysitting,” boasted Ruthie.
All of the girls scrambled through their bags, pockets, and backpacks looking for money they had brought with them.
“I have an idea,” announced Heather. “Let’s go to McDonald’s!”
The girls were freshly excited now with a new, unexpected adventure in the making, and I was relieved. In the midst of the happy screams, Tania asked, “Can I ride my new bike to McDonald’s?”
“Yes,” I replied, hugging her on our way out the door.
AS I WALKED BEHIND THE GIRLS listening to their chatter, I wondered what their lives might be like when they reached my age. Would things improve for women by then? Would my daughters be confronted with situations like what I had experienced that night? Would Caitlyn? My hope was that they would find the courage within themselves that we women have always had: the courage to know and believe that we exist, we are here, we are powerful, we are strong; the strength to stand up to a world that would continue to try to keep them in the kitchen. But I was still reeling from what had happened. It was nearly impossible to think clearly about how to give those girls anything that might show them strength. It was simply too complicated to deal with in that moment. I made a vow to find a way to do all I could to teach my daughters to stand in their own power.
In the weeks and months that followed, as I continued to ruminate on that night and to try to figure out what I had learned about myself as a result, it became clearer and clearer that even though I still didn’t have answers, I knew that our Mommie and Me days showed my children that I valued them. And I hoped that I was teaching my sons to cherish the women who come into their lives as much as they honored their mother and loved their sisters.
And by the way, I wasn’t surprised that Caitlyn’s mother—not her father—picked her up the morning after Tania’s slumber party.