These two things happened:
My marriage ended.
I grew up in the least diverse section of Philadelphia and I was raised by an African-American nanny. But this is no rich, privileged girl story.
Frances was a part of my childhood almost since I was born. Three days a week, she arrived at our house early in the morning and stayed until my mother returned from work. She cleaned the house, ironed my father’s shirts, and cooked better than anything my mother could do on an entire Sunday. Don’t ask about the other two days. A revolving disappointment, if you asked my mother.
I’d come home from school and the kitchen would be filled with the aroma of fried chicken and the creamiest macaroni and cheese you ever tasted. Her meatloaf had a hard-boiled egg buried in the middle that we three kids fought over like the Cracker Jack prize. And her iced tea—a cup of sugar to a pitcher, she said, and we drank it by the gallon. She loved the daytime stories and the numbers and often came to work with her dream book, giddy with her winnings. She was a window into another world and I was enthralled.
Frances’ people came from down Virginia, as she said it, with a mother that taught her what she needed to know. Like washing your face with your own urine stopped pimples. Every summer she and her husband would drive south to see her aunts and uncles and the next generation. I always liked the way she said aunt, rhyming it with font and not pulling back her teeth like a horse accepting a bridle, like how we say it in Philly. If she had religion, she kept it to herself. Whether out of respect for our differences or because she’d seen too much to believe, I never knew. But she described not being able to have children as just the way it was and didn’t bother blaming it on the Lord.
Her husband, James, was a good foot taller than she, a gentle man with an easy laugh who, if truth be told, scared me a little as a child. I saw him rarely but knew how much Frances loved him. She believed men were in charge of their women, at least to a point, and when he said he didn’t like her morning breath—Frances’ love of Salem cigarettes the likely culprit—she took to tucking a mint beneath her tongue every night until her teeth rotted out. I was long out of the house before she finally got a set of dentures.
For as long as I could remember, Frances drove a Cadillac. Said she saved her money and could spend it on what she wanted and she wanted a Cadillac and so every few years, she’d pull up in a newer version of a used one. It wasn’t long before my mother thought that was a very good idea and traded her Chevy for a used Caddy also. The two of them, women of little means, special in their automobiles.
My father took ill when I was four, my brother six, and my sister a newborn and he didn’t work for two years. Frances still came three days a week to care for us, without pay, while my mother managed a toy store making god knows what, but clearly not enough to support three kids and a husband. We were barely holding onto middle class back then and Frances’ generosity got us through an impossible situation.
Frances was the one I whined to about friends’ disappointments and enduring loneliness. She was the one who taught me about loving myself. My mother’s advice was that I should always be able to take care of myself. Note the difference.
Frances and James had no children but she was a wonderful aunt to her nieces and nephews. She raised one of her nieces and put her through college. When that beloved niece was in her early twenties, a boyfriend murdered her. I was in college at the time, worried it would take the life out of Frances too. “Bad things happen. What can you do?” was all she said when I phoned her. “What can you do?”
I remember one time Frances and my brother had a heated argument. My brother was a bit of a troublemaker in the family and it distressed her to see my parents so worried about him. Their words grew ugly until he threw the n-word at her and she replied with something about him being a dirty Jew and they both cracked up and laughed hysterically, that not being a part of either of them. I don’t think they ever had a sore word between them again.
I was a young mother when she passed away. My parents and I and my mother’s best friend for whom she also worked, hired a car and an African-American driver to take us to her viewing in a part of the city that Mom was uncomfortable parking the Caddy in. Even I can see the irony in that.
Frances’ was the first dead body I’d ever seen. She was smaller than I remembered, with the waxy face of the artificially molded and her mouth stuck out more than it should from those damned dentures. We sat on one side of the room, dabbing at our tears while James and the family sat at the other. Frances had never called my parents by their first names, not in thirty years. This never sat well with me, starting with my teenage years when I tore through The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Black Like Me.
James greeted us with a nod and accepted our hugs, not using any of our names. Even deep in his grief, he was gracious to us and listened to our words about her importance in our lives. I wondered how James felt about his wife working for no pay for two years and that child rearing and housekeeping didn’t exactly come with a pension, but none of that probably mattered at that moment.
Yes, Frances was the help. She helped me grow into a confident woman. Helped me learn that people just do the best they can, even if it doesn’t always meet your standards or expectations. That bad things happen to people you love and that doesn’t stop life from going on.
I saw the 2011 movie, The Help. Like many, I was appalled at the racism and exploitation. But the movie resonated with me on another level. I recognized the love between Emma Stone’s character and the woman she thought of as her other mother.
I had that privilege.
Sometimes you have to tune out the news. Not for one day. Sometimes you need a holiday from the soul-crushing pain that begins every news broadcast. Even if the program ends with a segment on the lighter side, it is not enough to mitigate your distress.
You know it is time for this news holiday when certain feelings begin to overtake you. Often it begins as a general anxiety. Perhaps you experience it as missed heartbeats or, more frighteningly, ripples of a not-yet-seen invader curling through you. That sleeplessness accompanies it is a given.
I choked on my own racism a few weeks ago.
Before I explain what I mean, my need to proclaim “but I’m not a racist” is crushing.
Some ‘yes, buts,’ if you will.
Yes, but … I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia at a time when it was affectionately known as the “Lily White Northeast.” That’s because the only people of color you saw there were in service to the white population. I honestly don’t remember seeing a black man until I was in junior high school. If you remember my sister’s blog called The Help, you know that much of our childhood was shaped by a fantastic African-American woman named Francis. She instilled a respect for people of different races and religions in me from an early age. Because I loved her so much, if I’d ever thought about it, I would certainly say I wasn’t racist then.
Yes, but …Years later, I would explain how I had black friends in junior high as a result of our school district’s desegregation efforts. At one point, there were ‘race riots,’ essentially white and black kids fighting over the stuff kids fight about. I thought so much of myself because I had black friends and didn’t know which side to align with. It would be years before I understood that even having such a choice was an example of my white privilege.
Yes, but… Around 19, I fell in love with a black man. I knew my family would never accept such a relationship, and truthfully, I still had visions of little white Jewish babies. We broke it off, but I loved him for much of my life and later, as adults, we married for a number of years.
Yes, but … Over the years, I’ve been involved with social justice organizations that focused on anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts. For many years, I was a part of a group called “White Aspiring Allies to People of Color.” A small group of white people, we gathered to discuss our own internal racism and how to be an effective ally in the efforts to end broader expressions of racism. We called ourselves ‘aspiring allies’ because we felt it was up the Women of Color Network, to whom we were accountable, to decide if we were, in fact, being effective allies. I learned about white privilege, how to recognize it, and how to not take advantage of it.
All of these ‘yes, buts’ are my dismal efforts to minimize a recent experience in which my continuing and apparently pervasive racism smacked me in the face. I signed up for dental insurance through the Marketplace and had to choose a provider based on location. I selected one based on nothing other than its proximity to my home. On the day of my first appointment, as I began the drive, I passed through my neighborhood which is predominantly white. A few miles later, I entered an area which was largely Hispanic based on billboards, stores and the people I saw going about their business. A discomfort I neither liked nor expected began to grow in the pit of my stomach. It registered in my brain, but quietly, almost a whisper of thoughts. More miles and now I was clearly in an African American neighborhood. The whisper was no longer soft, but turned into a roar of thoughts. “I picked the wrong place.” “Maybe I should cancel the appointment and find somewhere else,” that somewhere else, of course, being in a ‘better’ neighborhood. Huge shame washed over me for even having such visceral reactions.
Perhaps because of the anti-racism work I’ve done, I, at least, was able to have a severe conversation with myself, pointing out how unconscionable I was being, how my presumptions of quality revolved around skin color, and what it would mean about me if I didn’t keep the appointment.
I kept the appointment. And, of course, the staff was pleasant, the dentist was great, and I left with clean teeth and no cavities. More importantly, I left realizing how much remains beneath our surfaces, and how more work I needed to do if I am ever to be an effective ally to people of color in our efforts to end racism.
Leslie can be reached at:
Leslienmalkin@outlook.com or https://www.facebook.com/leslie.malkin.7
I’ve owned three cats and zero dogs in my adult lifetime. Not that I haven‘t ever lived with dogs, mind you. There was the vicious, abused box terrier my parents thought would be great with three small, eager kids. Fortunately, he didn’t stay long.
And then there was Stinker. The poodle mix with bad breath and an unnatural attachment to my parents’ mislaid belongings. Imagine this. You come home from school starving and having to pee so badly your eyes are turning yellow. Stinker is strategically positioned in the living room guarding Mom’s high heels. He snarls, snaps, and is clearly ready to eat you for venturing anywhere near said precious shoes. You realize the kitchen is blocked and so are the stairs to the only bathroom in the house. You have to make a run for it, but deciding which destination is a challenge. You only have one chance. Food or bathroom? Imagine this scenario repeating itself throughout most of your high school years and you can see why I’ve never owned a dog.
Odd the things that bother you about getting old. Nora Ephron felt bad about her neck, but me…I miss my waist.
Vestiges of it tease me in the morning mirror. Nothing Scarlet O’Hara worthy, mind you, but a slight concave-ness that reminds me of my younger years. Then after breakfast it’s disappeared, leaving a sturdy babushka in its place. I miss that dead space above my hips. Having something to park my hands on while my face does that, “You did what?” expression.
I know. I’m part of that subsection of people for whom gravity pulls harder. Knocking inches off my height and squishing out my sides like pulled taffy.
But it’s not just the absence of a shape I once had; it’s what it signifies. The gradual thickening connotes an acceptance of the status quo. A settling, not just of my middle parts, but also of everything in my life.
Several weeks ago, I posted about my reclusive grandmother, the inspiration for my WIP, All Her Days and Other Lies. (http://carolmalkin.com/the-recluse-in-our-family/)
If you read it, here’s what you know. That Betty was mentally ill, refused to bathe or change her clothes, and that I, as a teenager, wanted little to do with her.
Here’s what you don’t know. She was a warm and wonderful person. Despite a living hell with my grandfather and multiple hospitalizations over the course of her life, she managed to raise four productive, terrific children who went on to become supportive and caring parents themselves.
You get divorced after a dozen years of marriage, the adoption of one black feline, and the creation of two small humans. It is, as expected, horrible for all involved, but especially for the children who can no longer see you in the same room without their stomachs knotting.
You are opposing ends of a magnet. When one is present, the other must not be within shouting distance, not that there was ever much shouting. Still, it becomes a calendar of conflicting schedules, and payments due, and avoidance. It is the avoidance that is the most difficult, as you see the children adapt to a life of either/or.
This week’s post is by my brilliant sister, Leslie Malkin, a long-time advocate for domestic abuse prevention.
One in four.
That’s how many women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Think about four women you know. Then realize that at least one of them has or will experience some form of domestic violence. Your mom? Sister? Aunt? Yourself?
I never expected to be the one in four. I had a law degree. I was a judicial officer. And later I actually worked for a State domestic violence coalition, educating others about DV. If you’d asked any of my friends they would have told you that I was a strong, independent woman. I identified as a feminist from early childhood. Yet I became a victim of domestic violence.
It’s February and I’m looking for buds.
The purple blanket of creeping crocuses will explode on our neighbor’s lawn soon and it’s countdown mode for spring. Three weeks until the Philadelphia Flower Show, that nose-heavy, noisy meander through nature’s blessing, and I can’t wait. An opportunity to see what new plants will be popular. Time to consider if your property could, in any possible way, resemble a chateau in Paris.
I’m a middling gardener. Before my husband and I bought our current home, I wanted nothing to do with dirt. No back-twisting weed yanking. No entrenched dirt in my palms’ otherwise optimistic lifelines. No primping of colorful displays determined to self-extinguish despite my best efforts.
Then we accidently bought a house.