Along about this time, an incident took place that nagged at me for years. It has become a short story, but I won’t print it here. I think the memory suffices.
I may have been younger than seven; I can’t swear to how old I was. I was old enough for what happened to make an impression but not old enough to understand the implications.
From my earliest memories, we always had a maid. Some people had cooks, too, or a woman who could both cook and clean. Our maid was mainly a housekeeper. She came every day, I think, although I can’t imagine why. The incident I’m remembering happened in the summer. The maid–I’ll call her Rose–came to work with her two or maybe three children, all close to my age, in tow. When Rose showed up at the back door, my mother was miffed. Rose explained that she didn’t have anybody to keep the children, and rather than miss work, she had brought them with her. I can hear her voice in my head: “They won’t be no trouble, Miss Carra. They play outside, they be fine.”
Mother had some project underway–making jelly, maybe–so she needed Rose to stay. She told the children to go play in the yard, and Rose came inside and went to work. The trouble was, I wanted to play with them. I nagged at my mother until she gave in, but she lectured me to “keep my distance” and to come in when she called. I wondered aloud why those kids couldn’t come inside to play. I got no answer.
So I went out to play with the black children, and we wound up under the walnut tree where the swing was. I don’t remember if any of us played on the swing. I had a package of balloons in my pocket, precious treasure from a trip to the dime store a day or two before. I brought them out, and we children sat in the dirt and began to blow up balloons. The fun got out of hand when I showed them how to blow them up and let them go so they went buzzing and flying all around us. Hysterical with laughter, we began to swap balloons, blow them up, let them go.
And then my mother showed up. Red-faced with fury, she demanded to know what we were doing, but I didn’t have to tell her. She had been watching us. She yanked me up by the arm and dragged me into the house. All my balloons were left behind.
I don’t recall what happened after that. I suppose the black children stayed on and played in the yard. In my fictional version, their mother takes her dignity and her children and walks away from that job. I’d like to think that was true, but I doubt it. Whatever happened, I was left with the feeling that something wasn’t right.
In fairness to my mother, she had reason to be concerned about me and “germs.” I was sick a lot in those days. She would not have considered herself a racist. It was all she knew. It was what I learned, too: a cultural context of racism that I wouldn’t unlearn for many years. That day, though, for a little while, we children saw only those brightly colored balloons. The color of our skin didn’t matter.
I wonder how those children felt, having their playmate taken away from them, or if the left-behind balloons were enough. I wonder if they sensed the discrimination at the heart of it and if the story stayed with them the way it has stayed with me.