The photo above came from a collage that my mother made many years ago. This project, done with the desire to ‘glue’ lives together, especially her own, fragmented and troubled. All the photos altered or cut up. When my mother handed it to me, she said, “This is your life.” I made no comment, took it dutifully, and thought, “No, this is not MY life at all.”
I found the selections odd. I’d guess that it was cathartic for my mother, an effort to put together something that never was and probably never would be. At least, it existed visually, a span of time in her life. I nearly tossed it away years ago, as it sat in the loft of my barn in the desert for over ten years, deteriorating in the dust and heat.
As it turns out, I brought it north, and it’s a support for my genealogical research. I’ve torn off the corrugated cardboard backing and gleaned many fragments. Those that are salvageable will be restored or renewed and digitized.
We were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 327 Allston Street, with my stepfather’s parents. I’m the oldest of my mother’s offspring. The smelly, stubbly, cigar smoking old man was Portuguese. Nana was a nurse, Dutch. Today, a listing for the address shows the house as built in 1969. Perhaps the old house was torn down. The park across the street still exists, sans the metal merry-go-round, on which another little story from life, spins.
Photographs speak. I’m smiling, dressed nicely. My mother must have crocheted lace for the sleeves of my blouse. I’m not looking at the photographer, and my body posture shows constraint. Shoulders lifted, arms tightly pulled in, I’m trying to shrink into my skin. The dutiful smiles, along with the squishy face my sister made, end the moment. I’m certain of my discomfort. If someone looked at me, it might mean something bad will happen.
It was during that time that I began to notice differences in how black people were treated versus white. I lived in a mixed neighborhood, mostly whites, some blacks. The color of skin was still a source of oppression, even in the northeast.
My mother would send me up to Fairmont Street to buy bread – the prospect frightening. On my obedient way, I noticed a white woman, wearing rags, in a run down house – a shack, really. She was seeing her husband off to work and he was very black. I noticed the affection between them and felt happy. Another time, she smiled at me when I passed by. She never moved past the open door and I never saw her again.
I heard Grampie (step-grandfather) talking about the blacks and in particular, this couple. He didn’t call them, blacks, though, they were ‘colored’ or worse. I recalled only the smile, the love, the rags, the shack. My mind was my own.
I worried about people, even at my young age. Perhaps, through the horrors of my young life, I could sense oppression and how wrong it was. How could anyone be a bad person, if she smiled at a child? It hurt my heart to hear, and I became skilled at blocking out what I didn’t want to hear.
In retrospect, I wonder now if the woman was, in fact, white. She may have been a light-skinned black woman.
That couple will never know that their presence in the neighborhood was the beginning of my understanding of how people viewed and judged others, based on criteria that should not be factored in. Inquisitive and capable of using logic and reasoning, I formed my own opinions, without help. No conclusion ever included prejudice against blacks.
Stay tuned for more Little Stories from Life.