Sycamore Street 1944 by Sally Clay
I was living alone with my mother in a little cottage on Sycamore Street, and I was 2-1/2 years old. Something was already wrong with my life, and no one had to tell me. On a street filled with families we were already not a family: My father had gone to live with his parents in their big mansion on Main Street.
But I played fiercely, wearing an old army dress hat as my uniform of courage, and my favorite playmate was the little boy down the street, Abner. He was a year older than I, and he was a boy, but I did everything I could to keep up with him. We chased each other up and down the sidewalks; we lifted utility covers in the sidewalk to giggle at the worms and bugs underneath. In Abner's backyard, we set up our own armed camp where Abner declared himself general and I protested that I was general, too. After all, I had the army hat.
Abner could only take so much from an upstart girl, and he retaliated by snatching my hat and hiding it from me. He then announced that he was going to burn it on the spot-and I believed him. Stripped of my power, I ran home screaming.
Mommy was sympathetic. But something else was wrong, and she could not seem to admit it to me. All the while she was telling me, "Abner will not burn your hat, Abner will not burn your hat," I could hear another message, an ominous one. There was something wrong beyond the loss of my hat, even though she knew that the hat symbolized to me my newly acquired role of courage in the face of the unknown. What else was unknown here?
I ran to my room, to my big oak toychest that contained all the belongings I had in the world. It was suddenly, inexplicably, empty. I was so horrified that I stopped crying and sat silently on the floor.
My mother was in the doorway explaining to me that my father had taken the toys because he wanted me to come live with him, that my belongings were all right, that I would get them back.
But the fact was that my hat was stolen, and quite likely destroyed, and I was cruelly deprived of my identity. My belongings were gone, leaving only an empty box where once had been books and stuffed animals and games, all the things that tied me to that house, that street, that town-that world.
It was at that first moment of loss that I somehow knew-and knew consciously-that I had no real home. Perhaps I would never again have a home.
It was only years later that I made the connection between the empty toybox and my father, when I learned that he had moved my toys to my grandparents' house. At the time it seemed as if an act of heaven had divested me of all that was mine. It would be a long time before I could put this kind of event into words, but it was the first of many that throughout my life would jolt me out of conventional reality and into a nightmare landscape.
The custody battle had begun. My mother was forced to move out of town, and I went to live temporarily with my father at my grandparents. Not only were my toys all there, but I had an entire playroom filled with both old and new toys. Abner had not burned my army hat, and I suppose it too was among the mountains of toys at my new "home." But I was not the same: a new identity was demanded of me. Instead of shorts and army hat I now wore starched dresses and Maryjane shoes, and my grandmother took great pride in showing me off around town. Everyone agreed that I looked just like Shirley Temple with my natural curls and big smile. I played the role of little rich girl well, and even managed to forget about army hats and worms. I was lavished with attention by both my father and my grandparents. My great-grandmother, whom everyone called "Clay," also lived in the big house, and my favorite time of the day was at dawn when I would gather all my books together and hop into Clay's big double bed with her.
"Precious," she called me, for she was as pleased by my attentions as I was by hers. Our favorite book at the time was the Wizard of Oz ; I had not seen the Judy Garland movie yet, but I already found it easy to identify with the young farm girl who is swept into a fantasy world by disaster.
Much of my time, however, was spent with the Negro servants who really ran the house and made life comfortable for the rest of us. Chief among these were Annie and Louis, the cook and the chauffeur who had worked for the family for years and were almost a part of the family themselves. Annie spent the day in the huge, almost institutional size kitchen. She made fresh breads, pies, and other goodies daily, including traditional Kentucky dishes such as corn pudding and beaten biscuits. Louis served the meals to the family as we sat in the sunny breakfast room for breakfast or lunch and the formal dining room for dinner. I always felt odd being waited upon by my friends.
I also felt odd when I rode with my grandfather when he drove the servants home at night. We had all spent the day in splendor, but Louis and Annie went home at night to houses that were little better than shacks, all outside the city limits (so they could not vote). I remember how driving home one night Grandad pointed out the burned down remnants of somebody's shack-with a certain amount of glee he explained that the "old darkie" who had lived there had caught his bed on fire while he was drunk and had burned to death in the fire.
This was supposed to be some sort of object lesson in how the lower classes cannot take care of themselves. But what Grandad did not know was that I myself identified with those "darkies"; and he did not realize that I had already had some experience with personal loss and disaster. I grieved for that unknown black man, just as I now grieve for my grandfather who himself died of alcoholism many years later. And for many years after that day when Grandad showed me the charred ruins of the black man's house, I had a morbid fear of fire.
And I missed Mommy. This was taboo, I realized, because her name was never mentioned in my grandparents' house, and it was a given that I was a fortunate little girl who was provided all the things I could possibly want or need. I was even given a substitute mother.
Elizabeth was my nursemaid during the afternoons. She was a big, black woman with a forceful personality, who was more of my confidant than she was substitute mother. I called her "E.E." (which were Mommy's initials), and she alone of all the solicitous people around me seemed to understand my unspoken love and need for my own mother.
One of our favorite activities was to sit on the stone fence in front of the big house on Main Street and watch all of the cars and people as they passed by. We often became so engrossed in our own conversations that we ignored a passer-by-and E.E. would forget to say, "Good afternoon, sir (or m'am)," as was expected of her by the white folks. When this happened on one sunny afternoon and E.E. failed to address a local farmer who passed us "all got up" for market, the farmer stopped angrily and barked, "Watch your manners, nigger," or words to that effect.
I was horrified-not so much by what the man said, because we were all used to that kind of talk, but because of the transformation in my beloved E.E. My friend, who was always a pillar of strength and in fact my principle link to earthly reality, trembled for several seconds after the man left, and tears of shame welled in her eyes.
Strangely, I knew just how she felt, and I wanted to comfort her just as she had always comforted me. "You're just like me, E.E.," I assured her. "The only difference between you and me is that your skin is inside out."
But E.E. was not comforted. She turned to me angrily and said, "Shut your mouth, child."
It was the only time she had spoken to me harshly, and I was devastated. I thought I had understood her pain; I thought she had understood mine. But I had come up against a social reality so deep that it isolated suffering in individual persons and did not admit sharing. It had put her in her place as a Negro, and it put me in my place as a child.
Or perhaps, looking back, her anger at me was to defend a certain power that she knew she had and the white folks did not-and I was a white person, at that moment like all the rest.
Whatever the reason, I realized that somehow, no matter how much I loved her, E.E. would always be a stranger to me, and me to her.
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