Dick and Jane were white. The first grade book with the soft red cover, introduced us to a whole new world. Reading. We stumbled over words, became friends with them and began our journey toward freedom. But we were already free in ways I knew nothing about, until I met Rita.
I plopped my plaid book satchel on the screened-in front porch and thought about an after school snack. The living room of our bungalow house was small. High windows rested over bookshelves, which cradled the fireplace. At three o'clock in the afternoon, the sun, veiled by flickering dust particles, created a misty pool of light on the floor. Bathed in the filtered light was a little golden brown girl in a soft blue sweater. She was on her knees with her elbows propped on the top of an ottoman. I was mesmerized. I walked over, bent down and looked into her big beautiful dark eyes. I hesitantly took her silky small hand in mine. She did not pull away, but smiled at me. I patted and stroked her tiny fingers. Her hair was polished and braided. It shone brighter than my black inner tube in ocean water. Rita’s mother, Nannie was our new housekeeper and Nannie would be bringing her young daughter each week. It was going to be a good summer.
My Western Flyer red wagon was perfect for pulling Rita and her choice of toys. We went around the block and became an anomaly to neighbors. As far as I was concerned, she was mine. My best friend and my little sister. We played in the sand box and I pushed her in the swing. Occasionally, Nannie brought along some other children. Relatives, I suppose. The yellow Jonquils were blooming outside our kitchen window. A mama dog had crawled under the house and produced ten puppies. All of us were reveling in the spirit of spring and curiosity. I reached for the hand of a boy about my age. Then, a heart-stopping voice in my mind came from generations back and continued into the present like an echo. NO! I felt disappointed, confused, helpless and sad.
I thought a lot about Nannie, her husband, and Rita. Sometimes they traveled, but where did they stay? Where did they eat? I gazed around the restaurants we frequented. I looked at water fountains and restrooms in department stores. I could read. I had learned from the Dick and Jane book.
I was young with no knowledge of history, but something seemed terribly wrong. My little "sister" could not go to the swimming pool with me or get ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She would have to enter a side door that led to the balcony at the picture show. I wouldn't be able to put her in my lap, hug her close and watch cartoons.
Years went by and I never stopped looking forward to that one day a week with Rita. My parents moved us into a bigger house up on the mountain. Rita and I took walks in the woods, had picnics and slid down the grass on flattened out cardboard boxes. We lived in that special secret world that children share. We sat on the roof of our mountain house and looked out over our town. From that lofty distance, we saw no lines of delineation. No neighborhoods labeled according to race. Everything ran together and looked the same from our vantage point.
When the day was over, Mama drove Nannie and Rita home. I always went along for the ride. I took mental pictures of wooden houses with tall steps leading to high porches. I wanted to go inside Rita’s house, but never did. I waved at dark skinned children and wished I could stay to play with them.
Rita talked about going to church. Sometimes she sang songs I didn’t recognize. She clapped, danced and gyrated in a way that made me feel happy. She talked about how her mama smoothed her hair with an implement which had to be heated on the stove. She bathed in a galvanized tub. Rita liked for me to lie on the bed and hang my head off so she could brush my hair. Her simple movements and gentle hands felt good on my head. Rita talked about becoming my "maid" when she grew up. The words made me sick. I did not want to be served by my friend.
I had gone through the customary removal of my tonsils. It was as normal as the chicken pox. I didn’t worry about Rita's upcoming surgery. Tonsillectomies were part of being a kid in the 1950s.
The phone rang in the morning. It interrupted my imaginative concentration and startled me in our quiet, only-child home. Mama picked up the receiver and said, “hello.“ Her long silence frightened me. I sensed something terrible. I heard her low, choking sobs and they told me everything. She hung up the telephone and stared through me. I knew. I lost all feeling in my mouth, arms, legs. Mama’s eyes were red and all she said to me was, “We need to get dressed.”
I went to my room and saw my face reflected in the mirror. White upon white. Sweat running out of my pours and a scream that would not come.
My best little friend was dead. My tonsils had been taken out and I was still alive. It couldn’t be real. I was too young to handle feelings like that. I wanted to get in my red wagon and fly down the driveway. I wanted to plummet down the mountain, tangle myself up in vines and Kudzu. I burned to be thrown and tossed by rocks and branches. I was desperate to feel the pain, to hurt and scream to the top of my lungs. To find the other side of suffering, where freedom would blow in my face and cool the fire of anger in my soul. Dick and Jane would reach out their dark hands to mine and change the world forever.
In Memory of,