@ 2014 Mary Anderson Parks
I’m in the picture with Mother, looking off away from her at something in the distance but standing close. She is in one of her pretty cotton dresses, maybe one she made, holding her purse and leaning away from me. Why? She looks like she’s trying to protect herself. From me? I do look strong and sturdy in my child’s sun halter. And very brown. I tan quickly. She did too, and tried to stay out of the sun.
I run to the stairs and up to our room and bring my ivory-handled mirror back with me to the couch where I’ve been sitting with the coffee table in front of me. Not where I usually sit. Not in the big comfortable chair by the window.
It’s too blustery to look into the garden today. I feel unsettled enough as it is. Earlier I ran up the stairs to get the picture. Loving the feel of soft rug under my bare feet. But that loving the feel of the softness under my feet didn’t make me forget my purpose. Was that an hour ago? More? I think I’ve been looking at the picture for a very long time. Or maybe not.
What makes me keep running up the stairs to get these things? Oh yes! This book here on the coffee table. The book my husband has been reading. Is he trying to tell me something by leaving it here in plain view? It is a book that belongs to me. I read it many years ago. The House Behind The Cedars. It’s about a woman who passes as white. Not at all the sort of thing he reads. So it must be a message.
And right out here in plain view. A code of some kind. Am I meant now to set one out too? I could lay it on top of his or beside it, touching. Slightly turned away, like my mother in the picture. Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps? No, not that. He though has hit on the perfect one. It has set me thinking. I don’t usually think a lot. There’s too much going on in my mind for that. But today with the wind battering at the windows, remembering the poor girl’s story has carried me straight into old familiar troubling thoughts that are never far from me. They are who I am. Though no one can see that.
I stare into the greenness of my eyes in the mirror until I’m hypnotized. By them and the creaking of the windows. My hair is auburn, not black like Mother’s. It has natural curl. I wind a strand round my finger and count the gray hairs. Two.
I’ve always believed the rumors. The rumors Mother said weren’t true. Have I mentioned Mother? It’s frightening to think I might become like her. She and her mother both went out of their minds. I wonder where they went. Mother said Grandma was very smart and could recite page after page of poetry. But what I remember is how she poked her broom handle back deep in the closets and under the beds every night. I’d rather not think about her. She rarely remembered who I was. I can see her blue eyes watching me suspiciously, but she needn’t have worried. I was too scared of her to sneak into her closet and hide. And it smelled horribly of camphor. Once as I raced past them through the house, she asked Mother, “Who is that wild Indian?” I didn’t mind much. It sort of fit the game I was playing.
How old was I when Mother started telling me about the rumors? It was always when the two of us were alone, usually a Sunday afternoon with Daddy out visiting the sick, the elderly and the lonely. She talked about that, too, how it was part of his job as a lay assistant minister. She sounded doubtful though. Or resentful? I don’t think she believed that’s what he was doing.
I lay the mirror down and pick up the picture again. Is she leaning away from me because she’s guarding her secrets? The ones she passed on to me? No, she’s protecting herself, I think. She looks like she’s afraid someone might hit her. And I’m standing so straight and separate, looking away from her. Our arms though are touching. I miss her when I see our arms touching.
She told me a story that sank deep into my child brain. It’s still right here, though it has moved closer to my heart. The colored woman walking up from Virginia with great- great grandfather all the way to Ohio. Who could she have been, Mother wondered aloud. Why would her father’s grandfather, at age twenty-one, take a colored woman with him when he decided to go live in Ohio, carrying nothing but the knapsack on his back? But we did not have colored blood, she assured me. That was all a mistake, the rumors. Her voice and her face told me how terrible it would be if the rumors were true.
She said Blanchester, just a few towns away, had an unwritten law that colored people had to be out of town by sunset. Leaving my imagination quivering at what might happen to them if they weren’t. I quiver now. This is scary, what I’m doing. It’s much better not to think or remember. Why? There’s a reason, isn’t there, why I must not do it? I’ve forgotten the thing I must not remember, but it’s something else, it’s not this, not this secret I’ve lived with so long it is part of me. The gardener might laugh if I told him. I could entertain him with other stories, too. Like that woman whose name rhymes with Nevada, who saved her life with stories. I could tell him how scared Mother was when she was nineteen and got a hate letter. She’d just started teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. And later, married to blond, blue-eyed Daddy, she got another. They said, “We know you have colored blood.” That wasn’t a good thing to have in Ohio. Especially when everybody thought you were white.
I look at the beautiful dark-eyed woman, her lovely cheekbones, smooth olive skin. My god, what mystery in her face!
Black hair she always wore permed. Did her hair have a kink she wanted to hide? Most girls in her yearbook had straight smooth bobs. Just she and her sister and one other had perms. I never saw Mother without a permanent. Not until she was in a nursing home, her mind gone, her hair in gray-white wisps, at the point where all races begin to look alike. I yearn for the day I’ll look like all the races.
I was probably eight or nine, or seven. She told me these stories over and over while we drank fizzling glasses of Upper Ten and shared a box of Cheese-its. We both liked strong tastes and preferred Upper Ten to Seven-up. Whatever happened to Upper Ten? I’d like some right now. Curling my knees up, I lie on my side, a soft cushion under my face to comfort myself.
Somehow a rumor got started that a colored baby had been born into the Jones family. She said it must have been a blue baby and its circulation wasn’t working and it died. And that was all there was to it, she said, with her look of a teacher closing the discussion. But there was fear in her eyes. And I felt sorry for her. So I didn’t ask, as I wanted to, well, what about the colored woman great-great grandfather Jones came up from Virginia with?
Then she’d tell me again about the families in the town nearest their farm that did have colored blood, the Rosses and the Wylies. Yes, they had colored blood and everybody knew it, but we didn’t have any. That was all a mistake.
It seemed best to keep silent and pretend to agree. That wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to get any of it out of my mind either. I felt more and more colored every day. And even though Daddy and I talked about many things, I knew not to talk to him about this. I just went on feeling Mother’s pain, keeping it inside.
I was forty when she died. I got the county records and learned one of great-great grandfather’s daughters married a Ross and one married a Wylie. Why did Mother never tell me that? I stared and stared at the picture of one of their sons, seeing the truth of the rumors in his face. And in his mother’s. The gardener with his brown skin might understand. Or would he scoff and say my drops of color don’t matter because no one can see them? I would hate it if he said that. They’re precious to me, those drops.
I’m very good at keeping secrets. And the subconscious buzzes right along, subverting, subsuming, subjugating, substituting, subsisting, submarining, subhitting, subterfuging, subterraneaning.
Will I get a prize at the end? Will there really be pie in the sky by and by? I hope it’s Mother’s custard pie, and her peach and her rhubarb. Cherry and berry. Apple. Her magical crust.
I’m better at secrets than piecrust. You may think I’m telling them to you but I’m not. Not really. I didn’t tell you how I feel about being black and no one able to see it, how lonely that is.
It’s always safest to stay right here in this moment. And not remember. Who knows what might come next? The ghosts lurk up near the ceiling in the corners. Father, Mother, daughter, old loves, even the little dark baby born into the Jones family that someone probably smothered.
Do you want to come closer, poor little baby? I know it’s too late for a hug but I could invite you out just for me to see. Then it would still be a secret, wouldn’t it?
I prop the mirror where I can lie staring into my own eyes again. Mixed-blood people often have green eyes. I read that in a novel, Five Smooth Stones. Perhaps that’s the one I could lay next to his.
What is he trying to tell me anyway? That he knows? We really are a rather strange pair.
And the worst is yet to come if I start inviting the ghosts out. But I’m stronger than I look.