Before age 5, a stranger with pale skin was no different than one with dark skin.
|The Nanny Wanted Straight Hair
The story continues...
If you've read my story
"A Warm Smile, a Mop and a Bucket" you know that I first truly discovered that there were people of different races (and some who actually knew rich people!) when I was about five years old.
It was after that I started to see color. I'm sure I had been in downtown Pittsburgh before that day on the bus. And I'm sure that there had been people of all colors in my path. But before the age of five, they were just people, strangers of whom I was probably scared because I was so quiet and shy and fearful of many things. But a stranger with pale skin was no different than a stranger with dark skin until then.
My next close encounter was probably three years later. I went to spend two weeks with my Uncle Jim and his family in Morgantown, West Virginia. They managed a settlement house there. What a fascinating place it was. They lived in a two-story building (with basement) that had their family's apartment, a community meeting room, a library, a huge kitchen off the community room, and a recreation room in the basement. I could hide in the library for hours at a time and read all the books I wanted, without having to answer to a librarian. It was like having a huge library in your home. I was in heaven.
When I arrived at Uncle Jim's home, I was told that I would be sharing the nanny's room. Uncle Jim and Aunt Mary had four kids. Aunt Mary was a schoolteacher and Uncle Jim was attending college to become a teacher. (Now I think what a feat that was, going to college as a man with 4 kids!)
I had never had to share a room with an adult before, and wasn't sure I'd like that.
Guess I was surprised to learn that the nanny was black. I'd certainly never shared a bedroom with a black person before. Just like the lady I had seen on the bus three years prior, this woman had a beautiful smile and a sweet spirit. I was fascinated that she undressed in front of me. I'd never seen my own mother's body, or any grown woman for that matter. I wondered if I'd ever look like that. I wish I could remember her name...
She smelled different than any woman I'd encountered before too. After the first day or two of sharing a room, I braved a question about that. She laughed, and passed a jar under my nose, and I remember wrinkling up my nose because I didn't like the smell very much. She explained that she was using that yucky stuff on hair to make it straight. I wanted to know why she wanted straight hair. Most girls and women I knew curled their hair. Shoot, some even got permanents to make their hair curly. Why did some of us want curly hair and some want straight hair? The lady with the beautiful smile explained that was just the way we were, always wanting what we didn't have. I agreed with her on that, thinking about my friends back home. We always talked about how we wished we were boys. Boys got to play without concern about getting dirty or tearing their clothes. We always had to act "ladylike".
The weekend included a church service like I'd never seen before. For one thing, it was held in the community room and not a church. Instead of having pews, it had folding chairs. And there were faces of all colors there. My, my what an active group of worshippers they were too. Jumping up and down and shouting, "Praise the Lord" and "Amen", they truly scared me to death. It wasn't like that back home in our Methodist church. No siree. We sat quietly and stood for some things and sat for others. There was quite a ritual involved. But, we certainly didn't shout things out whenever we wanted.
I sneaked out to use the restroom. I don't remember if I really had to use the restroom, or it I just wanted to escape for a while. Perhaps both. Another thing that was different about this service was that I didn't think it would ever end. Gosh, golly, gee whiz. Our church services were held to exactly one hour and ended at exactly noon. During the last of the preacher's sermon, the old folks started checking their watches to make sure we weren't getting too much religion. If the preacher finished on time or early, folks greeted him at the door with smiles and handshakes and pats on the back and told him how great the sermon had been. And if he went over his allotted time, they left with frowns out the side or back door. Those folks had our preacher trained. And he'd better not preach about something they didn't like, because they'd certainly let him know about it.
But things were different in the settlement house in Morgantown. The sermon went on and on and on, and the people seemed to be enjoying it, for they laughed and cried and shouted and even clapped if they wanted to. What a different kind of place that was. But, I was only 8 and bored to death. So I escaped to use the restroom.
I could have used the restroom just off the community room, but perhaps I was concerned that someone would hear me. Or perhaps I just wanted to get away. I decided to go back to the apartment and use that bathroom. I dawdled a while, hoping the service would end soon, but it didn't.
So, fearing the wrath of my relatives, I made my way back to the service. But, I decided to use the outside doors rather than the inside ones. That was a poor choice, though, because I tripped and fell and skinned both of my knees rather badly. I cried loudly, too, and that promptly ended the church service as everyone rushed outdoors to see who was being killed. My aunt and uncle were none too pleased.
(See part 2.)