I've Got Issues...And Peace


Boulder, Colorado,
October 22
Family, marital, and individual psychotherapist. Mother to four who no longer need my services but still enjoy my love as I do theirs. I specialize in stepfamily dynamics and difficult transitions. I try to write from the heart with a sense of vulnerability, humor and a frank look at myself. Art shown: "Four Pots" by Lindsey Leavell


APRIL 15, 2011 8:49AM

Black and White

Rate: 40 Flag



Artwork by Monica Stewart    

Her face was as black and shiny as the newly laid tar that had been laid out on the endowed summer streets of Greenwich, Connecticut, home to the whitest of the wealthy.  She sat, alone, at our kitchen table quietly eating the simple lunch she had brought with her.  Her eyes stayed focused on the sandwich as she chewed deliberately, slowly as if in prayer.  Despite the presence of seven kids who were loudly dispersed in various levels of the house, the kitchen had the air of a church.

I stood there outside of the room watching her.  I was only ten years old but I loved her, which was odd because I didn’t know her, I had never spoken to her.  I was in awe of her as I had watched her quiet tower of dignity every week and wanted to know more.  Did she have a husband?  What was it like to be a black woman living in New York City?  What were her children like?  But the invisible rules were like billboards that screamed not to be rude, to know my place as a child and be seen and not heard.

I had gone with my mother that morning to pick her up, a weekly trip to pick up the housecleaner my mother had found through a friend. 

We drove into the outskirts of New York where there were rows of gray and dull brown structures packed next to each other like worn out soldiers trying to stand at attention.  We pulled up to her home and I tried not to strain my neck and draw attention to my curious stares.   I wanted to understand,  to become familiar with, be a part of her world.

Four or five bright young black faces peered out of the window as they watched their mother leave for the day.  I was itching to have them come to my home.  I wanted to play with them on our 7 acres where I imagined we would rummage through magical caves and run boldly into taunting marshes of cattails that we’d smash with branches willfully and with abandon.  We would stand there panting, short of breath but victorious as our flushed but reverent faces would watch the white fluffs of the newly orphaned cattails shoot brightly into the sky like fireworks and then gently drift down like ballerinas as they barely touched the ground.

In my dream, I would imagine us as friends.  There would be no barriers of race or status.  But even at that young age, I understood the immovable  rooting of the have’s and the have not’s and the unfairness of it cut deep into my perpexed heart.  

My parents would take us into the Big Skyscraper City to see the Rockettes, the Ed Sullivan Show or the latest musical hit.  My father would make a point of driving us through Harlem.  He wanted us to see and appreciate what we had.  I would be wracked with a guilt that had no chance of justice or relief.  Why should I have this kind of life where expansive green lawns waited for my innocent feet to play, unaware of the cares and troubles of this multicolored world?

I would stare at the little children of Harlem whose only source of summer refreshment were the fire hydrants that were released out of downright desperation, stifling heat and boredom. 

I was helpless to affect any kind of change as my father would drive slowly through those ghettoed and troubled streets.  He was successful in teaching me to appreciate what I had.  An unintentioned bonus was that at this young age a thorn was placed deep into my unscarred heart.  The Thorn of the pain of helplessness at witnessing such unfairness mired deep in vats of poverty and prejudice and not be able to do a thing about it.   

As a child, I always resented the powerlessness of childhood.

Every summer, half a dozen neighbors on our street would “take in” a black child from Harlem for the summer.  These children were ages 8-10, about my age at the time.  It seemed a strange and cruel thing to take these children from homes and neighborhoods outlined in grime and grim prospects and deposit them into the lily white manic cleanliness and decorum of the bankers, the TV execs, the brokers, the actors and their dissatisfied wives.  I never got to know any of those children; they were being constantly whisked from horse shows to the Hamptons. 

In the fall, shortly after they were gone, I would lie in my bed and look out at the large oak tree outside my bedroom window and stare through its branches to count the bright stars above.

I would think of those children and know that there were no massive oak trees to offer shelter and support, no fresh country air to fill their tiny lungs, no sights of stars so bright you’d swear you could touch them.  And I wondered if they thought of us, lying in our comfortable beds being lullabied by crickets who had the good sense to know never to waste a good autumn night with sleep. 

I would fall asleep with my hand on my hurting heart.

I witness the have’s and the have not’s and the Thorn has long made permanent residence in my heart.  It serves as both motivator and teacher.

As for the cleaning woman from so long ago, I never even knew her name.  


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""As a child, I always resented the powerlessness of childhood.""

......and as an adult, my heart has been broken by the helplessness of me to change what the child me knew should be changed.....

Incredible writing - you can touch souls.
Beautiful, Mary. Your gift for making your personal past our present is stunning.
You have great empathy, Mary, and can bring us back to the mysteries of childhood. Your piece reminds us that the haves and have nots have persisted in this country since its inception -- not just now.
I think her name is "Alma." She brought her daughter to our house once and I befriended her. I was invited to play at their house once. Mom dropped me off at their front porch whee Alma and her daughter were waiting for me. It was a real eye opener. Not in the sense of their station in life, but in the strength of their pride and sense of community. The neighbors looked at me as if I were from another planet. I experienced reverse racism as an early teen, but had no idea what that meant at the time. I was looked upon with sheer disdain and utter disinterest. I could see that Alma and her daughter felt helpless and badly by the neighbor's reaction. It was awkward at best. Alma called mom and had me picked up early. I sensed that they were fearing what their neighbors thought of them for having a white girl over to their house to play. It was like they broke their own code of ethics or some other un-named bond. It was a misstep and I was the one who didn't belong. As I recall this, mom never had Alma clean our house after this. It made me very sad. Your story began like fiction until I got further into the paragraphs of a very real and bittersweet tale of truth and tragedy. Very well done, Mary.
Wow! What a beautiful and heartfelt post. I too am colorblind and growing up in Madison, Wisconsin was pretty sheltered.
This is wonderful and evocative, Mary. There are so many large themes wrapped up in this, and Cathy's comment complicates this tragic story to something approaching the reality of race and poverty in this country. Very nicely done.
Simply humane, sensitive, serene and beautifully written, Mary.
It seemed a strange and cruel thing to take these children from homes and neighborhoods outlined in grime and grim prospects and deposit them into the lily white manic cleanliness and decorum of the bankers, the TV execs, the brokers, the actors and their dissatisfied wives.

I have often wondered about the impact of such "programs." Do they raise "vision" or do they breed resentment and "otherness" . . . having been on both sides of the tracks, I lean toward the latter . . .
This was lovely and poignant. Thank you.
Wow, this is a wonderfully written piece. Your father did you a great service by teaching you to appreciate what you had.
At some point I started reading this aloud. I suddenly needed to hear your marvelous words spoken. This most excellent piece of writing stung my eyes and touched my heart.

You make me want to be a better writer.
Thanks for sharing your perspective. Children are incredibly perceptive, if they had more pull in the world, perhaps we'd all get along more nicely
My god, Mary, this is one of the best things I've read anywhere.
Yes, the cloistered confines of Greenwich are the epitome of one side of this Great Divide, but it is far from the only such place. The city of Washington, DC, couldn't be more emblematic of this Great Divide. And, of course, the South, where I reside, is notorious for institutionalizing the Great Divide.

It troubles me deeply that so many on the Right, rich and poor, never learned the lesson you did -- or that they are so obviously and tragically ignorant of the idea that "there but for fortune go you and I".
Beautiful writing. Recollections of a sensitive young child remembered by the caring and emphatic woman she's grown into.
A very poignant read.

is this fiction???
white executives taking in black kids for the summer? never heard anything like it. its a little hard to picture.
some nice ideas/juxtapositions.
but it seems the narrator does not really have the empathy she pointedly professes.
Some day you will know her name, Marytkelly, and she will recognize you by your good heart.
Been waiting for a piece from Mary Kelly. This was fabulous. I can relate. Our cleaning lady's name was Rebecca. She lived in Yonkers, not Harlem.
"As a child, I always resented the powerlessness of childhood"
So wise you were and are.
Wow ! That was truly beautiful.
Absolutely Brilliant.
Love it.
skypixieo: You said, "......and as an adult, my heart has been broken by the helplessness of me to change what the child me knew should be changed..." Sky, yes, I didn't have the words and you described so well how I feel now. Thank you!!!! And thank you.

Tim4change: Thank you Tim. Enjoy this beautiful spring weekend.

Lea: Thanks so much for reading. I suppose the have's and have not's are a function of human nature, survival, etc. but it just plain sucks.

Cathy: Leave it to your good memory to tell me and yes, "Alma" sounds so familiar to me. And I'm having vague whisperings of memories about you going over to their home, but only at your recent reminder. I'm thankful you gave me "the rest of the story".

Susie: Thank you! You went from Madison to Boulder? I think you're living a magical life. I pinch myself on a daily basis getting up every morning and looking at the Flatirons. And the same disparities exist here...thank you so much for reading.

Lainey: Hi Lainey! Cathy's comment was a piece to a long unsolved having her as one of my sisters! Thank you so much for reading.

Thoth: Hi Thoth! Thank you, thank you much.

Owl: I have to believe that it's like some sick kind of taunting and teasing. "Look what we have. Look what you don't have and most likely will never come close to getting." It never made sense to me. Thank you for pointing that out so well.

kh3333: Thank you!

Mike in Ohio: My parents were excellent in teaching us to be grateful for what we had. And I'm always grateful to them for that because it's a continual state of mind, or at least a conscious attempt to be so. Thank you for reading.

bluestocking babe: Well thank you! Sometimes I will read what I've written out loud and it's so surprising to me how much it can change the post. And your words of support are very touching to me. Really. Thank you.

Hayley Rose: I love children. Not only are they incredibly wise, they are ridiculously funny as well...but that's the subject of another post. Thank you for reading.

Tom: A high compliment coming from you. I'm honored. And of course you are so right that Greenwich is only one place of many. I think if people with money were honest, they would be really saying, "there but for MY fortune go you and I". I will say that I've met some of the kindest and caring people (including Republicans...remember, this was a different Republican) who were wealthy. They do amazing things with their money. I've also met plenty of wealthy Democrats who made me want to puke. I'd love to get rid of all the labels but I'm not that naive. Thanks for reading and your great comment.

Fusun: Thank you so much for reading.

vzn: "Is this fiction?" No.
"White executives taking in black kids for the summer?" Yes and No. The white executives kept working all summer...their wives took in these children. I understand why it is a little hard to picture but it's the truth. As for the "narrator not really having the empathy she pointedly professes"...I appreciate your honest response to my post and to me.

patricia k: Well, I think I do now thanks to sister Cathy. Thank you for reading!

trilogy: Thank you! And I feel honored by your words. Did you read "The Help"? I had just finished it and it is what inspired me to write this. An excellent book you might enjoy, especially given your own experiences with Rebecca.

Beo: A real treat when you come by and comment. Made me smile, warmed my heart and made my toes tingle.
You have tapped a fresh, rich vein of writer's gold and you shine! This is above Editor's Pick. The thorn planted in your child's soul has blossomed into a rose. I love how you capture the depth of your childhood feelings, impressions, and struggles -- your memories, dreams, reflections. Your imagery is equally powerful. I am tearjerked with admiration. Love you, Sis! Joan
Somewhere this day and every day, a child sits in squalor, and while we can try, we know full well that it will not likely change for them.
Sadly, those Harlem streets are still there.
Very very well written!!!
For vzn or anyone else who doesn't know about this program. It was called "The Fresh Start Program."
Oops. The Fresh Air Fund. It can be Googled. It still exists.
This is an intense, powerful and personal view of a universal situation. I share many of the same memories, especially about our grandmother's "maid" Fanny and her husband Chester, a high school PE teacher. We adored them, they had no children and adored us back. We slept at their house a few times, were stared at as if aliens but played with some of the neighbors kids. That's when I realized I had no clue of the world beyond my own privileged existence. And could do nothing about its inequities and meanness.

"As a child, I always resented the powerlessness of childhood." You sure summed that up in a variety of ways for a lot of us.
This is a very tough story to tell well. And you did it.
When I lived in NH, I had a neighbor (a teacher) who hosted kids in the Fresh Air program for years. She hosted the same girl every summer for several years. Her young visitor was around the same age as her daughter, and they got to be friends. It seemed to be a positive experience for all of them.
This brings back many similar memories and feelings from my childhood. Beautifully rendered. Thank you.
Mary's dreamy, poetic reverie was sharply contrasted by Cathy's harsh, youthful life-lesson. I remember Fresh Air Kids as a child, too. We found them fascinating. They were our first intimations of emotional nonuniformity, those daring sprites from beyond the sterile and suffocating bower of comfort and privilege.
What a lyrical and poignant piece. Solidly rated.
Friction Fiday, I take it.
I almost cried when I read that last sentence. It is hard to fathom how someone could be in a home every week without her name being revealed. Your guilt is understandable, but wouldn't it be better to accept you had no control over anything then, but now you do?


BTW, I love that piece of art!
I so appreciate the additional comments. L in the Southeast: I love that art as well! Yes, I agree with your solution. Better to be solution oriented than feel the guilt. The post was meant to express more where I was as that child, the guilt and helplessness I felt. I certainly still feel that way many problems seem overwhelming (those big huge global problems) and as a very well trained Catholic (despite me leaving the church at the age of 20), dealing with my guilt is a continual excavation. Thanks to all.
Coin toss. You win. You took me to the other side. This lyrical and wonderfully written story answered many of my own childhood questions about race, having grown up in the black and white world of the inner city. We were the ones who wondered about the likes of YOU, and it never occurred to any of us that peoples of that ilk had any feeling, let alone thought, about us. Wanna play tag, or hide-n-seek? Big rate, Marytkelly, and I am certainly enjoying your acquaintance! R.