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.