It’s Day Three of my life as the mother of Vivian, and I’m frazzled. Acquiring an 8-year-old ready-made might upset anyone’s equilibrium, but it isn’t just that. Half the time, I can’t even understand what my little girl is trying to tell me.
Right now, for example, as I’m pouring noodles into a pan she comes into the kitchen and asks. “Yo, ah bee hong gree, we gunna have us sum geddo low main?”
“What?” I ask.
“Geddo low main,” she shouts. I’ve been told her foster mother was hard of hearing. Waving her red crayon in the air, she careens across the kitchen to see what’s in the pot. Oops! I fish the crayon out of the pot before the wax can melt into the boiling water and lay it aside. Then, I ensconce her at the kitchen table with 119 crayons and a clean sheet of paper, and go back to making what my mother called her “macaroni hot dish.”
I add tuna, milk, cubed cheddar cheese and cottage cheese to the cooked macaroni and stir the mixture with a large spoon. When the cheese starts to melt, Vivian sniffs, says, “Yum” and announces that dinner will be even better than whatever geddo low main is.
While I’ve been preparing dinner, she’s drawn a picture and shows it to me. There’s what looks like a monkey–huge fuchsia lips, hair like gray corkscrews, eggplant stick-arms and legs, black fingers curled around what might be tree branches. “Dis be knee grow, like me,” she states matter of factly. “An dis,” she says, pointing at a taller, more slender periwinkle creature with long peach hair and apricot wings, “be a beautiful white laydee. Not like me.”
Vivian is the child of my second husband, Carlos Valentino, and of his ex-wife, whose name I never knew. When Vivian and her brother, Luis, were only babies, their mother deserted her family supposedly to go back to her home in Cuba. Before leaving the country, so the story goes, she phoned the police to tell them there was a bag of marijuana hidden in a piece of photographic equipment in their house. The police barged in, walked directly to that piece of equipment, lifted the lens, and out fell fate. Papá was taken to jail, los niños to an institución.
Carlos got out of jail two years later, in 1968. Almost two years after that, having married me, he was allowed to regain custody of his children. By that time, Vivian and Luis had been shunted around from one institution or foster home to another for almost half their lives. The last two years, they had been with a Southern black woman named Shirley who lived 60 miles away from our home in Los Angeles and who I think pocketed much of the support the state paid for foster care.
What had my new daughter learned about life?
On the playground, Vivian didn’t try to catch the ball. Instead, she dodged it, making sure it wouldn’t hit her. If it were tossed to her gently, or better yet rolled on the ground, she would grasp it and hold on to it, hold it close to her and not give it back. She had lost so much: Mamá, Papá, casa, el idioma. Everything gone. She could no longer let anything go, even a ball. It might never come back.
If we had a male visitor at the house, she might be coquettish, prancing about in one of the fancy dresses she told me Mama Shirley had purchased for her so she would “look pretty.” Or she might be found on the floor behind her bed with the wall at her back, hiding until the visitor was gone, until it was safe again in the living room.
How could I, the “beautiful white lady,” ever show this child how beautiful she was? How was I going to be able to calm her fear, make her feel safe, give her confidence? How would she ever come to understand that her new world could be better than her old one had been?
The opportunity to show my daughter that her world was much better came when summer was over and school started. I think it was on the third day of second grade that she came home in tears and reported to me that the boy in back of her in the classroom was calling her “nigger.” “Negro,” though by then having been replaced by “black,” was OK and probably felt OK to her since it means nothing more than the color black in Spanish. “Nigger,” however was decidedly not OK, and she knew it. The boy was leaning forward and whispering in her ear so the teacher wouldn’t hear him, but most of the students in the back of the room were aware of what was going on, and the bigger, badder kids were sniggering.
Here’s what I said: “If he says that word to you again, I want you to pick up the biggest book you have on your desk. Stand up with it and say to the teacher, ‘Excuse me, Ms. Pommeroy, my mother told me to do something.’ Say it loud. Make real sure the teacher hears you. Then turn around and hit that boy with the book right on the top of his dumb head.”
Her mouth fell open. “Won ah git in trouble? Ah don wanna git in trouble.”
My answer: “As soon as you’ve hit him, you turn back to Ms. Pommeroy and say real loud, ‘My mother told me to hit him if he ever called me nigger again.’ I guarantee you will not get into trouble. If anybody wants to talk to you about it, Ms. Pommeroy or the principal, you tell them to call me. I’ll take care of it for you.” We practiced “Excuse me, Ms. Pommeroy, my mother told me to do something…” and “My mother told me to hit him…” several times that evening and again the next morning.
It worked. When she came home from school the next day, I had to ask her about it—she hadn’t yet learned that anyone cared what happened to her—but when I did ask her, she grinned and told me she had hit that boy so hard, “he fell down. He fell down on the floor.” What did the teacher say? I asked. She pulled herself up very tall in a fair imitation of a shocked white-lady teacher and said, “He called you what? No wonder you hit him!”
My daughter had no more trouble in that school because of the color of her skin. Already, her new world was better than her old one had been.
And it got even better. “Black is beautiful” was the slogan in those days, and with a little influence from me, my daughter took that saying to heart. Mama Shirley had taught her that long pomaded and straightened hair and those look-pretty dresses defined her. But Angela Davis, the superstar of the Black is Beautiful movement, wouldn’t have been caught dead looking like that. “When Angela Davis sits down to watch TV,” I told her, “she doesn’t get a grease spot all over the back of the chair from all that Vaseline in her hair.” I showed her newspaper pictures of Angela Davis with her signature “afro,” and she said she’d like an in-style hairdo like that lady’s. So I washed her hair—I think it was three washes and rinses it took to get all the grease out of it—and cut it into a shorter version of Ms. Davis’ afro. And then she helped while I cut my own curly hair into an identical style.
I also bought her T-shirts and jeans. She was disappointed at first that she was expected to give up her dollar store lace and ribbons, so I let her wear the dresses until they were outgrown and she had nothing else except jeans to put on. Once in jeans, however, she decided she did like to be able to run around without exposing her underwear to possibly prurient view. And after all, all the black “sisters” were wearing jeans, too.
Little by little, my daughter became proud of herself. In school, she was respected for being tough and, as she put it one day to me, for “not taking no shit from nobody.” And on the playground, she learned to throw that ball hard.
[A version of this memoir was previously published in the Women’s Memoirs anthology Tales of Our Lives – Fork in the Road, Matilda Butler editor.]