Monday, March 7, 2016

Black and White

The house I grew up in. 
I wrote this over a year ago and just found it again in my files. It's a story that took a long time for me to put in writing, in black and white on a page in front of me. Time gives perspective, and also bring understanding and perspective. So today I bring you this personal story from the spring of 1967.

My mother wanted me to date Catholic boys, but I never did. Until Bob.

I was friends with many Catholic boys; after all, I went to a small Catholic school through the seventh grade. But those boys were more like brothers, we’d been together so long. None of them interested me and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t interesting to any of them either. In the public junior high school I was surrounded by students of all faiths, a novel experience. Who knew that there were so many kids in our county! My graduating class from the Catholic school had 14 students; my class at the junior high probably had a couple hundred.

I wasn’t allowed to date, according to my father, until I was eighteen; still I managed to circumvent his rule when I was 15. But none of the boys I went out with were Catholic and my parents were not happy about that and did not like a single one of the guys I brought home to meet them. It took a pretty confident boy to come home with me in the first place. I had twelve siblings after all, and a strict, unfriendly father waiting at the door. Mom would be gracious but Dad was anything but, and usually had the poor fella squirming in just a few minutes.

In my junior year of high school I met Bob. He was different from the other kids. For one thing, he was older. He’d dropped out of school to work in his senior year, but had come back to finish up. He was working evening shift at a garage and going to school during the day. He had the hottest car, a Plymouth Roadrunner I think it was, a real muscle car. And he was drop dead gorgeous. He was half Mexican, I was told, which probably accounted for his dark good looks and liquid brown eyes. And wonder of wonders, he was Catholic! I fell for him, hard.

I could not wait for him to meet my mother. Dad was working evening shift so he wasn’t home. I brought Bob into the living room, and said, “Mom, this is Bob.”

Mom and Dad, probably taken
in the 1960's
Mom put on her best “English lady” look and voice. She used it to “put people in their place,” as she said. She had a fine English accent, and a warm loving way usually, but there were times when she would literally look down her nose at people, and the accent became quite pronounced, and well, superior-sounding.

“How do you do, Bob?” she said in that voice that I knew meant she didn’t like him already.

“Bob goes to our church,” I said hopefully. “He has a job but he’s also going to school.”  I could not understand why she was acting so unfriendly. She didn’t even invite him to sit down.

“Well, Susie, you have your work to do. Don’t you think you’d better say good-bye now?”

I walked Bob to his car and said good-bye, watching as he drove away. Then I went back inside, where I was confronted by a very angry mother.

“How dare you bring that…that…that…BLACK boy into our house!” She was so angry her face was red.
“Black! He’s not black! I think he’s part Mexican or something!” I was stunned. What was she talking about?

“I thought you’d like him, Mom! He’s Catholic, he goes to church every Sunday. And he works full-time even though he goes to school. He’s a nice guy.”

“He’s not our type, and he’s too old for you.”

“Well, he dropped out of school for a year. He’s only like 18 or 19!”

You will not see him anymore, is that clear?”

“But why…?”

“That’s all. You better hope I don’t tell your father about this!” She left the room, and I was left trying to understand what had just happened.

Perhaps a stronger-willed girl would have defied her mother and continued seeing the forbidden one. Perhaps another girl would have argued her case, or snuck around seeing her guy in secret. I didn’t. I was heartbroken but I followed my mother’s orders. I broke off with Bob, telling him that my mother thought he was too old for me.

I’ve never forgotten that day. I’ve thought about it and wondered if I should have stood up for my friend against my mother’s wishes. I wondered what my father would have thought if he’d ever met Bob, this young man with the hands of a working-man and a quiet, respectful manner. But Dad, I learned later, felt the same way as my mother. Anyone of any color whatsoever was not our kind.

Until that day I had not realized that my mother had an ounce of racism in her, but looking back I remembered the day we went to visit Sarah, the black lady who cleaned the church. Sarah was always kind to us, and often stopped to talk to Mom at our garden gate. One day she invited Mom and us girls to her home for tea. Mom must have been flabbergasted at the invitation but she accepted. We had to dress in our Sunday clothes, even down to wearing gloves, and Mom was nervous as a cat the whole time. We girls, on the other hand, were fascinated by Sarah’s house and by her incredibly beautiful flower gardens. I knew Mom wasn’t happy about being there, and seemed to worry that someone might see us. I was only nine or ten at the time so the reason for her discomfort didn’t register.

Later in life Mom changed her views. Perhaps it was because the world around her grew increasingly multicultural and those of other races became part of her everyday circle—doctors, nurses, priests, church members and even neighbors. Her heart was kind and compassionate and working as a nurse’s assistant brought her the reality that suffering and joy are the same for everyone, no matter their color. 


I wonder about Bob from time to time. I didn’t get to know him very well, so where he went in life I do not know. But in my mind he has remained darkly handsome, with those liquid-soft brown eyes, brown hair burnished with gold, and a smile that even today brings a smile to my lips. I hope his life has been as good as mine turned out to be.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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