Writing Right with Dmitri: The Urge to Share
When I was eight years old, an odd thing happened. My mom, er, started to grow. Instead of getting taller, she got wider. I shrugged: that happened to grown-ups, I thought. People got fat – no big deal, just more of them to love. It's true that my mom's mother weighed about 80 pounds, soaking wet, but my dad's mother was generously proportioned, and I didn't know anything about genetics back then, so I thought it was fine. Until school started again, and a friend who knew our family came up with what I thought was an outrageous rumour. I ran home in high dudgeon.
'Mama!' I yelled as I charged in the door. 'That dumb ol' Donna Mobile said you were gonna have a baby! I told her she shouldn't make things up.' I knew my mom couldn't be expecting a baby. She would have told us.
How did I know that? Because my sister and I had a prayer pact. We'd been praying, every single night for months, for a baby brother. I don't know how we settled on a brother, but we had. See, we'd been reading the Bible and. . . we knew where babies came from. Absolutely. In the Bible, babies came because you prayed for them. Sometimes angels showed up and explained things, but we weren't asking God to go that far. Anyway, you see why it was perfectly clear to me that if my mother were pregnant, she would have told us about it. So we could stop bugging God and start thanking Him instead. Phooey.
By the time I got far enough into the house to actually find my mother, it had sunk in with her that the Cat Was Out of the Bag. The expression on her face was confusing to me: revisiting that expression as an adult, I realised it was at least half embarrassment. She explained that yes, we were going to have a new baby in the house come Christmastime – Yay! – and, er, the reason she didn't tell us was that, er, that was a long time away, and, um, she didn't want us to have to wait so long and. . .
'Oh, who cares?' I shouted. 'I can start thanking God right now! This is the coolest Christmas present ever!'
'Oh, one more thing,' my mom added hastily. 'You don't get to pick whether it's a boy or a girl. That's kind of up to God, you know?'
'Oh, sure,' I shrugged. 'We'd like a girl just as much.' And we did, when my youngest sister was born a couple of weeks before Christmas.
One thing about my mother's explanation for her hesitation in admitting she was 'expecting': it was a barefaced lie. The real reason she'd withheld the information, as she later admitted, was because she dreaded being asked 'where babies come from'. Pah! We knew where babies came from. See above. There are multiple benefits to early childhood Bible reading, especially in the Authorised Version.
Waiting for the baby to show up wasn't difficult. It was fun anticipating, making plans, helping pick out Baby Stuff. There was only one downside to my mother's pregnancy: she had to slow down. The doctor didn't want her to do any heavy lifting or strenuous housework. That's how I got to meet Minnie.
I haven't made a secret of the rather awful society I spent my childhood in. Memphis, Tennessee was a segregated society. Segregated by race. All the African Americans lived in another part of town, and they took the bus over to 'our' part to work or do business. The only black people I got to see were picking up garbage once a week, or walking down the street in the summer with a basket on their heads, calling, ''Maters! Fresh 'maters!' I wasn't happy about this. I was five when I learned how to read, and puzzled over the 'Whites Only' signs. And I knew it wasn't right. You couldn't talk to the grown-ups about it, but it still wasn't right.
Another benefit of early childhood Bible reading. (Any version.)
The thing was, my mom needed household help, and in Memphis, that meant you hired a maid, and that maid was African American. So Minnie came to our house twice a week to do the laundry and ironing, and vacuum the floors and such. Oh, good, I thought. Another grown-up to talk to. I liked talking to grown-ups, even if they weren't 100% reliable. (I often talked to God about the unreliability of grown-ups.)
Due to 'doctor's orders', my mom had to take a nap every afternoon. So now, when I came storming into the house around 3:15, my mom was asleep, and Minnie was ironing. So Minnie became the recipient of all the knowledge I was bursting to share: arithmetic factoids, who said what to whom, what we did at recess – you know, all the really important stuff. And Minnie, a warm, kind woman with children of her own, smiled and let me unload all that kid trivia. We didn't discuss the state of the world, at least, not in cleartext. But we had a good time.
Okay, I had a good time. I hope she didn't find all that chatter too burdensome.
Minnie and my parents were very polite to one another – which was the best they could hope to do at the time. They were walking on eggshells in the midst of evil, something I didn't really understand then. The unwritten code of 'separate but equal' made it actively dangerous to do otherwise. Nobody wanted anybody else to get hurt. But my mom felt so guilty about having another person come and do her housework, even if she was being paid for it, that she started making special meals on the days Minnie came to work. Meals like, say, a huge pot of soup.
'Minnie, I made way too much soup,' she'd say. 'Would you like to take some home with you?' And she'd pack some in a gallon jar. I think there were two ideas packed in those gallon jars. One was to save Minnie some work when she got home – acknowledging that a woman who does paid domestic labour has to do the same work all over again in her own house. The other, which I'm not sure either woman could have articulated, but was nonetheless there, was an unspoken opposition to the apartheid we were living under. By sharing the food she made, my mother was treating Minnie as an equal. She would have shared the same food, in the same way, with any other woman of her acquaintance. And by thanking her, and returning the washed gallon jars, Minnie was acknowledging the social pact. I think something of the same idea was behind the fact that my dad drove Minnie home at night, rather than letting her take the bus.
Because I talked to – okay, beat the ears of – both women, I knew both were big Bible readers. And I suspected I knew where their loyalties lay. Not all social change begins with a march down the street. Sometimes it starts with a gallon jar of homemade soup.
I started telling this story because, heck, we're talking about kids this month, and what they know. And I remembered how much I enjoyed telling Minnie about my day. I wanted to ask her more about herself, but I was too shy to probe into an adult's affairs, and I was raised that it was impolite to be 'nosy'. I had an urge to share my own experiences. As I reached back into the memory, I realised that others, too, had the urge to share: my parents, Minnie, even dumb ol' Donna Mobile. And you know what? That urge is sacred. I think it comes from God. (Like babies.) Because finding a way to do it helps us to get rid of the things we've put in the way that don't belong there.
Okay, that sounds naïve. But then, I'm accessing the way I thought at eight years old. And okay, I still think that way. Sue me.