I grew up poor, at times literally poverty stricken- collapsed into tears over our lack of money for basic necessities, food, electricity, housing; we spent one year living, the four of us, in one room of a mousy beach hotel, and another in the four bedroom home of our best friends, which already housed their five family members, two dogs, birds and a few cats. My parents slept on the foldout couch in the living room. After that long, crowded year my mother moved my sister and I back to our birthplace in Jackson, Mississippi while my father stayed working in San Diego.
Lura and I took turns sleeping in bed with Mom, while the one out slept on the cot placed horizontally at the end of the bed. This was my 4th grade year: the year I read Pet Cemetery, made friends with Julia, whose father had died of cancer the year before, the year I moved into a home at the end of a cul-de-sac where my sister and I were the only white girls on the block. We were the only white girls for miles of blocks. The first day of school, where I was one of maybe three white kids, I felt no fear being the only white girl, just my personalized brand of constant fear, the companion of every year I could remember on Earth. I walked into the hallways bustling with black girls, chubby cheeked and bright eyed, hair glistening with scented oils, braided in fantastic loops on top their head or pulled painfully back into ponytails, girls who looked curiously at me, but not cruelly. My teacher was a soft spoken black women who bent down and looked directly into my face. I distinctly remember having the thought that she had eyes like crackling fireplaces. She smiled at me and explained how my desk and books would work, where I would sit, and patted me on my skinny freckled arm with her warm hand. I sat down and looked directly at the round, bland clock hanging on the wall for the next ten minutes, terrified to look around. Overt glances at my classmates showed nothing too terrifying, other than Jim McCracken picking his nose to third knuckle; Myrna Hellslinger appraising me dubiously. The rest of the kids were chatting, catching up after a long, hot Mississippi summer.
The only difference I ever took note of in that Mississippi elementary school was the use of corporal punishment. In San Diego, a teacher would be fired for laying a hand on a student, much less taking a thick wooden paddle, much like a ping pong paddle- perhaps it was a ping pong paddle- and laying it firmly into the submissive asses of pre-teen children. I still remember walking down the enclosed hallway, past the principal's office, and hearing Jessie Ketchinger, a sweet honey-eyed boy from my class I had a small crush on, crying out in a high pitched yelp after the short swish and smack of the paddle. I would never put gum underneath my desk.
Grandpa M.D. ( M for man, the D is a family mystery ) and Grandma Elizabeth lived at the end of a short cul-de-sac. The right side of the house had a side, enclosed porch with a screen door that opened to the grass, where Grandma and I would walk down the side of the house, to the backyard, to hang clothes on the line. The backyard was really more of a field of grass, with trees lining the left side as you faced it. The trees were tall and gorgeous and had been planted when my mother and her sisters and brothers were children. At the lip of the field of grass lay the forest, a sudden thicket of trees under which lay a carpet of leaves. Some of the most magical, carefree days of my life were spent in the field, that forest.
The black girls on my block were not as nonchalant about my white skin as the kids at school. A few lame, failed attempts to join their games of hop-scotch or jump rope left me confused. I assumed they could sense my otherness, and this was not being white; my otherness had always been born of my families secrets. I found I was wrong: It was that I was white- a white gurrl, as they said. I was thrilled! They despised me because of my skin color- This I could work with.
I decided to approach them one cold, overcast day. Five of them jump roped in the sloping driveway of the house next to mine. ' Can I play? ' The tall girl with two braids on the side of her head and a large, knobby nose shook her head, popped her gum. ' Nah, ' she said. I spoke up, ' Well I wanna. ' She stopped jumping and appraised me. ' Look girlie, you wanna play with us, you can fight us, each one like, in your Granmama's back yard. You fight all right, we'll play with ya'll. ' She gestured toward my small sister, on the porch. ' All right, ' I said immediately. These girls had run down homes barely kept together by rusting nails, bathrooms spotted in mold, tubs with brown and gold holes sprung in the sides like sores on a mouth, accents as thick as molasses and long standing friendships based on a culture I hardly remembered, and another I could never claim. But they were the only friends to be had, and I wanted them more than anything.
We solemnly filed to my Grandma's backyard. The girls stood in a small black knot, and I stood attached by only the hem of my dress touching the hem of Janice's dress. ' Ready? ' she asked, fists raised. Janice was chubby, with short hair and perfectly round eyes like buttons. But she looked kind. I raised my hands. Janice took a swing at me, hit my arm, I winced and tears filled my eyes. The girls laughed. ' Haw white girl! Haw! ' I filled with rage, plenty on hand in my little heart, the rage of the helpless and suffering, a rage I had carried like worms in meat for as long as I could remember. I screamed a half throaty shout, like a crazed bird, and pummeled Janice in her arms, her chest, her smooth soft throat. She made a cross with her arms, she was done.
I panted, sick to my stomach. The next girl, a petite and beautiful princess named Joyce, put up her brown skinned knuckles and smiled. Each fight afterward was playacting. At the end, we put our arms around each other in a circle. ' You all right now, ' Janice told me. And I was. We spent the rest of my year in Mississippi playing- swinging on incredible vines from trees into the rain made swimming pools of Jess' backyard, the spot her father had purposefully dug out to make a giant mud pool for the children to play in, or driving for ice cream at Baskin Robbins in the back of my Great-Grandpa's red Ford truck. I have pictures of myself with the girls, laying back in the truck, perched on the gutters, arms round each other's shoulders, best friends.