Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Year in Mississippi

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.
CitricSugar said...

I loved this piece. Your evocative command of language... Inspiring.

Elizabeth said...

What a wonderful, evocative memory. Two things: my mother's family is from Jackson, Mississippi, and many of my cousins still live there. And in the late sixties, when integration happened in the northeast (New Jersey, where I lived), a girl was bussed to our largely white school. One afternoon she insisted that since I didn't want to trade a small sticker, she would fight me in the playground after lunch. I'll always remember the fight, which occurred in a similar fashion as yours, although I actually didn't hit her and landed up in the principal's office, forced to shake her hand in a truce. I remember it as being the first bit of injustice I felt. Anyway, thanks for the beautifully written piece and for stirring up the memories...

Annje said...

I love your writing. That is all.

Glimmer said...

Just wonderful.

In Alabama, they closed the black high school and the kids came to ours. Which posed an entirely different set of adjustments. Some of them difficult. Some of them wonderful.

Like the dancing. This just reminded me. I'm going to write about it. I'm so glad you wrote this. The dancing!

Just.Kate said...

How terribly lovely your Mississippi year sounds.

Vashti said...

WOW! Please complete your book....I want a copy! If it is written any where near as compelling and engulfing as this piece then I REALLY want a copy!
I love how you write.
Hope you had a lovely Christmas and have a great New Year.
xxx

Phoenix said...

What a fantastically written piece! I felt like I was right there with you the whole time... and I'm glad you made some good friends by being willing to stand up to them :)

yolanda said...

oh my god!
keep remembering, maggie....
yes, memory speaks......

you will be cleansed by art.
I LOVE YOU.

yolanda colores

Harlow said...

So moving...I wish you would write about your childhood more often.

Rachael said...

Your writing is so picturesque. I loved this.

K Soucy said...

Just beautiful.

thailandchani said...

Wonderful writing, as others have already said. Isn't it interesting that kids choose fighting as a way to test each other?




~*

BugginWord said...

Holy loveliness! Thanks for sharing such a tender and vulnerable story.

jennifer said...

oh how I wish friends could be won that way now.

Beth said...

I think you’re still very much like the little girl you once were – ready and willing to fight whenever the necessity arises to do so.

Cinda said...

Beautiful! I not only loved your writing but, for me, the deeper story of poverty. I have a colleague that wrote a beautiful piece about the perception (generally incorrect) of poverty. Your words supported her premise. If you are interested I can send to you via email. Thank you for sharing this!

jack sender said...

What did I care about kids in school in Mississippi? Not much, yet I read it, looking to see what would happen next and enjoying the people, the place, the story and how it all came out.

A very pleasant read. Best wishes for more to come.

krista said...

you have reminded me to keep a firm hold on my childhood. to remember.
i look at the idea of you having to fight these girls and, as a mother now, it scares the crap out of me. but, as a child?
you agreed to the terms. it's a strange little world, childhood.

i'm rambling.

my favorite?

"I was thrilled! They despised me because of my skin color- This I could work with."

love love love the glimpse into the head of the girl you were.
xoxo

Patois said...

Beautiful, honey, purely beautiful.

clearness said...

I'm not denying that race plays a big part of society, but don't you think that socioeconomic status plays an even bigger role on society? I grew up in an entirely white town in the middle of nowhere, centered all around other entirely white and slightly less poorer towns. I should try to do a post on how things were so similar. Except, at times, I think that it would be (dare I say) easier if you're growing up in a black community. The grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side. All I know is that I remember people so poor their houses were in worse shape than my grandpas chicken house. Grandpas chicken house looked more safe and warm.

Ms. Moon said...

Oh honey, oh honey, oh HONEY! This was so sweet on the tongue, on the brain, in the heart.
Give me more. I'm selfish. I'll fight you for it. I will. I'll arm wrestle you for more of this.
Thank-you.

deb said...

incredible piece.
thank you so much for sharing it.

I wish peace for whatever your darker pain was....

Jeanne said...

Another piece of the Maggie puzzle.

Robin said...

wow, to have such vivid memories of such a painful childhood is so rare. i'm glad you have them and can write about them so beautifully.

Amie said...

I love your writing. Your blog is so unique. It is like opening up a mystery box. I think my Hubs would relate to this post. He was the white kid growing up on an Indian reservation.

Allegra Smith said...

But what kind of fight could one have to wrestle the demons inside, regardless of the color or the race? to make friends for life with the fierce Calibans that dance by the fire of the soul?
If only...

You took me there and I smelled the air, filled with fine dust, the anger, the fear and the loneliness, permeating everything with invisible waves of despair. I lived for a moment a childhood unknown and for some reason it has become another memory now. Not mine but ours, because of the gift of your writing.

hybridtrose said...

Amazing how becoming a grown-up means that friendships must be won in much more complex ways.

p.s. I'm originally from SC and grew up in a pretty rural area..I have some very similar memories.

This was beautiful. Thank you. You are an amazing writer, Maggie.

Zip n Tizzy said...

Shows such a strength of vitality to fight for companionship when folding in on oneself under the circumstances would be so perfectly understandable and yet so much more detrimental.
You have such a pure and open heart.

T. Clear said...

Wow. This is some stunning writing! More, please!

Ellen said...

I want more! I have a thing for southern stories as my mother's family came from Alabama. Hope you create more of this into a long novel.

Maggie May said...

Thank you all for reading, responding. My family on both sides are Southerners and I am, like many of you, fascinated with the South.

SJ said...

Your words are as good as any I've read--I echo the above when I say please write a book! And send me a signed copy :)

mosey along said...

When you write, I could just read and read and read....

Miss Malorie said...

I claim my Southern roots, though I had a thoroughly modern childhood, in a thoroughly modern landscape--Orlando, Florida.

My mother, however, is from rural Georgia, and through this piece, I pictured things she told me about her life as a child... especially the spankings with paddles ;)

"Love" is not a strong enough word for this piece... I can't find the words for how it makes me feel, but it is such a gorgeous use of the English language. Thank you for writing. You are sincerely doing us all a favor :)

Petit fleur said...

Maggie,

This stirred a lot of old memories for me as well. I have to say that your memory is incredible! And what you're memory may lack your imagination more than makes up for! Whoa Nellie!

Interesting about the fighting to "get in" I bartended a place once, and I had a similar sort of interaction with a waitress. (I was a bartender) She was SUCH a biotch to me, and I kept trying to overlook it and be nice. Finally, one day I'd had it and asked her what her problem was. She smiled and said: "I was wondering when you were gonna stand up for yourself!" Then she hugged me. It was such a strange and good feeling. Thanks for reminding me.
xo pf

nfmgirl said...

I've been busy, so I flagged this to come back to read, and just finally got around to it. Beautiful, as always!

It reminds me of my senior year of high school. I had finally gotten into "art class". I'd tried for years, and they were always filled up. First day of class, I took a table near the door (shy and quiet, I didn't know anyone in the class, so I wanted to be obscure and have a quick exit out.) I sat alone at this table, as the class began to fill. Suddenly I found a bunch of black guys (younger than me-- freshmen or sophmores) filling the seats around me at the table. One of these guys was a big guy by the name of Bubba (I, too, grew up in the south-- South Florida. Redneck country.) I think it only took a day or two for our contentious relationship to begin. He would pick on me, punch me in the arm, grope my breasts. I would punch him in the kidneys and make him back down and leave me alone for the rest of the day. I would "act crazy", taking my lighter and appearing fascinated with the way the flame would burn the strings on the torn-out knee of my jeans (all a total put on. I knew what I was doing!) On a Friday before school ended, he punched me especially hard in the arm, and I punched him especially hard in the kidneys, making him collapse to the ground. The next week, we were sitting at the table, and he saw the big bruise on my arm and started teasing me about my boyfriend beating up on me. His friend sitting across form us told him, "You did that, Bubba. You hit her in the arm the other day!" Bubba couldn't believe he'd been to blame for that ugly looking bruise on my arm, but his friend assured him that he had hit me "hard".

The last time I saw them was outside the classroom. Bubba approached me near the class door, held out his hand, shook mine and said, "You alright."

Johanna said...

I could read a whole book of your stories. You don't happen to have one, do you?

xo

Visty said...

I can't tell you how filled up I am to find this kind of writing today.

previous next