My mother in law and I got to talking about childhood memories.
Because my husband is considerably younger than I, my mother in law and I share generational memories.
She was just a kid during the war (WWII) and I was born shortly thereafter.
We got to talking about D-day and about this video that has been circulating on YouTube of a kid that stood for an hour and half saluting the envisioned soldiers coming to shore on that momentous day. It was extremely touching.
We teared up watching the video not only because here was a youngster whose father had also not been alive at the time, but were sharing a moment in memory of that event and in loving appreciation for the sacrifices our military perform on our behalf.
She shared with me her memory of a young man in her neighborhood in White Plains, NY who loved to play golf and how she remembered how she and her friends would tease him about having a girlfriend.
“My eyes are filled with tears..I remember H.M., a young man that lived in Apt. 2. We were just kids and we would tease him if he had a girlfriend…I remember him with his golf clubs. He went off and never came back. I remember that gold star banner in his parent’s window.”
She later described him as a “tall good looking Irish boy”. Whether he had a girlfriend or not, they really didn’t know but she remembered the gold star banner which meant he’d died.
I have to smile because I wondered if he was truly handsome or was it just the uniform? It reminded me of a similar experience, thinking a young man in uniform appearing larger than life and dashing.
I wrote back to her:
I remember on our way to California from Alabama we took a bus home. After we’d boarded, a good looking black guy in a military uniform came on board walking past me to the back of the bus and sat down dead center on the back bench.
In those days blacks were boarded last and sat in back. I flashed him a big smile and he smiled back at me when he walked by, but he was so dashing in that uniform that I kept staring at him (I don’t know if he was really handsome or if it was the uniform but he stood tall and looked smart). As he passed I followed him with my eyes until he sat down, still smiling at him until he became noticeably uncomfortable and shaking his head slightly. I remember feeling confused because he smiled earlier and now he was almost angry but trying not to be maybe? When my mom noticed, I got smacked and told to keep looking forward and to not stare (and leave that poor boy alone). That was the first time I became aware of race. I was about the same age as you, 10. Sad.
In retrospect looking back and knowing what I know now, what I thought was disapproval may have been fear. I remember sneaking a peek now and again anyway, but she was constantly on top of me.
I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until “To Kill A Mockingbird” came out a few years later that I was impacted by what it meant.
So many memories came up that started to make sense. The separate fountains, toilets, entrances and how self conscious my mother was because of her dark skin and how when I would go out to play my granny always made me wear this huge bonnet, so that I wouldn’t get any darker and look like a “pickaninny” as she would say.
I don’t know why it was a big deal. The kids at school envied my dark complexion and some of them (my cousins included) would lay out in the sun trying to get as dark as me. But, that would be years later.
I don’t remember my father or grandparents being racist per se, so much as adhering to the laws then, as many did.
When mother was in a home and when my fathers Italian wife became senile I noticed racial slurs surfaced in both of them. The black nurses never seemed to mind though. I would apologize, but they’d laugh it off and tell me how “they all do it”. It’s just how they talked in “those days” and once they are no longer in control of their minds, all that old stuff just comes out. I think they were being nice because I’m sure there had to be some patients that may really have had issues at one time and that now in their demented state the meanness “comes out” totally unrestrained but then I could be the one reading more into it than really was.