1962 in Oakland, California.I am
10 and my sister is 8.Today is an
unseasonably cool early fall day, so mom had dressed us in our brand new
matching black “pleather “coats for our weekly trip to the theatre for the
Saturday matinee. Purchased just
the day before for the start of the new school year at Montgomery Wards (or“Monkey” Wards as the grown-ups called
it), our new coats were perfect for the movies because they had two deep
pockets on the outside and an inside pocket that was rarely found in girl’s
wear. “Hurry up”, mom warned; as
she fastened the last button my sister’s coat. “You want to make sure you get
there in time to get a good a seat under the balcony.”
For African American children in Oakland
in those days, the best seats were under the balcony overhang, making it less
likely you would get pummeled by the various projectiles thrown by the white kids
seated in the balcony above. Although the waning national practice at that time was that
African Americans were relegated to the balcony seats in almost all movie
theaters, for some reason it was just the opposite in Oakland. Hurling popcorn,
soda and hard candies at those seated below in the segregated theatre was a
Saturday matinee sport for the balcony dwellers. Even though the modern Civil
Rights movement was almost a decade old in 1962 and things were beginning to
change, black and white children who went to school together and often played
with each other in many of Oakland’s still diverse neighborhoods continued to
sit separately at the Saturday matinee.My best friend, Gayle, who was white, was at my house almost every day
after school and went to the movies every Saturday just like I did.We secured our bond with a joint
passion for sunflower seeds, roller derby and Gayle’s unflinching love for my
mother. But we never walked to the theatre or back home together, and Gayle
always sat in the balcony.It was a strange arrangement, but we did not question it.It was just the way it was back then.
As she did almost every Saturday, mom
escorted us to the corner and handed me the crisp one-dollar bill and shiny
nickel we would use for admission and candy.“Hold on tight to this Sheryl,” she said, “don’t lose it
along the way.”I carefully folded
the dollar with the nickel inside, pushed it down to the bottom of my right
coat pocket and waited for her nod that let me know I had done it
correctly.As we began our
two-block walk, I turned around to wave to her after we safely crossed the first
intersection and then turned to wave again as we reached the second block.Mom headed back to the house after she
saw us make the left into the theatre door.
the theatre, we paid 35 cents for each of our tickets, leaving us with 35 cents
for candy.In 1962, those 35 cents
bought us seven 5-cent candy bars; 3 each for my sister and me with one nickel
left to buy the Hershey Bar we always took home to mom.We stuffed our sugary bounty into our
outside pockets and I placed mom’s Hershey bar into my inside pocket to make
sure it would not get lost.I
touched that pocket at least three times as we made our way to our seats just
to be certain the darkness of the theatre had not removed the candy bar somehow.
Satisfied that it was still there, I was now ready to find our “safe “seats.
day, the featured matinee was “That Touch Of Mink” with Doris Day.I don’t remember much about it because
as was usual, we spent most of the time joking and laughing with our friends,
eating all of that candy, and trying to outmaneuver the theatre usher’s bright
flashlight.It was an extreme
embarrassment to be lit up by that light and told to be quiet. But even more
embarrassing was when the handwritten message “call your mother” appeared on
the screen with your name on it.When that message came up, a hush always fell on the theatre, and for
the few seconds before the intended recipient revealed themselves by standing
up to leave, we no longer felt separated.
a shared childhood tradition to laugh, point and catcall at the kids who got
the “call your mother” message. Even though we laughed about it, seeing that
message always scared us a bit.After all, there were some who had gotten such a message and never returned
to the movies.Later we would hear
that someone had moved (which was like death for us at that age) or had
actually died.We would always
stretch our necks to see who got up to go use the phone in the theatre
office.It was still funny though,
that is until this day, when the message read, “Sheryl, please call your
great trepidation I rose from my seat and looked around to see if there was
another Sheryl for whom this message was meant.Seeing no other girl rise from her seat, I began to make my
way slowly up the dark aisle. Knowing she must have also seen the message, I desperately
wanted to look up at the balcony to find Gayle, but I didn’t dare.Standing in the aisle, and unprotected
by the balcony overhang, I knew I had a very short window of unpunished vulnerability.
of being mortified by the resumption of the mean noise directed at me as I
passed through the lobby door, I was filled with an overwhelming fear that
something had happened to mom. Just the year before, in that same movie
theatre, I had seen the movie “Imitation of Life” in which the sweet and caring
mother had died, confirming my fears that a mother’s death was possible. The
daughter in that movie was an uncaring, selfish child who ran away to pass for
white, breaking her mother’s heart, only to return when it was too late.After I saw that movie I vowed I would
always be a good daughter. I carried the fear instilled in me by the last
emotionally charged scene where the daughter falls upon her mother’s horse
drawn hearse, sobbing her sorrow, like it was my own. As I continued my excruciating
walk up the theatre aisle that day, I was so afraid that mom had left me, it
did not dawn on me that the message on the screen had read, “Call your mother.”
head down and fighting tears, my jelly-filled knees managed to get me to the little
office in the front of the theatre. In a barely audible voice I told
the short round-headed man seated at the desk that I was Sheryl.He handed me the phone without looking
up at me. With fingers that felt like they no longer belonged to my hands, I dialed our phone number fully expecting to hear something horrible had
happened.Mom answered on the
second ring and said, “Sheryl, you and your sister come straight home from the
movies.Your babysitter will be
here.Dad and I are going to
my MOTHER on the phone; she was ok and talking to me!
out an audible a sigh of relief as I put my hand in my inside pocket yet again to
check for the hard brown paper wrapped rectangle.It was still there.Everything was all right.Mom’s
slightly irritated voice saying, “Sheryl, did you hear me? Come straight home.Margo will be here,” interrupted my
clarity returned me to the little movie office and the little man telling me to
hurry up and get off of the phone, I finally said, “Ok, mommy, we will.” I checked my inside pocket once again to
make sure mom’s nickel Hershey bar was safe, secure and ready to give to her
when she returned home.
the movie was over, we all spilled onto the sidewalk to take our various routes
home.Gayle was standing at the
corner.While others watched her
in stunned silence, she approached me slowly.“Is your mom ok?’ she asked.“She’s just fine,” I replied.
could smell the tootsie roll on her breath as she exhaled. We just looked at
each other for what seemed like a long time, but I am sure only seconds had
passed.I finally broke the
silence when I asked, “So you wanna go to the movies next Saturday?’Smiling broadly and without hesitation
Gayle replied, “Yes!Meet at your
giving in to the power of the inevitable, the other kids stopped watching us
and began to disperse, a few looking back as if to verify, but saying nothing. With
my sister in front of us skipping the way, Gayle and I fell into easy step,
shoulder to shoulder, toward my house.
no idea that a major barrier had been broken that day.We just knew we were happy.Happy that mom was ok and happy to be walking
home together. And although we could
not put in it into words at the time, I think we could feel the happy was big enough
to free us to embrace the promise of more good things to come.
enough to gift us with the knowing that today, a dollar five had been well
“We are gathered here today to honor the memory and legacy of our dear
have known Country since I was a small child.I can’t count the number of times I heard one of my parents
call out as he parked his old truck in front of the house, “Oh, Lord. Here
comes Country!”They called
him that because he wore what our parents and their friends called ‘Texas-
style’ suits with the long coats and oversize lapels in every color of the rainbow
complete with shoes and hats to match. Although he was loveable, he was a bit embarrassing to some
who had left those country ways behind after the big migration. And to solidify
his country-ness to us first generation, California-bred, proper English
speaking children of the 60’s, he spoke in a dialect full of ‘disses’ and ‘dats’
peppered with ‘sho-nuff’ and the adding of r’s to words that ended with a’s and
the subtraction of r’s from words where they needed to remain.We would shudder slightly when he would
transform Linda to Linder and church to chuch.
those things alone were not what made my parents, and others blessed with his
frequent visits announce his arrival on their doorstep with disdain.It was the intricately woven stories he
would spin.Sometimes for
hours.He would tell tales of his
time at college and how hard he worked to get his double degrees in mathematics
and economics.When he would offer
to help me with my math homework, I would just laugh and say, “Oh Country, you
can’t help me.This is the new
math.”He would just smile and
move on to the next equally unbelievable story in his bottomless repertoire.If nothing else, the man was
imaginative and persistent.
told beautifully crafted stories of his time in the ‘war’ although he never
specified which battle or branch of service and we never asked.I mean, you all know that some of his
so-called exploits were just too fantastic to be believed and well beyond what
we knew a person like Country could pull off.Raised to be
polite, we just let him talk, often while going about our business of the
day.That was not a problem for
Country.As long as we gave him
and ‘uh-huh’ every now and then, he would follow us from room to room, even
outside, talking all the while.We
soon learned that if we stopped the ‘uh-hus’ he would simply find another
family member to follow.When he
had seemingly exhausted himself with the lies he was telling, usually and
conveniently after dinner, he would retrieve his hat from the hall table, tip it
to us and take his leave.
a while, we did not think of Country’s visits as an intrusion, as he had become
a part of the fabric of our family, as I am sure he did with some of yours.In fact, I know we all had blood relatives
we would hide from before we would deny entry to Country. At least he was a gentleman, did not
drink or steal stuff off your dresser on the way to the bathroom, and never
uttered a curse word.
As the years went by, Country’s stories
became more layered and detailed. It was as though he was polishing and purifying the narrative
in the wash of the repeated telling. He began to weave in the people he had met along the way,
like Martin Luther King and Joe Lewis. We just thought he was getting older and
wiser and his stories were just getting better.In fact, we were starting to enjoy some of them and from
time to time would even ask him to tell us certain ones, like the one about when
he got to meet Eartha Kitt or the fun he had when he went on shore leave in the
as you all know, Country never married.Said he did not believe in the institution of marriage.And to make sure he never met a woman
who he would have to consider as a wife, he only kept company with married
women.Oh yes, I know some of you
are here today, because in spite of his oftentimes fanciful, sometimes annoying
stories, you came to love Country as much as I did and nothing was going to
keep you away.
As it turns out, his habit of only
dating married women turned out to be his undoing.Several of us had not heard from Country in about a week and
went to check on him.There he
was, sitting in his favorite chair, TV remote still in his hand, bullet hole in
the middle of his forehead.Oh, we
already know it was Mr. Johnson, because I am sure he would be here if he
wasn’t in jail, and I am sure you have noticed that Mrs. Johnson ain’t here
with us today either. Seems Mr.
Johnson was so upset about what he had done, he called the police and turned
himself in. He kept telling the
police how much he liked Country, but somehow I don’t think that is going to
help him much in court.
we are not here today to focus on Mr. Johnson or Country’s pro-cli-vi-ties with the ladies; no, far from it.In his will, Country designated me as
the person who would take care of his estate, which of course includes all of
his earthly belongings.I had to
rush to get stuff out of his house because his money-grubbing landlord has
already rented the place to a new tenant.I started in his closet and above the rainbow of suits, hats and shoes;
I found a small wooden box.I
opened it to find his papers.Yes,
Country had papers.
the top of the pile was his birth certificate.Seems he was born in Myler, Texas in 1922 to Mellie Montrose
and Haywood Augustus Charles.His
name was Haywood Augustus Charles, Jr.Raise your hand if you knew his real name.No one?That’s
right, no one, not even me, ever asked Country his real name.
I found his honorable discharge papers from the Navy dated 1946.Then, I found this, and I am going to
read it to you:
The faculty of the College has conferred upon
Augustus Charles, Jr.
The degree of
Bachelor of Arts
With a double major in Mathematics and Economics
Given at Prairie Town, Texas
This twentieth day of June
In the Year Nineteen Hundred and Fifty
stop your gasping and murmuring and listen to me closely.This lesson is as much for me as it is
for all of you.
defined this man by the name we chose
to give him.He was so gracious
and kind, he never corrected us.And even though he tried for years to tell us about who he was and the
journey he had traveled, we did not believe him.We were distracted by the clothes he wore and the way he
spoke and we summed him up with that. We could have immersed ourselves in the substance of the man, but we did not
look for it.We were shallow
in our assessment and all we are left with is this box of papers.
I am here to tell you that Mr. Charles left us with some precious messages in
these flimsy documents.
Let us never judge people by how they
speak, dress or comport themselves.May we always take the time to look deeper. Sometimes we will find there
is nothing there, or find someone to be avoided, but I do believe that most of
the time we will find someone we will be happy to know.
Let us not equate the ability to
articulate with the presence of intelligence, or the use of dialect other than
our own with stupidity. A lot of people can talk, but they are not always nice
or smart.And some can’t speak a
proper sentence, but they have heart and are gifted, critical thinkers.
us not continue to believe in the stereotypes that have been created to make us
doubt ourselves as well as others.Let us be open to all possibilities and combinations of talent, ability
most of all, as we send Mr. Heywood Augustus ‘Country’ Charles, Jr.on his last journey, dressed in his
favorite yellow suit, hat and shoes, let us remember that in his papers he
spoke his last words, and they were the real, true story.”
vividly remember when I first saw her.I was seven and she was eight. Her yellow petticoated dress glowed amber
in the sunlight behind her. Although the almost blinding light obscured her
facial features, I could see that her hair was neatly parted down the middle,
providing a pathway for the two thick long braids that brushed her waist.But it was her welcoming smile that
broke through the shadow and captivated me immediately.
her first day in America. The unwanted child of a Japanese woman and an African
American soldier, she had been among the countless babies who had been
abandoned at orphanages in Japan after the war.Having no children of their own, my career Army godfather and
godmother had adopted her on one of their many trips to Japan. They named her
walked up to her to get a better look, her smile never wavered.She spoke little English at the time,
but we did not need words. My godmother stepped in between us and handed each
of us a small jewelry box. We opened them to find matching rings purchased by
my godmother on a trip to Istanbul some months before. Grinning, we each put on
our rings and in that sunbathed ceremony we became sisters for life.
spent our childhoods playing together whenever our parents visited each
other.We missed each other when
we were apart; but had no control over our meeting frequency.Cassandra remained very much Japanese,
quietly keeping her own counsel, while she slowly explored her African American
heritage.Sometimes she would show
me her photo album from the orphanage, full of the mixed race children that
Japanese mothers did not want or could not keep. My godparents had chosen her
out of all of those unwanted Amerasian children looking expectantly into the
camera lens, with eyes full of hope and longing. I often found myself looking
more at the beautiful Japanese clothing they wore to avoid those eyes. With the
exception of showing me the album once in a while, Cassandra never spoke of her
time in the orphanage or of her biological parents. I never knew her Japanese
name. And although I became more curious as we grew older, after a while I
forgot about those things and never asked.
budding teenagers, we spent countless hours steaming our faces with hot
washcloths to banish breakouts. We used gallons of Noxzema and thought of it as
a miracle cure. Even though I don’t remember it really doing much to banish the
bumps, we reveled in the routine and the promise on the jar. We always swore we
looked better after one of our “treatments.” We had many sleepovers at her
house; I don’t remember her ever coming to mine.That was fine with me. I did not want to share her with my
four younger sisters anyway and besides, I got to be the little sister when I
was with her.
both met the loves of our lives as teenagers and made our entries into early
womanhood during the Black Power movement of the 1970’s. Under strict parental
orders to shun militancy, we were simultaneously frightened and enthralled by
changes taking place and wore dashikis and black leather jackets to support the
cause. With the hot steam of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and Huey P.
Newton as our atmosphere, I served as her matron of honor while my new husband
played the conga drums at her African themed wedding.
was the first to have a child and would have four to my one.We both would get our college degrees,
me in English and she in child development.With her degree in hand she started a daycare business
called San’s Childcare.My then
baby daughter would be among the first to receive the benefits of her loving
care.She became my daughter’s
second mother and instilled many valuable traits from infancy through early
teenage years.When I was climbing
the work ladder, it was Cassandra who supported me in teaching my daughter many
things woman and many things strong.When I could not be there, Cassandra made sure that all was well at
school, the homework was done, the scratched knee was bandaged and the meals
were healthy. She was a precious gift sent to accompany me on that vital part
of my motherhood journey. My daughter was a part of her family and we both knew
we were blessed to be in her presence.
too soon the children would grow up and Cassandra would decide to retire from
the childcare business.The
children she had taken under her wing had all arrived as infants and reached
their preteen years at the same time. The time had come for them to leave the
nest and fly on their own.
On one of my last trips to pick up my
daughter, I encountered Cassandra and her husband on the sidewalk in front of
their house.She was again
back-lit by the bright sun and I could only see her outline, moving toward me
with a slow and unfamiliar gait. As they got closer and her face came into
view, I asked how they were doing.“OK, she said.I just have
a little cancer.”Matter of
fact.Just like that. Everything
stopped: The cars on the street were no longer moving; Charlie across the way was
suspended halfway up his front stairs; the dogs next door ceased their incessant
barking; everything but Cassandra fell away. She had to go in to the house and
tell her children.I had to tell
my daughter. I told her she would be all right and that I was there to do
anything she wanted. She hugged me and without looking back, walked up the
steps and through her front door. She and my unknowing daughter passed each
other at the threshold and hugged each other tight as they said their goodbyes.
I held my tears until I arrived at home.
fought her disease with all of her might.When we would visit her in the hospital during and after her treatments,
I would try my best to make her laugh.But soon it became clear that the doctor she had was not the best and
the treatments were not having the desired effect.
so, her husband moved her and their family to his hometown of Nashville,
Tennessee where the world-renowned cancer specialists at Vanderbilt University
could treat her.It would turn out
that the first doctor had messed things up so much there was not much hope left.
what would be my last conversation with her, with the sounds of her children in
the background, and barely able to speak, she told me there had to be something
she could do.That she did not
want to just lie there and die.I
told her how much she meant and would always mean to me, from the day I saw her
in the sunlight with the long braids and the smile. Then we laughed and talked
about Noxzema and dashikis and how we both still had our rings and about being
true sisters. I thanked her for sharing her light and helping to make my
daughter the beautiful loving person she had become.I told her I would always be there for her children as she
had always been there for my child.She took a breath and I could hear through my own tears that she was crying
as well.Then she said, “ Thank
you so much.You don’t know how
much your words mean to me. I love you.” “I love you too, Cassandra, I said,
and I will see you later.”Her
last words before we hung up the phone, were, “I will see you later, too.”
days later, I received a tearful call from her youngest daughter.All she said was, “Mommy didn’t make
it.”At the young age of 44, a
wife, mother and my sister was gone.
children began to re-group and return to California, I have kept my promise to
always be here for them. Although they are all grown up now with children of
their own, and I don’t see them much, the bonds are strong and deeply
think of my chosen sister often and miss her still.And each day, with the rising sun, she continues to share
her light with us all.
would be Daddy’s voice ricocheting off the walls announcing to me and my sister
that we needed to get dressed in a hurry.At least twice a month, in the spring and summer, we would be roused
from sleep, sometimes just as the sun came up, and hurried by Mom through our
morning ritual to get ready for the ride of the day.Daddy would already be up and dressed, often pacing in the driveway;
so anxious to leave he acted like the world was going to end at any moment and
it would be our fault for taking too long to get ready.
washed and dressed as fast as we could, and often with hair uncombed we would
pile into the backseat the latest family car and be off to the mystery destination.Today we were in the new 1957
cream-colored Chevy Impala with Daddy driving and Mom riding shotgun. My sister
and I had to crane our necks to see out of the windows. We could have cared
less about where we were going.The ride was the thing.
the street and on to the freeway we went.I was always glad when we got on the freeway.It usually meant we were going to a new place.Daddy was singing along to Elvis, “Let
Me Be Your Teddy Bear”, making up his own lyrics, “”girl, you need to comb your
hair”, joking about the sad state of my and my sister’s messy locks.When Johnny Mathis started to sing,
“It’s Not For Me to Say”, Daddy reached over and turned the radio knob until he
found Fats Domino half way through “I’m Walking.”Daddy did not like the slower love songs or Gershwin tunes Mommy
usually favored, so we knew the ride soundtrack would only be fast paced rock
Soon we came to a tollbooth where Daddy
slowed to a stop, rolled down the window and handed the toll taker a quarter.In one seamless motion, his left hand
twirled the window crank to send it upward, his right hand gripped the steering
wheel, and his right foot shifted from the break to the accelerator. As he hit
the gas he yelled back to the toll taker,” Thanks, you shitass!”
Daddy would yell those words to many
toll takers over the years, and start to laugh, and then we would laugh because
Daddy was laughing, even though we didn’t have clue what “shitass” meant. We
just knew it must have been one of those words only grown-ups were allowed to
say because Mom would always give him “the look,” whenever he said it, just
like she did that day.
the bridge and on to the streets of the city, where only tops of the tallest
buildings that seemed to be hovering in the clear blue sky were within our view
from the backseat.Finally Daddy,
playing both geography teacher and tour guide, explained that were in San
Francisco, and were on our way to ride on “the crookedest street in the world.”He would turn his head all the
way around when the spoke to us causing Mommy to tense up and press her right
foot into the floor as though applying an imaginary break pedal. Daddy went on
to tell us that the street went straight up toward the sky and then went down
so steep and so crooked that you could only go five miles per hour.We were fascinated because we had
learned about miles per hour during one of our many previous rides and knew
that we would be going really, really slow.
we got to the crookedest street, Daddy’s descriptions suddenly felt woefully
incomplete. We began an incline that was so steep, all I could see was the hood
of the car.I was scared but as
the oldest felt an obligation to be courageous. But after while, with the hood of the car seeming to come
toward me, and it felt as though we were going to tumble backwards, I yelled
out, “Daddy, do you want to get dead?”My parents both turned to look back at me and busted out laughing.Little did I know at the time I would
hear this story well into adulthood.
the car leveled out and the beautiful houses at the top of the hill surrounded
us.Daddy pulled over the to the
side of the road and we took in the magnificent view.
Mom yelled out, “Oh my goodness!Is that who I think it is?”
Where?” Daddy asked.
now, my sister and I were standing up, trying to see whom they were talking
to get into that house on the corner. The last house on the right. Wearing the
beige trench coat”, Mom replied.
coming to both of them, they said in unison, “It sure is! It’s Raymond
there he was, right in front of us, Raymond Burr, aka, Perry Mason.While Little Richard screamed out a
scratchy rendition of “Lucille” on the radio, we watched Perry Mason do take
after take; going to the front door of the house and pretending to open it and
then walking back to the sidewalk and repeating the process again.It took four to five takes before we
noticed the cameras and crew on the other side of the street.
Mason was one of the first shows we watched on that fairly new invention of the
time, television. From 1957 to 1966, Raymond Burr played a defense lawyer who
only lost 3 of 300 cases. His character was in fact my earliest and most
favorite introduction to the medium. The show featured a diverse cast including
African, Asian and Latino Americans, often in groundbreaking television roles
such as police detectives and doctors.To see him as a real person rather than a black and white undersized
image was almost too much for me to process. He looked over at us and nodded
slightly.My parents nodded back
and we started down the hill.
drove slowly and carefully down the hairpin turns in crookedest part of the
crookedest street in the world.Crookedest street forgotten, and Daddy looking straight ahead, my
parents talked a bit about seeing Raymond Burr, how looked just like he did on
TV, and how tall he was.While my
sister slept beside me in the backseat, I was thinking about how popular I
would be in the neighborhood when I got to tell all of my friends about seeing
Perry Mason.The radio got to play
whatever it wanted all the way back home.
the years, we would take many rides with Daddy and Mommy.In our travels we crossed many toll
bridges and Daddy would never fail to yell out his profane appreciation to the
toll taker.We would look back and
see a perplexed, angry, or surprisingly sometimes amused toll taker face and
fall into fits of laughter.When the car or the minivan become crowded with more sisters and
eventually my husband and other sons-in-law, Daddy never wavered in giving his
special” thanks”, even if he wasn’t driving. Although some may think it was not
such nice thing to do, for us Daddy’s unique message of appreciation to those
toll takers has become a verbal reminder of both the physical and metaphorical
bridges we have crossed and those we will cross in the future. It provides
vivid clarity to how wonderful the ride has been so far and how much we are
still enjoying the journey.
when my husband and I cross a bridge and pay the toll, he will often deliver
the same line, although always well out of earshot of the toll taker. Then we
look at each other and laugh out loud before the inevitable silence sets in; he
with his memories of crossing bridges with Daddy and me with mine.
although I have never asked my husband what he is thinking about when this
happens, I think about the day Daddy, Mommy, my sister and I happily took off
under a just rising amber sun in the cream colored Chevy Impala for a ride.
I think about how we crossed the bridge expecting to find the crookedest street
in the world on the other side, but instead we found a lasting family
connection and a story to share, brought to us by Perry Mason.
were in 1961 Oakland, California and my 2-years younger sister and I had been
invited by Miss Krause, my 5th grade teacher, to her home for a
weekend of horseback riding and outdoor fun. We were giddy at the invitation
and our parents had readily said yes.
Miss Krause was a German beauty, not long arrived from the
old country, with a gentle manner and soft, but strong accent.Her hair was a strawberry blond with a
slight kink to it, which she perpetually forced into a bun perfectly centered
at the nape of her neck. As though trying to escape the bun prison, curly
tendrils fell lightly around her face and provided the perfect frame to
highlight her flawless peaches and cream complexion.She always dressed in 1940’s era suits and shoes with the
only change being the weight of the wool depending on the season.This made her the source of ridicule
among some of the students, but to me, she looked like a movie star.
Finally the Friday after school arrived when we would take
the trip to her house.Right
before dinner, she arrived to pick us up.A young single woman, Miss Krause lived with her parents in the Oakland
hills.At that time, the hills
were a compete mystery to us; unchartered territory that we voraciously took in
from the windows of her car.Although I don’t remember where she lived, it could have even been close
to where I live now.
After travelling closer to the clouds and the brilliant
spring sun, we finally arrived at the long private dirt driveway that led to
her house.On our way to the house
we caught a glimpse of the horse behind a short fence on the left side of the
property. Once the car came to a stop, we threw open the car doors and made a
beeline to get a closer look.The
horse was a magnificent brown animal, the color of burnt sienna, my favorite
crayon. I decided at that moment that Burnt Sienna would be my name for her
during our stay. That turned out to be ok since Miss Krause only referred to
her as “girl” and never told us her real name. We didn’t think to ask, because
we had been conditioned not to ask teachers too many questions. Back then
unbridled inquisitiveness was often considered disruptive classroom behavior
and could lead to bad grades in citizenship.Before too long, Miss Krause called out to us that needed to
come into the house and that we would have plenty of time with the horse later.
The house was huge; three stories of all white stucco with
the top floor being a full attic.The first thing I noticed when we crossed the threshold was the absolute
and utter quiet.I knew Miss
Krause lived with her parents, but there was no sign of them and they did not
come out to greet us.There were
no voices except ours.Scanning
the front room, I saw no television, no radio.I did, however, make note of the old school black telephone
on the small table by the front door.
The house had gleaming dark hard wood floors, almost the
same color as Burnt Sienna, and bright white walls.I thought this a bit odd because during those days, wall-to
wall carpeting and walls painted“sandalwood” or “eggshell” were in all the rage in interior décor. Every
piece of furniture, and there was a lot of it, was heavy and oversized and if
it was wood, intricately carved with florets or other designs unrecognizable to
a 5th grader.
We were shown to the first floor bedroom where we would
sleep in the four-poster bed while draped in a bumpy white chenille bedspread.
We put down our little suitcases and followed Miss Krause upstairs to the attic
space. But it was not just an attic.It was her closet.
A strong smell permeated the room as we entered. I would
later learn that this room was constructed entirely of cedar.A single tiny window near the ceiling
struggled to illuminate the space. Three walls of the room were either spaces
for hanging clothes or contained built- in dressers.There were no doors on any of the hanging spaces and Miss
Krause’s extensive collection of suits was in full view.They were all the same impeccably
tailored 1940’s vintage.The
colors were all muted and ranged from a barley discernable mauve to numerous
shades of brown and grey.There
were no black suits.There were no
spring or summer dresses.There
were a few pairs of men-style and riding pants and long sleeve shirts.Everything was carefully arranged by
season and purpose; all of the heavy wool fur collared suits were in one
section; lighter wool in another, and pants and shirts in yet another.But the main feature of the room was
the three-tiered circular apparatus in the middle of the floor that displayed
all of her shoes.
Again the shoes were all 1940’s style, all leather and a
variety of shades of brown or grey.There were Mary Jane’s and T-straps and peep toes and oxfords and boots
and heels of every height.I had
never seen such a large collection of shoes outside of a shoe store. My sister
and I were so mesmerized by this collection of footwear that we did not notice
that Miss Krause had changed out of her school suit into a pair of grey pants
and coordinating shirt, until she pushed the button that rotated the turnstile
to pick out a pair of low heeled leather riding boots.Seeing her slip into the boots we knew
our ride on Burnt Sienna was imminent and eagerly followed her back down the
stairs and out into the yard.
We had been on horseback rides before but they had been at
the park where the horses were tethered to a riding ring confined to a small
circle.At Miss Krause’s house, we
where finally going to be able to ride a horse out in the open; a real “Bonanza
on the Ponderosa” horseback ride.Once we got to the horse, Miss Krause handed each of us a large brush
and told us to brush the horse until it shined.We thought this was the prelude to the horseback ride to
come and since she was our teacher, we gladly and enthusiastically
complied.Since we were little
kids, we took the low parts and Miss Krause took the high parts.We told stories and laughed and sang as
we worked.We brushed and brushed
until Burnt Sienna was as luminous as an expensive mink coat and we were too
exhausted to continue. Announcing that we had done a good job, Miss Krause told
us it was time to return to the house for dinner.Tired but disappointed, we asked when we would be able to
ride Burnt Sienna.“You will be
able to ride soon enough”, she said, “but right now we need to get back to the
house and wash up for dinner. Mother and Father are waiting for us.”
We were seated at the large dining table with Miss Krause
and her father.He looked at us
with a stern expression but said nothing.Her mother soon emerged from the kitchen with a platter on which rested
an entire fish, head and all, and placed it in the middle of the table.She too was silent. As if on cue, the
family cat, which we had not seen up to that point, jumped on the table.Mrs. Krause used a spoon to extract one
eye of the fish and fed it to the cat.Then she turned the fish over and repeated the process.Satisfied with the treat, the cat
jumped from the table and retreated to another part of the house.Having never seen such a thing before,
my sister and I looked at each other in stunned silence, but were too hungry
and exhausted not to eat. After dinner, we were so spent from brushing Burnt
Sienna we did not miss the fact that we did not have the usual television
background noise to usher us into slumber and soon fell into a sound sleep.
The next morning we were roused from sleep by Miss Krause,
who was dressed in full horseback riding regalia, and told to get ready for the
day.We found ourselves again at
the big dining table, only this time, there were no parents present and we were
looking into bowls of cold oatmeal with a bit of sugar and milk. We just knew
this would be the day we rode Burnt Sienna, so we ate quickly.
But instead of taking us out into the yard, Miss Krause
handed us each another set of brushes.This time they were toothbrushes that we were instructed to use to clean
any debris and dust out of the small openings between the carvings on the
dining room sideboard.After a bit
of instruction, Miss Krause said she was going to go and change out of her
riding clothes, and that she had other chores to do and would leave us to our
work.She made no mention of Burnt
Once we were alone for a while, with no sign of Miss Krause
or her parents, I went to the telephone on the table by the front door and
called mom.All I had to say was,
“Mommy, please come and get us.”I
rushed my sister into the bedroom and we quickly gathered our things.Suitcases in hand, we went out of the
front door and down to the end of the long driveway to wait.I could feel Burnt Sienna’s stare
branding hot circles into the side of my face, but I could not bring myself to
turn and look at her.
After what seemed like an eternity, we finally saw the green
hood of mom’s Impala climbing the hill, signaling her arrival.We got into the car as fast as we
could.Mom did not bother to go in
and speak to Miss Krause.All she
had to do was look at me and we both understood that everything had been said
when I called and asked her to come and get us.I wondered why Miss Krause did not come to look for us.Maybe she got so busy with her chores
she did not notice we were gone. Or maybe she was watching us from that tiny
window in her closet in that noiseless house and seeing our backs with
suitcases in hand at the end of that driveway said it all.
As mom began to drive down the hill, I was finally able to
look back at Burnt Sienna. Her sad brown eyes locked with mine until we were
both out of sight.
I could completely remove my fingertip from the doorbell, I could hear the
click -click of Madeline’s freshly paraffin-waxed heels slapping against the
inside of her high-heeled sandals. The pungent odor of unwashed dog and fish
fried in old grease slapped me at the front door as she opened it.Then there was the woman herself,
beaming a wide too-white smile, dressed in a designer track suit, hair done,
nails done, standing there amid all that funk.
Madeline has been my good friend for
many years.She has never been
interested in having a clean house, but even for her, this was a new level of
nasty. I do not really want to enter her house, but can’t think of a polite or
believable excuse which will enable me to turn around and walk or perhaps,
run, away. Reluctantly, I slowly cross the threshold into the small entryway. Every
surface my eyes fall upon seems to be covered with something.All of the kitchen cabinets are open.
Last night’s dinner is still in pots on the stove and what looks like a week’s
worth of dishes sits unwashed in the sink.Madeline ushers me in with no apology, oblivious to the
obvious squalor. King, the so-called watch dog, is so engrossed in rooting for
potential edibles on the floor that he never even looked up to acknowledge me.I find myself following his search to
see if he laps up anything alive and moving.
I am so happy to see you”, she says.“It’s been way too long”, I say. We hug that old friend’s hug.We are sincerely happy to see each
other.I try to let that emotion
rule my senses instead of my overly evolved sense of smell.She is saying something else and I
don’t really hear her because I am wondering if the smell is going to be in my
hair and clothes when I get home.I realize she is still talking in time to snap out of my reverie and
manage to mouth a generic, ‘Uh, huh.”
have you been up to?” I ask, thinking cleaning certainly has not been on the
list. I am hoping the stench, which has gotten stronger as I move further into
the house, doesn’t travel on those little comic strip smell waves into my mouth
and down my throat when I part my lips to speak.
girlfriend, I have been doing Pilates, going for walks and just generally trying
to keep myself together.You
should join me sometime.You know,
we baby-boomers really need to try to stay fit.”
I agree with that, and you do look good”, I say, fighting back a choke.
my dear, I do believe that no matter how old we get, we gotta at least try to
stay as cute as possible”, she says, and we share a too quick laugh on that.
where is Proctor? I ask. I
expected him to be here.” Proctor is her life partner.They never married and have been
together for twenty years. Proctor is about ten years older than Madeline and
is a ham radio operator.A retired
engineer, he likes to brag about how he was able to get his radio operator’s
license without taking the exam.
he is where he usually is, back there on that damn ham radio,” Madeline says
with an eye roll. “Talks to those strangers more than he talks to me. I think
one of those little radio chicks is his new girlfriend.”
spite of what I am hearing from Madeline, I am relieved to hear that Proctor is
home.His radio room is always
sparkling clean and will be my escape from the filth that seems to have
consumed the rest of the house.
my best to avoid the discarded clothing, layers of dust that look like beach
sand, and other debris, I slowly make my way to the back of the house where I
know Proctor has his elaborate radio set-up.I notice the smell is different back here.The odors from the front of the house
seem to slightly fade and are replaced by a woody and metallic combination. As
I approach Proctor’s door, I can hear the staccato collection of voices coming
over the ham.
knock and get no answer, so I push the door gently and peek in.There is Proctor, sitting in his
leather chair, arms on his desk, head forward and mouth open ready to join the
conversation.Dressed in his
signature Dockers slacks and elbow-patched sweater, he is hovered over his
microphone just like an old-school deejay. His room is all wood, from the floor to the paneling on
the walls and even the ceiling, to the wood shelving he made himself to hold
all of this radio equipment and reference books. The woody-metallic smell is
more intense here, and I decide to just get a little closer so I can whisper a
quick hello and make my exit.
walk toward Proctor slowly and he does not move or acknowledge that he heard me
come in.I think he is just like a
kid with a video game; in the zone, totally engrossed and losing all connection
to everything external. As I make my way across the room, my footfalls cause
the wood floor to squeak.Still,
there is no response from Proctor.
on that fucking radio, isn’t he?” Madeline shrieks from the front of the
house.“I told you, that’s all his
ass does these days.It is really
starting to piss me off.Who is he
talking to today, cause it sure isn’t me.”I don’t miss the fact that the smiling, happy woman I
exchanged pleasantries with just a few moments before has suddenly become
shrill and profane.
is when I open my mouth to say hello to Proctor, that I notice the handle of
the knife protruding from the nape of his neck.It had been plunged with extreme force into the fleshy spot
at the base of his skull. The small, linear trickle of long-dried blood
trailing down the back of his neck signaled that Proctor had been sitting there
poised for conversation for quite some time.
said, who is he talking to?” Madeline screams.
a voice that seems to come from a new inside place, I yell back to Madeline,
“Oh, he’s not talking to anyone. No,
he’s not talking to anyone, right now.”
the front of the house, in her original sweet greeting voice, Madeline calls
out, “I’m going to take King for a walk, be back in a few minutes. Hope you can
stay for lunch!”
front door closes before I can respond, and I find myself alone in this
suddenly coffin-like room.Just
me, the stranger voices on the radio, and the silent key.