Friday, March 3, 2017
Today I am grateful for the touch of hands. I just finished reading a book and I can’t shake the impact. I got to thinking about a few things from the early years of my childhood, in the 1950’s. There were no people of color in my city. None. Not one. Yes, you heard correctly. I can’t say that it bothered or confused me one way or another. When you’re a kid you just live and don’t read the news or watch it on TV when your parents get one, so we didn’t know a city without people of color was odd.
I do remember one important woman visiting. In my memory now, I believe she was Rosa Parks but I doubt that could be true, so she must have been some other activist. She was coming to speak at my aunt and uncles church service and they were hosting a reception for her afterwards in their home. We had to go. I didn’t want to go and meet some boring old lady and I remember that my parents had great discussions about how to “handle” the situation with us.
“When you meet her,” my mom said. “I want you to put your hand out and shake her hand. Her hand won’t feel any differently than anyone else’s.” What? I had no clue what she meant.
Won’t feel differently than whose hand? All of the hands I knew felt very different. Grandmas? Her hands plunged into boiling water to check the doneness of vegetables, were tough as leather and strong enough to yank you out of the way when the rooster with a threatening look hovered to close. Were this strange woman’s hands like hers, tough and rough?
Or what about my mom’s hands that spent most of their time on a piano keyboard and were lotioned and potioned to a buttery softness. I remember when I was very young, those hands stroking my bangs off of my forehead as my head lay in her lap while we sat on the couch. Is this what that ladies hands will feel like?
Maybe they were like my dad’s hands, which always had cuts and bumps and callouses and dry cracks, with chomped short fingernails. Those hands were thick and stubby and strong enough to build anything, dig anything, plant anything and even throw a major league pitch at me with his shoes, when he was mad and I was running away. Did this woman have those hands?
My mom was nervous, I could tell, even though she kept reinforcing the mantra, “. . .she’ll feel just like anyone else. . .” Who was she trying to convince, I wondered? Then she clarified that the woman was a negro. Hmm. Interesting. I had never seen a negro except on TV so naturally I was curious. The day came. We went to the church service and my aunt and uncles house afterwards.
It was crowded and hot, though I don’t remember what time of the year it was. Kids are always hot and itchy in Sunday clothes and I confess I’m still that way sometimes. We had red punch in glass cups that hung over the edge of the punch bowl and brownies that the church ladies had made. They didn’t go with the punch at all, leaving your tongue with a bad after taste like chocolate covered cough drops.
Soon it was our turn to meet the important negro lady. I was the youngest and pushed ahead first. I bravely stuck out my hand and that woman I’d seen in church. . .the exact color of chestnuts from the neighborhood tree. . . shook it. She was a tiny lady and wore a beautiful floral dress and a little hat with netting on it. Her eyes reminded me of the pieces of shiny coal I had stuffed in the snowman’s face. As she clasped my hand, her smile lit up the entire room. And me. She felt like me. Just like me, I thought, as she held my little paw with one hand and patted the top with her other. Soft, warm, smooth. Not like grandmas leather or like dads callouses.
So what’s the big deal I wondered? Why was there so much discussion, fussing, and fretting? She was just a person who felt like any other person. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized my mom had been raised in a home of bigotry, racism, fear and hatred. While she tried desperately to not pass on those early learnings to us, and succeeded, at certain times the demons of her youth grappled with the truth.
I had not thought of that moment for many years, but that book brought it all back to me. When I was turning to move along in the line of greeters, I remembered the warm touch of the tiny ladies hand as she brushed my bangs off of my forehead. Just like mom.