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Why Does Ruth Begin Her Story By Telling Her Son That She Is "Dead"?

“As lively as a novel, a well-written, thoughtful contribution to the literature on race.” —The Washington Post Book World

“It’s a story about keeping on and about not being a victim. It’s a love story…Much hilarity is mixed in with much sadness. As McBride describes the chaotic life in a family of fourteen, you can almost feel the teasing, the yelling, and the love.…The book is a delight, a goading, and an inspiration, worth your time and a few tears.”

—Sunday Denver Post

“A standout among the current surfeit of memoirs about growing up black in the United States…Mr. McBride’s portrait of his mother is not of a saint, which makes her all the more compelling.”

—The Washington Times

“Told with humor and clear-eyed grace…a terrific story…The sheer strength of spirit, pain, and humor of McBride and his mother as they wrestled with different aspects of race and identity is vividly told.…I laughed and thrilled to her brood of twelve kids…I wish I’d known them. I’m glad James McBride wrote it all down so I can.”

—The Nation

“A refreshing portrait of family self-discovery…brilliantly inter twine[s] passages of the family’s lives…Mr. McBride’s search is less about racial turmoil than about how he realizes how blessed he is to have had a support system in the face of what could have been insurmountable obstacles.”

—The Dallas Morning News

“James McBride has combined the techniques of the memoirist and the oral historian to illuminate a hidden corner of race relations. The author and his mother are two American originals.”

—Susan Brownmiller

“A lyrical, deeply moving tribute.…The Color of Water is about the love that a mother has for her children.”

—The Detroit News

“What makes this story inspiring is that she succeeded against strong odds…how she did this is what makes this memoir read like a very well-plotted novel. This moving and unforgettable memoir needs to be read by people of all colors and faiths.”

—Publishers Weekly

“The author, his mother, and his siblings come across as utterly unique, heroic, fascinating people. I couldn’t stop reading the book once I began. McBride is a wonderful writer.”

—Jonathan Kozol

“Eloquent…vivid, affecting…McBride’s mother should take much pleasure in this loving, if sometimes uncomfortable, memoir, which embodies family values of the best kind. Other readers will take pleasure in it as well.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Tells us a great deal about our nations racial sickness—and about the possibilities of triumphing over it.”

—The Wall Street Journal

“Eye- and mind-opening about the eternal convolutions and paradoxes of race in America.” —Chicago Tribune (Tempo)

“Poignant…a uniquely American coming of age…Ruth McBride Jordan’s anecdotes are richly detailed, her voice clear and engaging. And she has a story worth telling.”

—The Miami Herald

“Fascinating…superbly written.” —The Boston Globe

“Remarkable…a page-turner, full of compassion, tremendous hardship and triumph…McBride’s story is ultimately a celebration delivered with humor and pride.”

—Emerge

“A wonderful story that goes beyond race…richly detailed…earthy, honest.” —The Baltimore Sun

“[A] remarkable saga.” —New York Newsday

Praise for James McBride’s

Miracle at St. Anna

“McBride creates an intricate mosaic of narratives that ultimately becomes about betrayal and the complex moral landscape of war.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Searingly, soaringly beautiful…The book’s central theme, its essence, is a celebration of the human capacity for love.”

—The Baltimore Sun

“McBride is adept at describing the wartime state of mind: land and people lying ravaged in the wake of a wild brutality.…His narrative, which is based on a true story, plunges straight to the heart.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“McBride makes an impressive foray into fiction with a multi-shaded WWII tale…a haunting meditation on faith that is also a crack military thriller…strikingly cinematic…With nods to Ralph Ellison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, McBride creates a mesmerizing concoction…a miracle in itself.”

—Entertainment Weekly

“So descriptive that I feel as though I’m an eyewitness to everything that happens emotionally on the frontline.”

—The Dallas Morning News

“James McBride…brings formidable storytelling skills and lyrical imagination to his novel…[He] deftly broadens the landscape of his drama by entering the minds of a range of supporting characters: Italian freedom fighters, white army officers, starving villagers, a clairvoyant, and even a sixteenth- century sculptor.”

—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Great-hearted, hopeful, and deeply imaginative.” —Elle

“McBride has taken a bold leap into fiction. [He] goes deep into each character and takes you with him. His rich description of the landscape…transports you into this world. It’s a great piece of storytelling. I cried. I laughed. I hated finishing this book.”

—Albuquerque Tribune

“Full of miracles of friendship, of salvation and survival.” —Los Angeles Times

“Riveting.” —Newsday

“A sweetly compelling novel. McBride combines elements of history, mythology, and magical realism to make this a story about the little things like life and forgiveness and shared experience.”

—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Miracle at St. Anna powerfully examines the horrors of history and finds an unexpected wealth of goodness and compassion in the human soul.”

—Newark Star-Ledger

“The miracles of survival, of love born in extremity, and of inexplicable ‘luck’ are the subjects of this first novel. [Miracle at St. Anna] is true to the stark realities of racial politics yet has an eye to justice and hope.”

—Library Journal (starred review)

“Roars ahead kicking and screaming to the finish, lightning-lit with rage and tenderness.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“A powerful and emotional novel of black American soldiers fighting the German army in the mountains of Italy. This is a refreshingly ambitious story of men facing the enemy in front and racial prejudice behind.…Through his sharply drawn characters, McBride exposes racism, guilt, courage, revenge and forgiveness, with the soldiers confronting their own fear and rage in surprisingly personal ways at the decisive moment in their lives.”

—Publishers Weekly

“A tale of hardship and horror as well as nobility and—yes—miracles, during the Italian campaign in World War II.”

—Philadelphia Daily News

“World War II provides a dazzling backdrop for James McBride’s first novel.” —Savoy

“A brutal and moving first novel…McBride’s heart is on his sleeve, but these days it looks just right.”

—Kirkus Reviews

Also by James McBride

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA

SONG YET SUNG

The Color of Water

A BLACK MAN’S TRIBUTE TO HIS WHITE MOTHER

James McBride

Riverhead Books, New York

RIVERHEAD BOOKS Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Copyright © 1996, 2006 by James McBride Readers Group Guide copyright © 2006 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Cover design copyright © 1996 by Honi Werner

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. RIVERHEAD is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. The RIVERHEAD logo is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Riverhead hardcover edition: January 1996 First Riverhead trade paperback edition: February 1997 First Riverhead trade paperback 10th Anniversary Edition: February 2006

The Library of Congress has catalogued the Riverhead hardcover edition as follows;

McBride, James. The color of water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother / James McBride.

p. cm. ISBN: 978-1-4406-3610-3 1. McBride-Jordan, Ruth, 1921– 2. McBride, James, date. 3. Mulattoes—New York (N.Y.)—Biography. 4. Mothers—New

York (N.Y.)—Biography. 5. Whites—New York (N.Y.)—Biography. 6. Mulattoes—New York (N.Y.)—Race Identity. I. Title.

F130.N4M38 1996 974.’100496073’0092—dc20 95-37243 CIP

[B]

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11

I wrote this book for my mother,

and her mother, and mothers everywhere.

In memory of Hudis Shilsky, Rev. Andrew D. McBride, and Hunter L. Jordan, Sr.

Contents

1. Dead

2. The Bicycle

3. Kosher

4. Black Power

5. The Old Testament

6. The New Testament

7. Sam

8. Brothers and Sisters

9. Shul

10. School

11. Boys

12. Daddy

13. New York

14. Chicken Man

15. Graduation

16. Driving

17. Lost in Harlem

18. Lost in Delaware

19. The Promise

20. Old Man Shilsky

21. A Bird Who Flies

22. A Jew Discovered

23. Dennis

24. New Brown

25. Finding Ruthie

Epilogue

Afterword

Thanks and Acknowledgments

As a boy, I never knew where my mother was from—where she was born, who her parents were. When I asked she’d say, “God made me.” When I asked if she was white, she’d say, “I’m light-skinned,” and change the subject. She raised twelve black children and sent us all to college and in most cases graduate school. Her children became doctors, professors, chemists, teachers—yet none of us even knew her maiden name until we were grown. It took me fourteen years to unearth her remarkable story —the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, she married a black man in 1942—and she revealed it more as a favor to me than out of any desire to revisit her past. Here is her life as she told it to me, and betwixt and between the pages of her life you will find mine as well.

The Color of Water

1.

Dead

I’m dead. You want to talk about my family and here I been dead to them for fifty years. Leave me alone. Don’t

bother me. They want no parts of me and me I don’t want no parts of them. Hurry up and get this interview over with. I want to watch Dallas. See, my family, if you had a been part of them, you wouldn’t have time for this foolishness, your roots, so to speak. You’d be better off watching the Three Stooges than to interview them, like to go interview my father, forget it. He’d have a heart attack if he saw you. He’s dead now anyway, or if not he’s 150 years old.

I was born an Orthodox Jew on April 1, 1921, April Fool’s Day, in Poland. I don’t remember the name of the town where I was born, but I do remember my Jewish name: Ruchel Dwajra Zylska. My parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky, and I got rid of that name when I was nineteen and never used it again after I left Virginia for good in 1941. Rachel Shilsky is dead as far as I’m concerned. She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live.

My family mourned me when I married your father. They said kaddish and sat shiva. That’s how Orthodox Jews mourn their dead. They say prayers, turn their mirrors down, sit on boxes for seven days, and cover their heads. It’s a real workout, which is maybe why I’m not a Jew now. There were too many rules to follow, too many forbiddens and “you can’ts” and “you mustn’ts,” but does anybody say they love you? Not in my family we didn’t. We didn’t talk that way. We said things like, “There’s a box in there for the nails,” or my father would say, “Be quiet while I sleep.”

My father’s name was Fishel Shilsky and he was an Orthodox rabbi. He escaped from the Russian army and snuck over the Polish border and married my mother in an arranged marriage. He used to say he was under fire when he ran off from the army, and his ability to slick himself out of anything that wasn’t good for him stayed with him for as long as I knew him. Tateh, we called him. That means father in Yiddish. He was a fox, especially when it came to money. He was short, dark, hairy, and gruff. He wore a white shirt, black pants, and a tallis on his shirtsleeve, and that was like his uniform. He’d wear those black pants till they glazed and shined and were ripe enough to stand in the corner by themselves, but God help you if those pants were coming your way in a hurry, because he was nobody to fool with, my father. He was hard as a rock.

My mother was named Hudis and she was the exact opposite of him, gentle and meek. She was born in 1896 in the town of Dobryzn, Poland, but if you checked there today, nobody would remember her family because any Jews who didn’t leave before Hitler got through with Poland were wiped out in the Holocaust. She was pretty about the face. Dark hair, high cheekbones, but she had polio. It paralyzed her left side and left her in overall poor health. Her left hand was useless. It was bent at the wrist and held close to her chest. She was nearly blind in her left eye and walked with a severe limp, dragging her left foot behind her. She was a quiet woman, my sweet Mameh. That’s what we called her, Mameh. She’s one person in this world I didn’t do right by….

2.

The Bicycle

When I was fourteen, my mother took up two new hobbies: riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my stepfather found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

I don’t know whether it was his decision to pull out or not, but I think not. He was seventy-two when he died, trim, strong, easygoing, seemingly infallible, and though he was my stepfather, I always thought of him as Daddy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man who wore old-timey clothes, fedoras, button-down wool coats, suspenders, and dressed neatly at all times, regardless of how dirty his work made him. He did everything slowly and carefully, but beneath his tractor-like slowness and outward gentleness was a crossbreed of quiet Indian and country black man, surefooted, hard, bold, and quick. He took no guff and gave none. He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children to make it an even twelve and he cared for all of us as if we were his own. “I got enough for a baseball team,” he joked. One day he was there, the next—a stroke, and he was gone.

I virtually dropped out of high school after he died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends. “James is going through his revolution,” my siblings snickered. Still, my sisters were concerned, my older brothers angry. I ignored them. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible. I snatched purses. I shoplifted. I even robbed a petty drug dealer once. And then in the afternoons, coming home after a day of cutting school, smoking reefer, waving razors, and riding the subway, I would see my mother pedaling her blue bicycle.

She would ride in slow motion across our street, Murdock Avenue in the St. Albans section of Queens, the only white person in sight, as cars swerved around her and black motorists gawked at the strange, middle-aged white lady riding her ancient bicycle. It was her way of grieving, though I didn’t know it then. Hunter Jordan, my stepfather, was dead. Andrew McBride, my biological father, had died while she was pregnant with me fourteen years earlier. It was clear that Mommy was no longer interested in getting married again, despite the efforts of a couple of local preachers who were all Cadillacs and smiles and knew that she, and thus we, were broke. At fifty-one she was still slender and pretty, with curly black hair, dark eyes, a large nose, a sparkling smile, and a bowlegged walk you could see a mile off. We used to call that “Mommy’s madwalk,” and if she was doing it in your direction, all hell was gonna break loose. I’d seen her go up to some pretty tough dudes and shake her fist in their faces when she was angry—but that was before Daddy died. Now she seemed intent on playing the piano, dodging bill collectors, forcing us into college through sheer willpower, and riding her bicycle all over Queens. She refused to learn how to drive. Daddy’s old car sat out front for weeks, parked at the curb. Silent. Clean. Polished. Every day she rode her bike right past it, ignoring it.

The image of her riding that bicycle typified her whole existence to me. Her oddness, her complete nonawareness of what the world thought of her, a nonchalance in the face of what I perceived to be imminent danger from blacks and whites who disliked her for being a white person in a black world. She saw none of it. She rode so slowly that if you looked at her from a distance it seemed as if she

weren’t moving, the image frozen, painted against the spring sky, a middle-aged white woman on an antique bicycle with black kids zipping past her on Sting-Ray bikes and skateboards, popping wheelies and throwing baseballs that whizzed past her head, tossing firecrackers that burst all around her. She ignored it all. She wore a flower-print dress and black loafers, her head swiveling back and forth as she rode shakily past the triangle curve where I played stickball with my friends, up Lewiston Avenue, down the hill on Mayville Street where a lovely kid named Roger got killed in a car accident, back up the hill on Murdock, over the driveway curb, and to the front of our house. She would stop, teetering shakily, catching herself just before the bike collapsed onto the sidewalk. “Whew!” she’d say, while my siblings, camped on the stoop of our house to keep an eye on her, shook their heads. My sister Dotty would say, “I sure wish you wouldn’t ride that bike, Ma,” and I silently agreed, because I didn’t want my friends seeing my white mother out there riding a bicycle. She was already white, that was bad enough, but to go out and ride an old bike that went out of style a hundred years ago? And a grown-up no less? I couldn’t handle it.

As a boy, I always thought my mother was strange. She never cared to socialize with our neighbors. Her past was a mystery she refused to discuss. She drank tea out of a glass. She could speak Yiddish. She had an absolute distrust of authority and an insistence on complete privacy which seemed to make her, and my family, even odder. My family was huge, twelve kids, unlike any other family I’d ever seen, so many of us that at times Mommy would call us by saying, “Hey James—Judy-Henry-Hunter- Kath—whatever your name is, come here a minute.” It wasn’t that she forgot who we were, but there were so many of us, she had no time for silly details like names. She was the commander in chief of my house, because my stepfather did not live with us. He lived in Brooklyn until near the end of his life, staying away from the thronging masses to come home on weekends, bearing food and tricycles and the resolve to fix whatever physical thing we had broken during the week. The nuts and bolts of raising us was left to Mommy, who acted as chief surgeon for bruises (“Put iodine on it”), war secretary (“If somebody hits you, take your fist and crack ‘em”), religious consultant (“Put God first”), chief psychologist (“Don’t think about it”), and financial adviser (“What’s money if your mind is empty?”). Matters involving race and identity she ignored.

As a kid, I remember wishing I were in the TV show Father Knows Best, where the father comes home from work every day wearing a suit and tie and there are only enoughkids to fit on his lap, instead of in my house, where we walked around with huge holes in our pants, cheap Bo-Bo sneakers that cost $1.99 at John’s Bargains store, with parents who were busy and distracted, my stepfather appearing only on weekends in sleeveless T-shirt, tools in hand, and Mommy bearing diapers, pins, washcloths, Q-tips, and a child in each arm with another pulling at her dress. She barely had time to wipe the behind of one child before another began screaming at the top of her lungs. Back in the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, where we lived before moving to the relative bliss of St. Albans, Queens, Mommy put us to bed each night like slabs of meat, laying us out three and four to a bed, one with his head to the headboard, the next with his feet to the headboard, and so on. “Head up, toes down,” she called it as she kissed us good night and laid us out in the proper position. The moment she left the room we’d fight over who got to sleep next to the wall. “I got the inside!” I’d shout, and Richard, the brother above me and thus my superior, would shake his head and say, “No, no, no. David sleeps on the inside. I have the middle. You, knucklehead, have the outside,” so all night I’d inhale David’s breath and eat Richie’s toes, and when I couldn’t stand the combination of toes and breath any longer I’d turn over and land on the cold cement floor with a clunk.

It was kill or be killed in my house, and Mommy understood that, in fact created the system. You were left to your own devices or so you thought until you were at your very wits’ end, at which time she would step in and rescue you. I was terrified when it came my turn to go to school. Although P.S. 118 was only eight blocks away, I wasn’t allowed to walk there with my siblings because kindergarten

students were required to ride the bus. On the ill-fated morning, Mommy chased me all around the kitchen trying to dress me as my siblings laughed at my terror. “The bus isn’t bad,” one quipped, “except for the snakes.” Another added, “Sometimes the bus never brings you home.” Guffaws all around.

“Be quiet,” Mommy said, inspecting my first-day-of-school attire. My clothes were clean, but not new. The pants had been Billy’s, the shirt was David’s, the coat had been passed down from Dennis to Billy to David to Richie to me. It was a gray coat with a fur collar that had literally been chewed up by somebody. Mommy dusted it off with a whisk broom, set out eight or nine bowls, poured oatmeal in each one, left instructions for the eldest to feed the rest, then ran a comb through my hair. The sensation was like a tractor pulling my curls off. “C’mon,” she said, “I’ll walk you to the bus stop.” Surprise reward. Me and Mommy alone. It was the first time I remember ever being alone with my mother.

It became the high point of my day, a memory so sweet it is burned into my mind like a tattoo, Mommy walking me to the bus stop and every afternoon picking me up, standing on the corner of New Mexico and 114th Road, clad in a brown coat, her black hair tied in a colorful scarf, watching with the rest of the parents as the yellow school bus swung around the corner and came to a stop with a hiss of air brakes.

Gradually, as the weeks passed and the terror of going to school subsided, I began to notice something about my mother, that she looked nothing like the other kids’ mothers. In fact, she looked more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Alexander, who was white. Peering out the window as the bus rounded the corner and the front doors flew open, I noticed that Mommy stood apart from the other mothers, rarely speaking to them. She stood behind them, waiting calmly, hands in her coat pockets, watching intently through the bus windows to see where I was, then smiling and waving as I yelled my greeting to her through the window. She’d quickly grasp my hand as I stepped off the bus, ignoring the stares of the black women as she whisked me away.

One afternoon as we walked home from the bus stop, I asked Mommy why she didn’t look like the other mothers.

“Because I’m not them,” she said. “Who are you?” I asked. “I’m your mother.” “Then why don’t you look like Rodney’s mother, or Pete’s mother? How come you don’t look like

me?” She sighed and shrugged. She’d obviously been down this road many times. “I do look like you. I’m

your mother. You ask too many questions. Educate your mind. School is important. Forget Rodney and Pete. Forget their mothers. You remember school. Forget everything else. Who cares about Rodney and Pete! When they go one way, you go the other way. Understand? When they go one way, you go the other way. You hear me?”

“Yes.” “I know what I’m talking about. Don’t follow none of them around. You stick to your brothers and

sisters, that’s it. Don’t tell nobody your business neither!” End of discussion. A couple of weeks later the bus dropped me off and Mommy was not there. I panicked. Somewhere

in the back of my mind was the memory of her warning me, “You’re going to have to learn to walk home by yourself,” but that memory blinked like a distant fog light in a stormy sea and it drowned in my panic. I was lost. My house was two blocks away, but it might as well have been ten miles because I had no idea where it was. I stood on the corner and bit back my tears. The other parents regarded me sympathetically and asked me my address, but I was afraid to tell them. In my mind was Mommy’s warning, drilled into all twelve of us children from the time we could walk: “Never, ever, ever tell

your business to nobody,” and I shook my head no, I don’t know my address. They departed one by one, until a sole figure remained, a black father, who stood in front of me with his son, saying, “Don’t worry, your mother is coming soon.” I ignored him. He was blocking my view, the tears clouding my vision as I tried to peer behind him, looking down the block to see if that familiar brown coat and white face would appear in the distance. It didn’t. In fact there wasn’t anyone coming at all, except a bunch of kids and they certainly didn’t look like Mommy. They were a motley crew of girls and boys, ragged, with wild hairdos and unkempt jackets, hooting and making noise, and only when they were almost upon me did I recognize the faces of my elder siblings and my little sister Kathy who trailed behind them. I ran into their arms and collapsed in tears as they gathered around me, laughing.

3.

Kosher

My parents’ marriage was put together by a rov, a rabbi of a high order who goes to each of the parents and sees about the dowry and arranges the marriage contract properly according to Jewish law, which meant love had nothing to do with it. See, my mother’s family had all the class and money. Tateh, I don’t know where his family was from. Mameh was his meal ticket to America, and once he got here, he was done with her. He came here under the sponsorship of my mother’s eldest sister, Laurie, and her husband, Paul Schiffman. You couldn’t just walk into America. You had to have a sponsor, someone who would say, “I’ll vouch for this person.” He came first and after a few months sent for his family—me, Mameh, and my older brother, Sam. I was two years old and Sam was four when we arrived, so I don’t remember anything about our long, perilous journey to America other than what I’ve seen in the movies. I have a legal paper in the shoebox under my bed that says I arrived here on August 23, 1923, on a steamer called the Austergeist. I kept that paper on my person wherever I went for over twenty years. That was my protection. I didn’t want them to throw me out. Who? Anybody…the government, my father, anybody. I thought they could throw you out of America like they throw you out of a baseball game. My father would say, “I’m a citizen and you’re not. I can send you back to Europe anytime I want.” He used to threaten us with that, to send us back to Europe, especially my mother, because she was the last of her family to get here and she had spent a good deal of her life running from Russian soldiers in Poland. She used to talk about the Czar or the Kaiser and how the Russian soldiers would come into the village and line up the Jews and shoot them in cold blood. “I had to run for my life,” she used to say. “I held you and your brother in my arms as I ran.” She was terrified of Europe and happy to be in America.

When we first got off the boat we lived with my grandparents Zaydeh and Bubeh on 115th and St. Nicholas in Manhattan. Although I was a tiny child, I remember Zaydeh well. He had a long beard and was jolly and always seemed to be drinking hot tea out of a glass. All the men in my family had long beards. Zaydeh kept a picture of himself and my grandmother on his bureau. It was taken while they were in Europe. They were standing side by side, Zaydeh wearing a black suit, with a hat and beard, and Bubeh wearing a wig, or shaytl, as was the religious custom. Bubeh was bald underneath that wig, I believe. That’s why women were supposed to keep their heads covered. They were bald.

I enjoyed my grandparents. They were warm and I loved them the way any grandchild loves a grandparent. They kept a clean, comfortable apartment, furnished with heavy dark mahogany pieces. Their dining room table was covered with a sparkling white lace tablecloth at all times. They were strictly Orthodox and ate kosher every day. You don’t know anything about kosher. You think it’s a halvah candy bar. You need to read up on it because I ain’t no expert. They got folks who write whole books about it, go find them and ask them! Or read the Bible! Shoot! Who am I? I ain’t nobody! I can’t be telling the world this! I don’t know! The way we did it, you had different table settings for every meal, different tablecloths, different dishes, forks, spoons, knives, everything. And you couldn’t mix your meals. Like you had your dairy meals and your meat meals. So you eat all dairy one meal and all meat the next. No mixing it up. No pork, either—no pork chops with potato salad, no bacon and eggs, forget all that. You sit your butt down and eat what you were supposed to, and do what you were supposed to. We used a special-type tablecloth for dairy meals because you could clean it with a simple dishrag as opposed to washing it. Then every Friday evening at sundown you had to light your candles and pray and the Sabbath began. That lasted till sundown Saturday. No light switches could

be turned on or off, no tearing of paper, no riding in cars or going to the movies, not even a simple thing like lighting a stove. You had to sit tight and read by candlelight. Or just sit tight. For me that was the hardest thing, sitting tight. Even as a girl, I was a runner. I liked to get out of the house and go. Run. The only thing I was allowed to do on the Sabbath was read romance magazines. I did that for years.

I remember when Zaydeh died in the apartment. I don’t know how he died, he just died. In those days people didn’t linger and fool around like people do now, with tubes hanging out their mouths and making doctors rich and all this. They just died. Dead. Bye. Well, he was dead, honey. They laid him out on his bed and brought us children into his bedroom to look at him. They had to lift me and my brother Sam off the floor to see him. His beard lay flat on his chest and his hands were folded. He had a little black tie on. He seemed asleep. I remember saying to myself that he couldn’t possibly be dead, because it seemed not too long before that he’d been alive and joking and being silly and now here he was dead as a rock. They buried him before sundown that day and we sat shiva for him. All the mirrors in the house were covered. The adults covered their heads. Everyone sat on boxes. My grandmother wore black for a long time afterwards. But you know, I felt they were burying him too quick. I wanted to ask someone, “Suppose Zaydeh isn’t dead? Suppose he’s joking and wakes up to find out he’s buried?” But a child in my family didn’t ask questions. You did what you were told. You obeyed, period.

I always remembered that, and I think that’s why I’m claustrophobic today, because I didn’t know what death was. You know my family didn’t talk of death. You weren’t allowed to say the word. The old-time Jews, they’d spit on the floor when they said the word “death” in Yiddish. I don’t know if it was superstition or what, but if my father said “death” you can bet two seconds later spit would be flying out his mouth. Why? Why not! He could throw up on the floor in his house and no one was allowed to say a word to him. Why he’d spit I do not know, but when my grandfather passed away I kept asking myself, “Suppose Zaydeh isn’t dead, then what? And he’s surrounded by all those dead people too, and he’s still alive?” Lord…anything that’s too closed in makes me feel like I can’t breathe and I’m going to die. That’s why I tell y’all to make sure I’m dead when I die. Kick me and pinch me and make sure I’m gone, because the thought of being buried alive, lying there all smushed up and smothered and surrounded by dead people and I’m still alive, Lord, that scares me to death.

4.

Black Power

When I was a boy, I used to wonder where my mother came from, how she got on this earth. When I asked her where she was from, she would say, “God made me,” and change the subject. When I asked her if she was white, she’d say, “No. I’m light-skinned,” and change the subject again. Answering questions about her personal history did not jibe with Mommy’s view of parenting twelve curious, wild, brown-skinned children. She issued orders and her rule was law. Since she refused to divulge details about herself or her past, and because my stepfather was largely unavailable to deal with questions about himself or Ma, what I learned of Mommy’s past I learned from my siblings. We traded information on Mommy the way people trade baseball cards at trade shows, offering bits and pieces fraught with gossip, nonsense, wisdom, and sometimes just plain foolishness. “What does it matter to you?” my older brother Richie scoffed when I asked him if we had any grandparents. “You’re adopted anyway.”

My siblings and I spent hours playing tricks and teasing one another. It was our way of dealing with realities over which we had no control. I told Richie I didn’t believe him.

“I don’t care if you believe me or not,” he sniffed. “Mommy’s not your real mother. Your real mother’s in jail.”

“You’re lying!” “You’ll see when Mommy takes you back to your real mother next week. Why do you think she’s

been so nice to you all week?” Suddenly it occurred to me that Mommy had been nice to me all week. But wasn’t she nice to me

all the time? I couldn’t remember, partly because within my confused eight-year-old reasoning was a growing fear that maybe Richie was right. Mommy, after all, did not really look like me. In fact, she didn’t look like Richie, or David—or any of her children for that matter. We were all clearly black, of various shades of brown, some light brown, some medium brown, some very light-skinned, and all of us had curly hair. Mommy was, by her own definition, “light-skinned,” a statement which I had initially accepted as fact but at some point later decided was not true. My best friend Billy Smith’s mother was as light as Mommy was and had red hair to boot, but there was no question in my mind that Billy’s mother was black and my mother was not. There was something inside me, an ache I had, like a constant itch that got bigger and bigger as I grew, that told me. It was in my blood, you might say, and however the notion got there, it bothered me greatly. Yet Mommy refused to acknowledge her whiteness. Why she did so was not clear, but even my teachers seemed to know she was white and I wasn’t. On open school nights, the question most often asked by my schoolteachers was: “Is James adopted?” which always prompted an outraged response from Mommy.

I told Richie: “If I’m adopted, you’re adopted too.” “Nope,” Richie replied. “Just you, and you’re going back to your real mother in jail.” “I’ll run away first.” “You can’t do that. Mommy will get in trouble if you do that. You don’t want to see Ma get in

trouble, do you? It’s not her fault that you’re adopted, is it?” He had me then. Panic set in. “But I don’t want to go to my real mother. I want to stay here with

Ma…” “You gotta go. I’m sorry, man.” This went on until I was in tears. I remember pacing about nervously all day while Richie, knowing

he had ruined my life, cackled himself to sleep. That night I lay wide awake in bed waiting for Mommy to get home from work at two a.m., whereupon she laid the ruse out as I sat at the kitchen table in my tattered Fruit of the Loom underwear. “You’re not adopted,” she laughed.

“So you’re my real mother?” “Of course I am.” Big kiss. “Then who’s my grandparents?” “Your grandpa Nash died and so did your grandma Etta.” “Who were they?” “They were your father’s parents.” “Where were they from?” “From down south. You remember them?” I had a faint recollection of my grandmother Etta, an ancient black woman with a beautiful face

who seemed very confused, walking around with a blue dress and a fishing pole, the bait, tackle, and line dragging down around her ankles. She didn’t seem real to me.

“Did you know them, Ma?” “I knew them very, very well.” “Did they love you?” “Why do you ask so many questions?” “I just want to know. Did they love you? Because your own parents didn’t love you, did they?” “My own parents loved me.” “Then where are they?” A short silence. “My mother died many, many years ago,” she said. “My father, he was a fox. No

more questions tonight. You want some coffee cake?” Enough said. If getting Mommy’s undivided attention for more than five minutes was a great feat in a family of twelve kids, then getting a midnight snack in my house was a greater thrill. I cut the questions and ate the cake, though it never stopped me from wondering, partly because of my own growing sense of self, and partly because of fear for her safety, because even as a child I had a clear sense that black and white folks did not get along, which put her, and us, in a pretty tight space.

In 1966, when I was nine, black power had permeated every element of my neighborhood in St. Albans, Queens. Malcolm X had been killed the year before and had grown larger in death than in life. Afros were in style. The Black Panthers were a force. Public buildings, statues, monuments, even trees, met the evening in their original bland colors and reemerged the next morning painted in the sparkling “liberation colors” of red, black, and green. Congas played at night on the streets while teenyboppers gathered to talk of revolution. My siblings marched around the house reciting poetry from the Last Poets, a sort of rap group who recited in-your-face poetry with conga and fascinating vocal lines serving as a musical backdrop, with songs titled “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” and “On the Subway.” Every Saturday morning my friends and I would pedal our bicycles to the corner of Dunkirk Street and Ilion Avenue to watch the local drag racers near the Sun Dew soft drink factory, trying to see who could drive the fastest over a dip in the road that sent even the slowest-moving car airborne. My stepfather hit that dip at fifteen miles an hour in his ‘64 Pontiac and I bounced high in my seat. These guys hit it at ninety and their cars flew like birds, barreling through the air and landing fifteen feet away, often skidding out of control, sometimes smacking against the wall of the Sun Dew factory before wobbling away in a pile of bent metal, grilles, and fenders. Their cars had names like “Smokin’ Joe” and “Miko” and “Dream Machine” scrawled on the hoods, but our favorite was a gleaming black, souped-up GTO with the words “Black Power” written in smooth white script across the hood and top. It was the fastest and its driver was, of course, the coolest. He drove like a madman, and after leaving some poor Corvette in the dust, he’d power his mighty car in a circle, wheel it

around, and do a victory lap for us, driving by at low speed, one muscled arm angling out the window, his car rumbling powerfully, while we whistled and cheered, raising our fists and yelling, “Black power!” He’d laugh and burn rubber for us, tires screeching, roaring away in a burst of gleaming metal and hot exhaust, his taillights flashing as he disappeared into the back alleyways before the cops had a chance to bust him. We thought he was God.

But there was a part of me that feared black power very deeply for the obvious reason. I thought black power would be the end of my mother. I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole. It began with a sober white newsman on our black-and-white television set introducing a news clip showing a Black Panther rally, led by Bobby Seale or Huey Newton or one of those young black militant leaders, screaming to hundreds and hundreds of angry African-American students, “Black power! Black power! Black power!” while the crowd roared. It frightened the shit out of me. I thought to myself, These people will kill Mommy. Mommy, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned. Her motto was, “If it doesn’t involve your going to school or church, I could care less about it and my answer is no whatever it is.”

She insisted on absolute privacy, excellent school grades, and trusted no outsiders of either race. We were instructed never to reveal details of our home life to any figures of authority: teachers, social workers, cops, storekeepers, or even friends. If anyone asked us about our home life, we were taught to respond with, “I don’t know,” and for years I did just that. Mommy’s house was an entire world that she created. She appointed the eldest child at home to be “king” or “queen” to run the house in her absence and we took it from there, creating court jesters, slaves, musicians, poets, pets, and clowns. Playing in the street was discouraged and often forbidden and if you did manage to slip out, “Get your butt in this house before dark,” she would warn, a rule she enforced to the bone. I often played that rule out to its very edge, stealing into the house at dusk, just as the last glimmer of sunlight was peeking over the western horizon, closing the door softly, hoping Mommy had gone to work, only to turn around and find her standing before me, hands on hips, whipping belt in hand, eyes flicking angrily back and forth to the window, then to me, lips pursed, trying to decide whether it was light or dark outside. “It’s still light,” I’d suggest, my voice wavering, as my siblings gathered behind her to watch the impending slaughter.

“That looks like light to you?” she’d snap, motioning to the window. “Looks pretty dark,” my siblings would chirp from behind her. “It’s definitely dark, Ma!” they’d

shout, stifling their giggles. If I was lucky a baby would wail in another room and she’d be off, hanging the belt on the doorknob as she went. “Don’t do it again,” she’d warn over her shoulder, and I was a free man.

But even if she had any interest in black power, she had no time to talk about it. She worked the swing shift at Chase Manhattan Bank as a typist, leaving home at three P.M. and returning around two A.M., so she had little time for games, and even less time for identity crises. She and my father brought a curious blend of Jewish-European and African-American distrust and paranoia into our house. On his end, my father, Andrew McBride, a Baptist minister, had his doubts about the world accepting his mixed family. He always made sure his kids never got into trouble, was concerned about money, and trusted the providence of the Holy Father to do the rest. After he died and Mommy remarried, my stepfather, Hunter Jordan, seemed to pick up where my father left off, insistent on education and church. On her end, Mommy had no model for raising us other than the experience of her own Orthodox Jewish family, which despite the seeming flaws—an unbending nature, a stridency, a focus on money, a deep distrust of all outsiders, not to mention her father’s tyranny—represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education. My parents were nonmaterialistic. They believed that money without knowledge was worthless, that education tempered with religion was the

way to climb out of poverty in America, and over the years they were proven right. Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how

contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no farther than our own mother. Mommy’s contradictions crashed and slammed against one another like bumper cars at Coney Island. White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it. She couldn’t stand racists of either color and had great distaste for bourgeois blacks who sought to emulate rich whites by putting on airs and “doing silly things like covering their couches with plastic and holding teacups with their pinkies out.” “What fools!” she’d hiss. She wouldn’t be bothered with parents who bragged about their children’s accomplishments, yet she insisted we strive for the highest professional goals. She was against welfare and never applied for it despite our need, but championed those who availed themselves of it. She hated restaurants and would not enter one even if the meals served were free. She actually preferred to be among the poor, the working-class poor of the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, the cement mixers, bakers, doughnut makers, grandmothers, and soul-food church partisans who were her lifelong friends. It was with them that she and my father started the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church, a small storefront church which still stands in Red Hook today. Mommy loves that church and to this day still loves Red Hook, one of the most dangerous and neglected housing projects in New York City. On any given day she’ll get up in the morning, take the New Jersey Transit train from her home in Ewing, New Jersey, to Manhattan, then take the subway to Brooklyn, and wander around the projects like the Pope, the only white person in sight, waving to friends, stepping past the drug addicts, smiling at the young mothers pushing their children in baby carriages, slipping into the poorly lit hallway of 80 Dwight Street while the young dudes in hooded sweatshirts stare balefully at the strange, bowlegged old white lady in Nikes and red sweats who slowly hobbles up the three flights of dark, urine-smelling stairs on arthritic knees to visit her best friend, Mrs. Ingram in apartment 3G.

As a boy, I often found Mommy’s ease among black people surprising. Most white folks I knew seemed to have a great fear of blacks. Even as a young child, I was aware of that. I’d read it in the paper, between the lines of my favorite sport columnists in the New York Post and the old Long Island Press, in their refusal to call Cassius Clay Muhammad Ali, in their portrayal of Floyd Patterson as a “good Negro Catholic,” and in their burning criticism of black athletes like Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals, whom I idolized. In fact I didn’t even have to open the paper to see it. I could see it in the faces of the white people who stared at me and Mommy and my siblings when we rode the subway, sometimes laughing at us, pointing, muttering things like, “Look at her with those little niggers.” I remember when a white man shoved her angrily as she led a group of us onto an escalator, but Mommy simply ignored him. I remember two black women pointing at us, saying, “Look at that white bitch,” and a white man screaming at Mommy somewhere in Manhattan, calling her a “nigger lover.” Mommy ignored them all, unless the insults threatened her children, at which time she would turn and fight back like an alley cat, hissing, angry, and fearless. She had a casual way of ignoring affronts, slipping past insults to her whiteness like a seasoned boxer slips punches. When Malcolm X, the supposed demon of the white man, was killed, I asked her who he was and she said, “He was a man ahead of his time.” She actually liked Malcolm X. She put him in nearly the same category as her other civil rights heroes, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedys—any Kennedy. When Malcolm X talked about “the white devil” Mommy simply felt those references didn’t apply to her. She viewed the civil rights achievements of black Americans with pride, as if they were her own. And she herself occasionally talked about “the white man” in the third person, as if she had nothing to do with him, and in fact she

didn’t, since most of her friends and social circle were black women from church. “What’s the matter with these white folks?” she’d muse after reading some craziness in the New York Daily News. “They’re fighting over this man’s money now that he’s dead. None of them wanted him when he was alive, and now look at them. Forget it, honey”—this is Mommy talking to the newspaper—“your husband’s dead, okay? He’s dead—poop! You had your chance. Is money gonna bring him back? No!” Then she’d turn to us and deliver the invariable lecture: “You don’t need money. What’s money if your mind is empty! Educate your mind! Is this world crazy or am I the crazy one? It’s probably me.”

Indeed it probably was—at least, I thought so. I knew of no other white woman who would board the subway in Manhattan at one o’clock every morning and fall asleep till she got to her stop in Queens forty-five minutes later. Often I could not sleep until I heard her key hit the door. Her lack of fear for her safety—particularly among blacks, where she often stuck out like a sore thumb and seemed an easy target for muggers—had me stumped. As a grown man, I understand now, understand how her Christian principles and trust in God kept her going through all her life’s battles, but as a boy, my faith was not that strong. Mommy once took me to Harlem to visit my stepsister, Jacqueline, whom we called Jack and who was my father’s daughter by a previous marriage and more like an aunt than a sister. The two of them sat in Jack’s parlor and talked into the night while Jack cooked big plates of soul food, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pies, and biscuits for us. “Take this home to the kids, Ruth,” Jack told Ma. We put the food in shopping bags and took it on the subway without incident, but when we got off the bus in St. Albans near our house, two black men came up behind us and one of them grabbed Mommy’s purse. The shopping bag full of macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies burst open and food flew everywhere as Mommy held on to her purse, spinning around in a crazy circle with the mugger, neither saying a word as they both desperately wrestled for the purse, whirling from the sidewalk into the dark empty street like two ballerinas locked in a death dance. I stood frozen in shock, watching. Finally the mugger got the purse and ran off as his buddy laughed at him, and Mommy fell to the ground.

She got up, calmly took my hand, and began to walk home without a word. “You okay?” she asked me after a few moments. I nodded. I was so frightened I couldn’t speak. All the food that Jack had cooked for us lay on the

ground behind us, ruined. “Why didn’t you scream?” I asked, when I finally got my tongue back. “It’s just a purse,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just get home.” The incident confirmed my fears that Mommy was always in danger. Every summer we joined the

poor inner-city kids the Fresh Air Fund organization sent to host families or to summer camps for free. The luckier ones among my siblings got to stay with host families, but I had to go to camps where they housed ten of us in a cabin for two weeks at a time. Sometimes they seemed closer to prison or job corps than camp. Kids fought all the time. The food was horrible. I was constantly fighting. Kids called me Cochise because of my light skin and curly hair. Despite all that, I loved it. The first time I went, Mommy took me to the roundup point, a community center in Far Rockaway, once the home of middle-class whites and Jews like playwright Neil Simon, but long since turned black, and it seemed that the only white person for miles was my own mother. The camp organizers set up a table inside where they removed our shoes and shirts and inspected our toes for athlete’s foot, checked us for measles and chicken pox, then sent us outside to board a yellow school bus for the long journey to upstate New York. As I sat on the bus peering out the window at Mommy, the only white face in a sea of black faces, a black man walked up with his son. He had a mustache and a goatee and wore black leather pants, a black leather jacket, a ton of jewelry, and a black beret. He seemed outstandingly cool. His kid was very handsome, well dressed, and quite refined. He placed his kid’s bags in the back of the bus and when the kid went to step on the bus, instead of hugging the child, the father offered his hand, and father and son did a magnificent, convoluted black-power soul handshake

called the “dap,” the kind of handshake that lasts five minutes, fingers looping, thumbs up, thumbs down, index fingers collapsing, wrists snapping, bracelets tingling. It seemed incredibly hip. The whole bus watched. Finally the kid staggered breathlessly onto the bus and sat behind me, tapping at the window and waving at his father, who was now standing next to Mommy, waving at his kid.

“Where’d you learn that handshake?” someone asked the kid. “My father taught me,” he said proudly. “He’s a Black Panther.” The bus roared to life as I panicked. A Black Panther? Next to Mommy? It was my worst nightmare

come true. I had no idea who the Panthers truly were. I had swallowed the media image of them completely.

The bus clanked into gear as I got up to open my window. I wanted to warn Mommy. Suppose the Black Panther wanted to kill her? The window was stuck. I tried to move to another window. A counselor grabbed me and sat me down. I said, “I have to tell my mother something.”

“Write her a letter,” he said. I jumped into the seat of the Black Panther’s son behind me—his window was open. The counselor

placed me back in my seat. “Mommy, Mommy!” I yelled at the closed window. Mommy was waving. The bus pulled away. I shouted, “Watch out for him!” but we were too far away and my window was shut. She couldn’t

hear me. I saw the Black Panther waving at his son. Mommy waved at me. Neither seemed to notice the

other. When they were out of sight, I turned to the Black Panther’s son sitting behind me and punched him

square in the face with my fist. The kid held his jaw and stared at me in shock as his face melted into a knot of disbelief and tears.

5.

The Old Testament

My father was a traveling preacher. He was just like any traveling preacher except he was a rabbi. He wasn’t any different from the rest of those scoundrels you see on TV today except he preached in synagogues and he wasn’t so smooth-talkin’. He was hard as a rock and it didn’t take long before the Jewish congregations figured him out and sent him on his way, so we traveled a lot when I was a young girl. In those days any Orthodox Jew who said he was a rabbi could preach and go around singing like a cantor and such. That’s all some of those Jews could do in those days, travel around and preach and sing. There weren’t jobs out there like you know them today. Living. That was your job. Surviving. Reading the Old Testament and hoping it brought you something to eat, that’s what you did.

See, Orthodox Jews work with contracts. Or at least my family did. A contract to marry. A contract to preach. A contract for whatever. Money was part of their lives because they had nothing else, like a real home. At least we didn’t. Tateh would sign a contract with a synagogue and after a year the synagogue wouldn’t renew it, so we’d pack up and move to the next town. We lived in so many places I can’t remember them. Glens Falls, New York; Belleville, New Jersey; Port Jervis, New York; Springfield, Massachusetts; someplace called Dover. I remember Belleville because someone was always giving us hand-me-down clothes there. That’s how the members from the congregations would pay us, with food and a place to stay and their cast-off clothes. I remember Springfield, Massachusetts, because my sister Gladys was born there. We called her Dee-Dee. She was four years younger than me. Dee-Dee came into this world around 1924. Whether she is still in this world today I do not know. She would be the last of my mother’s children still alive other than me.

We carted everything we had from town to town by bus—clothes, books, hats, and these huge quilts my mother had brought from Europe. They were full of goose feathers. You call them piezyna, in Jewish. They were warm as a house. My sister and I slept under them wherever we lived. We attracted a lot of attention when we traveled because we were poor and Jewish and my mother was handicapped. I was real conscious of that. Being Jewish and having a handicapped mother. I was ashamed of my mother, but see, love didn’t come natural to me until I became a Christian.

For a while we lived above a Jewish store in Glens Falls, in upstate New York, and the kind Jewish people who ran it baked us pies and gave us apples. We went sledding and did things as a family and my parents seemed to get along. It wasn’t bad up there really, but as usual Tateh’s contract didn’t get renewed and we had to leave. Luckily he got an offer to run a synagogue in Suffolk, Virginia. He told Mameh, “We’re moving south.” Mameh didn’t want to go. She said, “May be we can get something up here,” because her sisters and her mother were in New York City, but talking to him was like talking to that wall over there. He said, “We’re moving,” and we went to Suffolk, Virginia, around 1929. I was eight or nine at the time.

I still remember the smell of the South. It smelled like azaleas. And leaves. And peanuts. Peanuts everywhere. Planters peanuts had their headquarters in Suffolk. Mr. Obici ran it. He was a big deal in town. The big peanut man. He gave a lot of money out to people. He built a hospital. You could buy peanuts by the pound in Suffolk for nothing. There were farmers growing peanuts, hauling peanuts, making peanut oil, peanut butter, even peanut soap. They called the high school yearbook The Peanut. They even had a contest once to see who could make the best logo for Planters peanut company. Some lady won it. They gave her twenty-five dollars, which was a ton of money in those days.

Suffolk was a one-horse town back then, one big Main Street, a couple of movie theaters—one for

black folks, one for white folks—a few stores, a few farms nearby, and a set of railroad tracks that divided the black and white sections of town. The biggest event Suffolk had seen in years was a traveling sideshow that came through town on the railroad tracks, with a stuffed whale in a boxcar. The folks loved that. They loved anything different, or new, or from out of town, except for Jews. In school the kids called me “Christ killer” and “Jew baby.” That name stuck with me for a long time. “Jew baby.” You know it’s so easy to hurt a child.

Tateh worked at the local synagogue, but he had his eye on this huge old barn-type building across the tracks on the so-called colored side of town with the aim of starting a grocery store there. Well, that upset some of the synagogue folks. They didn’t want their holy rabbi going into business—and doing business with niggers, no less!—but Tateh said, “We’re not moving anymore. I’m tired of moving.” He knew they’d get rid of him eventually—let’s face it, he was a lousy rabbi. He had a Jewish friend in town named Israel Levy who signed a bank note that allowed Tateh to get his hands on that old place. Tateh threw a counter and some shelves in there, an old cash register, tacked up a sign outside that said “Shilsky’s Grocery Store” or something to that effect, and we were in business. The black folks called it “Old Man Shilsky’s store.” That’s what they called him. Old Man Shilsky. They used to laugh at him and his old ragtag store behind his back, but over the years they made Old Man Shilsky rich and nobody was laughing then.

Our store was a rickety, odd, huge wooden structure that looked like it was held together with toothpicks and glue. It sat at the very edge of town, near the town jail and overlooking the wharf. On the first floor was the store, a storage area, an ice room, a kitchen with a kerosene stove, and the backyard. We slept upstairs. There was no living room, no dining room upstairs, just rooms. Me and Dee-Dee slept in one room under our big quilt. Mameh often slept in the same room as us, and my brother Sam and Tateh slept in the other. My parents didn’t have the kind of warm relations that most parents had. Mameh was a very good wife and mother. Despite her overall poor health—she could barely see out of one eye, had severe pains in her stomach that grew more and more painful over the years—she could do more with one hand than I can do with two. She cooked matzoh balls, kneydlach, gefilte fish, kugl, chopped liver, and more kosher dishes than I can remember. She would darn socks. I learned how to chop fish, meat, and vegetables on a butcher-block cutting board from her. She kept the religious traditions of a Jewish housewife and was loyal to her husband, but Tateh had absolutely no love for her. He would call her by any name and make fun of her disability. He’d say, “I get sick to look at you,” and, “Why do you bother trying to look pretty?” His marriage was a business deal for him. He only wanted money. That and to be an American. Those were the two things he wanted, and he got them too, but it cost him his family, which he ran into the ground and destroyed.

We had no family life. That store was our life. We worked in there from morning till night, except for school, and Tateh had us timed for that. He’d be standing in the road outside the store with his hands on his hips at three P.M. sharp, looking down the road for me and Sam, and later Dee-Dee, as we ran the six blocks home from school. Right to work we went. Homework was done between customers. We were the only store open in town on Sundays, because we celebrated our Sabbath from Friday to Saturday evening, so we did booming business on Sundays because the white folks would shop there as well as our normal customers.

We sold everything in that store: cigarettes, by the pack or loose—Camels, Lucky Strike, Chesterfields for a penny each, or Wings, two for a penny; we sold coal, lumber, firewood, kerosene, candy, Coca-Cola, BC powder, milk, cream, fruit, butter, canned goods, meat. Ice was a big product. It was put into the big wooden icebox in the back of the store and sold by the chunk or into smaller pieces that sold for fifteen cents each. That icebox was big enough for a person to walk in, which I never did. Anything that could close behind me, or trap me, I never liked. I’m claustrophobic. I can’t stand feeling stuck or trapped in a place. I like to move. Even as a tiny girl I was like that. Hobbies? I

had none. Running. That was my hobby. Sometimes when Tateh wasn’t home, I’d tear out the door of the store and run. Just run anyplace. I would run down the back roads where the black folks lived, across the tracks to where the white folks were. I loved to sprint, just to feel the wind blowing on my face and see things and not be at home. I was always a running-type person.

Of course I had something to run from. My father did things to me when I was a young girl that I couldn’t tell anyone about. Such as getting in bed with me at night and doing things to me sexually that I could not tell anyone about. When we’d go to the beach in Portsmouth, he’d get into the water with me, supposedly to teach me how to swim, and hold me real close to his body near his sexual parts and he’d have an erection. When we’d get back to the beach, Mameh would ask, “Are you getting better at swimming?” and I’d say, “Yes, Mameh,” and he’d be standing there, glaring at me. God, I was scared of him.

Anytime he had a chance, he’d try to get close to me or crawl into bed with me and molest me. I was afraid of Tateh and had no love for him at all. I dreaded him and was relieved anytime he left the house. But it affected me in a lot of ways, what he did to me. I had very low self-esteem as a child, which I kept with me for many, many years; and even now I don’t want to be around anyone who is domineering or pushing me around because it makes me nervous. I’m only telling you this because you’re my son and I want you to know the truth and nothing less. I did have low self-esteem as a child. I felt low.

Folks will run with that, won’t they? They’ll say, “Oh, she felt low, so she went on and married a nigger.” Well, I don’t care. Your father changed my life. He taught me about a God who lifted me up and forgave me and made me new. I was lucky to meet him or I would’ve been a prostitute or dead. Who knows what would’ve happened to me. I was reborn in Christ. Had to be, after what I went through. Of course it wasn’t torment twenty-four hours a day being a Jew. We had good times, especially with my mother. Like on Passover, where you had to clean that house spic-and-span. Not a crumb or speck of leavened bread could be found anywhere. We loved getting ready for it. You had to use Passover dishes and we had a big seder, where the family sat down and the table was set with matzoh and parsley, boiled eggs and other traditional Jewish food. We set an empty chair for the coming of Elijah—see, Jews think the real Messiah hasn’t got here yet. The Haggadah had to be read and Tateh would ask us children questions about why we celebrated the feast of Passover. Well, you can believe we knew the answer rather than get smacked across the face by him, but to be honest with you, I used to see that empty chair we left for Elijah at the table and wish I could be gone to wherever Elijah was, eating over somebody else’s house where your father didn’t crawl into bed with you at night, interrupting your dreams so you don’t know if it’s really him or just the same nightmare happening over and over again.

6.

The New Testament

Mommy loved God. She went to church each and every Sunday, the only white person in sight, butchering the lovely hymns with a singing voice that sounded like a cross between a cold engine trying to crank on an October morning and a whining Maytag washer. My siblings and I would muffle our laughter as Mommy dug into hymns with verve and gusto: “Leaning…oh, leannning…safe and secure on the—” Up, up, and away she went, her shrill voice climbing higher and higher, reminding us of Curly of the Three Stooges. It sounded so horrible that I often thought Rev. Owens, our minister, would get up from his seat and stop the song. He’d sit behind his pulpit in a spiritual trance, his eyes closed, clad in a long blue robe with a white scarf and billowed sleeves, as if he were prepared to float away to heaven himself, until one of Mommy’s clunker notes roused him. One eye would pop open with a jolt, as if someone had just poured cold water down his back. He’d coolly run the eye in a circle, gazing around at the congregation of forty-odd parishioners to see where the whirring noise was coming from. When his eye landed on Mommy, he’d nod as if to say, “Oh, it’s just Sister Jordan”; then he’d slip back into his spiritual trance.

In the real world, Mommy was “Mrs. McBride” or “Mrs. Jordan,” depending on whether she used my father’s or stepfather’s name, but in Rev. Owens’s church, she was Sister Jordan. “Sister Jordan brought quite a few of her children today,” Rev. Owens would marvel as Mommy stumbled in with six of us trailing her. “Quite a few.” We thought he was hilarious. He was our Sunday school teacher and also the local barber who cut our hair once a month when we grew big enough to refuse Mommy’s own efforts in that direction—she literally put a bowl on your head and cut around it. He was a thin man who wore polyester suits and styled his hair in the old slicked-back conk, combed to the back in rippling waves. He could not read very well—I could read better than he could when I was only twelve. He’d stand on the pulpit, handkerchief in hand, wrestling with the Bible verses like a man possessed. He’d begin with, “Our verse for today is…ahh, ummm, ahh …” flipping through the pages of his Bible, finally finding the verse, putting his finger on it, and you could hear the clock going tick, tock, tick, tock, as he struggled with the words, moving his lips silently while the church waited on edge and my sister Helen, the church pianist, stifled her giggles and Mommy glared at her, shaking her fist and silently promising vengeance once church was over.

Rev. Owens’s sermons started like a tiny choo-choo train and ended up like a roaring locomotive. He’d begin in a slow drawl, then get warmed up and jerk back and forth over the subject matter like a stutterer gone wild: “We…[silence]…know…today…arrhh…um…I said WEEEE…know…THAT [silence] ahhh…JESUS [church: “Amen!”]…ahhh, CAME DOWN…[“Yes! Amen!”] I said CAME DOWWWWNNNN! [“Go on!”] He CAME-ON-DOWN-AND-LED-THE-PEOPLE-OF-JERU- SALEM-AMEN!” Then he’d shift to a babbling “Amen” mode, where he spoke in fast motion and the words popped out of his mouth like artillery rounds. “Amens” fired across the room like bullets. “It’s so good AMEN to know God AMEN and I tell you AMEN that if you AMEN only come AMEN to God yourself AMEN there will be AMEN no turning back AMEN AMEN AMEN! Can I get an AMEN?” (“AMEN!”)

And there we were in aisle 5, Sister Jordan in her church hat and blue dress, chuckling and smiling and occasionally waving her hands in the air like everyone else. Mommy loved church. Any church. Even Rev. Owens’s Whosoever Baptist Church she loved, though he wasn’t her favorite minister because he left his wife, or vice versa—we never knew. Mommy was a connoisseur of ministers; she

knew them the way a French wine connoisseur knows Beaujolais red from Vouvray white. Rev. Owens, despite his preaching talents, wasn’t even in the top five. That elite list included my late father, the late Rev. W. Abner Brown of Metropolitan Baptist in Harlem, our family friend Rev. Edward Belton, and a few others, all of whom were black, and with the exception of Rev. Belton, quite dead. She considered them old-timers, men of dignity and dedication who grew up in the South and remembered what life was like in the old days. They knew how to fire up a church the old-fashioned way, without talk of politics and bad mouthing and negativity but with real talk of God and genuine concern for its parishioners. “Your father,” she often mused, “he’d give anybody his last dime.” She did not like large churches with political preachers, nor Pentecostal churches that were too wild. And despite her slight dislike of Rev. Owens and his odd style—he once preached a sermon on the word “the”—T-H-E—she had respect for him because his church and preachings were close in style to that of her “home” church, New Brown Memorial. Unlike New Brown, however, Whosoever wasn’t a storefront church. It was a tiny brick building that stood alone, about fifteen feet back from the sidewalk, with a sign above the door that was done by a painter who began his lettering without taking into account how little space he had. It read: WHOSOEVER BAPTIST CHURCH.”

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