When I was a child, my college professor mother would take my sister and me to my widowed grandmother’s farm in Arkansas each summer for two weeks. The farm was in a one-road town called Little Garnet. The white wooden house was punctuated by a flower garden filled with aromatic Sweet Peas and Snap Dragons which graced jelly jars in every room and were replaced almost daily. The uneven floors were wooden and if need be, they were clean enough to serve up a meal. Scrubbed daily, the farmhouse was pristine. The entire property claimed a modest smoke house, a hen house with a loft, two cows, a sway backed horse named Sorghum, an outhouse and a deep cold well. There was no indoor plumbing and my nocturnes were spent on the bunk bed adorning a screened in sleeping porch equipped with its own chamber pot. Not kidding. Not only did I benefit from the example of an amazingly strong ensemble of women (grandmother, great grandmother, great aunt) who lived there, but I also experienced a life lived deliberately without the interface of thoughtless convenience. These women, all widows, pooled their dollars when my mother turned 18 so that she could attend college in Texas, then graduate school in Chicago. I loved being there with them, for their company and the environment fueled my imagination and my creative spirit. The TV was not the soundtrack of the day or night. Crickets, cows, hens, roosters and the occasional truck dusting the dirt road were the only orchestrations accompanying the sizzling summer heat. Every endeavor, except reading, was a concerted effort. Before a meal was to be cooked, water had to be drawn, eggs had to be collected and vegetables had to be harvested. By evening, sitting on the front porch was a luxury, for not only did it bring rest, but it brought a breeze not to be found inside the house.
Laundry was cleaned periodically, but not daily for that was not practical. The nearest town with a laundromat was Star City, so that is where we would venture every few days, coming back with baskets of wet white sheets to be hung on the line to milk in the smell of sunshine. One particular day we ventured into town for the task. I must have been around 7 years old for I was able to read just a little bit. We pulled into the gravel lot of the laundromat and started hauling in our baskets of underclothes, towels, sheets and my prized sun suits. Our baskets were already separated by color into brights and whites. I noticed the sign in the window, but was still not confident in my reading skills so I said nothing. My mother went to task loading two washers with our laundry. She had just finished loading the second machine with my sunflower play suit when I just couldn’t take it anymore. As she was shutting the door to the machine containing all the shades of the rainbow, I rushed over and opened it back up, pulling out the clothes and tossing them on the floor. “No! We aren’t supposed to wash these! We are not supposed to do this! We are going to get in trouble! Take them out, take them out!” I cried. My mother was confused and utterly confounded because if I was nothing else as a child, I was cooperative. A rule monger. She tried to calm me down and I would have none of it. I pulled her out the door to the window where the big red sign was posted facing the outside, pointing frantically. And there it was. A big glaring post that simply read, “WHITES ONLY.” My poor mother. How does one define this concept to a child who has no point of reference for racism? The dark skinned people in my life were people we loved. We shared meals, tears and family secrets with those people. We prayed with them and hugged them at dusk. She took a deep breath, stooped down to eye level and stroked my hair till my breathing stilled a bit. “I think it will be OK this time. I promise they won’t mind.” I could tell she was perplexed at her own lack of eloquence, but she simply didn’t know what to say, so she said very little and just kept touching my hair. It worked. I trusted her to keep us out of jail even thought we were washing more than white linens. I trusted her to protect me from disagreeable people. I trusted her to make it all OK. She was kind and gentle and flawed. Much to my relief, no one else came in to wash clothes that day, so we were off the hook. We had not been caught. We finished our task and hauled our wet clothes back to Little Garnet to hang them on the line. My mother was quiet for the rest of the day and that evening I watched her pour herself a strong drink. As an adult, I feel sad that she confronted this conundrum. As an adult I tip my hat to my deceased mother because she never taught me to be a racist and even though much of the world tried, I hope that none of it took root. I believe that most facets of our character are taught through repetitive drill. Unkindness, small-mindedness, materialism, greed, self-centeredness, insecurity, cynicism. Children learn to belittle others by witnessing condescending arrogant behavior from adults in charge. They learn to be afraid of anything new and different from adults who instill fear of those differences. It works the other way around as well. Children will learn gentleness from example, not from lectures. So to my mother, I say thank you. Thank you for never putting flags on the injustices of the world, but instead for redirecting my attention to behaviors worth emulating. Thank you for teaching me the value of a fresh laid egg and a carrot just pulled from the soil. Thank you for letting me play naked in a cool creek when the air was heavy with steam. And thank you for making sure that on that hot summer day in Star City, Arkansas in the 1960s, my innocence was preserved for a moment and the dirty laundry was not allowed to mold.