Last night I woke up at 2:30 am.
Happens to old people.
We snooze alot during the day. Our internal clocks is all messed up.
Didn’t want to get up to go out for a cigarette.
Just lay there letting my mind drift.
Memory came free of the sticky webbing wherein my past resides.
A big slice of Life pie.
My Granma Pen, who’d been the head of our tiny tribe before I landed on the planet –
passed on to her great reward when I was still a child.
My mother couldn’t keep hold of our two room walk up apartment, where we both brought up.
We was tossed in the street.
Having a kid really cramped her style.
She unloaded me on the Wheaters.
A Black family who, like many in those days of the Depression, took in laundry or children to make ends meat.
My Mother didn’t pay them very much, but they never let me go without.
I always treated like a member of the family.
Even after Mama skipped out and the payments dried up, they kept taking care of me.
One Autumn, The Wheaters got a day job North of town clearing caterpillar nests out of some rich guys Walnut orchard.
Having no one to leave me with, they took me along.
We rode on a streetcar, the kind with sparking wires and a track.
I couldn’t sit with them, as they were relegated to the rear.
Ms. Wheater said, “Stay where I can see you, LuRain.”
There weren’t no signs designating segregation, it was just understood.
I remember seeing a rooming house down our street with this placard in their window –
On the journey – plastered to the window – as the vicinity rushed past.
Gave no thought to the inequity of the situation.
When we arrived to our destination, we was all sent around back to work.
Mr.Wheater was given the longest pole I ever seen.
Had a blade on the top end.
It was jiggered by a rope that ran from it all the way down to his hand.
He sawed off branches.
When they fell, we kids picked them up.
They were matted with caterpillar nests.
The Wheater children – Josephine, Bessie, little Ethel, grown son Talbot and I –
lugged these squirming habitations to the burning can.
Black from use – it had big holes all around it – where the fire licked out wicked tongues.
Another man threw our loads in – then tamped them down with a big metal spatula.
Ms. Wheater sawed larger branches into firewood to be set aside for the next years yule.
Except when I looked into the webby nests spied the squiggling creatures.
Could imagine their voiceless screams as they immolated.
The lady of the house stood in the big picture window that faced the back yard.
She saw me darting about.
Apparently it made her upset that a White child cavorted among the darkies.
I was fetched away and brung inside.
What a grand place.
There was merry crackling in a huge fireplace.
Chandeliers hung sparkling from the living room ceiling.
A heavy round dining table took up more room than the Penny apartment back in the city.
The lady sat me down at this behemoth.
Her cook served me a fat slice of sticky gingerbread with real cream running over it and hot chocolate made with milk.
Got a little drunk on the attention, the heat, the sugary treats.
I regaled this woman with lies about my circumstance.
My Mama had been a famous dancer in France, I told her.
She lost all her jewels in the Crash of ’29. Now she was dying of constipation of the lungs.
I said the Wheaters were just people who worked for my Mama.
They’d brought me along as a kind of lark.
When the day dimmed to evening, all the workers was sent back to the tram line in a truck.
Put me in the warm cab with the driver, while the Wheaters stood shivering in the bed.
I can still see clearly the bars and rails it had on the sides and back.
The Wheaters and their kids was being hauled like animals from the place.
On the ride into town, I again sat apart from them.
This time, I felt bad.
As we walked from the tram, they never said a word about what had happened.
They was cracking jokes and laughing.
Little Ethel even took my hand.
The Wheaters sat down to a meager dinner.
I much too ashamed to eat.
Stuffed with fibs.
I crawled into the bed I shared with Jo and Bess before they had finished.
Ms. Wheater came in, “You all right, LuRain child?”
How could I tell her I’d scarfed cake and chocolate while pretending not to know them?
That I gave myself a sob story so I could benefit from the whiteness of my skin while they toiled and were denigrated?
I mumbled, “Sad for the caterpillars.”
“Life isn’t always fair, Lu.”
She kissed me on the head.
Ms. Wheater forgave me right off.
That’s the sort of generous soul she was.
The next day, I shelved the memory back out of reach.
Until this morning, I had not digested how terrible it really was.
Life is made up of these little challenges to our integrity.
All we can do is not repeat our missteps if we stumble.
I am so sorry.
artwork by codifyer