In The Beginning

by Maria Theresa Maggi on November 10, 2018

My Mother, Me, Our Cousin Marge and her friend circa 1960

I was a curious child, apparently always asking questions that could put grown-ups on the spot. Sometime during elementary school, I remember becoming curious about when all the mothers on our block had gotten married, since my own mother did not do so until the age of 26, which was considered just shy of ancient in those days. My mother bore it gracefully that I went around and took a poll, but when I was older later told me she was really frustrated with one of her friends who lied about her current age to a believing me that she was still that magic number– 29. But more importantly, my mother did not shy away herself from answering difficult questions I would come up with, even as a preschooler. It is because of her answers that I am who I am today.

After my sister was born in the early Spring of 1960, my mother hemorrhaged at home and had to be rushed to the hospital. I was 4 years old. I remember the ambulance coming, their rushing in and rushing out with my mother on a stretcher, and the other relatives in attendance repeatedly shooing me into the living room. They didn’t want me to see the blood on the sheets and bed, I guess, but I wanted to know what was going on, despite my wan mother reassuring me as she was carried out that she would be fine.

So I peeked, and got a glimpse of them being swept off the bed and into a bundle on the floor.

My mother did recover, but her convalescence required that she not do a lot of heavy lifting and so she needed help around the house. To this end, a very large white woman in a stiff nurse’s uniform named Lucille came to help. Her booming voice and size and gruffness frightened the living daylights out of me. I couldn’t see why everyone was so nice to her, except that she made some rather spectacular chocolate chip cookies, that also had corn flakes and maraschino cherries in them. The sugar rush sent everyone into a swoon. They would forever be referred to as “Lucille’s Cookies.”

When the time for direct nursing of my mother and infant sister had presumably passed, Lucille disappeared from our house. But my mother still needed help with housework, since she was not yet allowed to vacuum or do other chores that might reopen the bleeding. That’s when Mrs. Edgerly came to our house.

We already, or my parents already, knew the Edgerly family. They were also members of our parish. My mother played the organ and directed the choir, and Mrs. Edgerly sang in it. My parents had taught CCD classes and her teenage children had been in those classes. I believe my mother had sponsored one of the daughters for Confirmation.

I don’t know exactly how Mrs. Edgerly came to be employed by my family, but I suspect she may have offered to fit my mother’s cleaning into her schedule because she knew her. It was evident the whole family liked my mother and father a great deal.

My mother made clear to me as a four year old that although we had all called the (giant white) nurse by her first name, and that although Mrs. Edgerly’s first name was the same one as my baby sister and my grandmother, at no time was I to call her by that name. Instead she was to be addressed respectfully as “Mrs. Edgerly,” in the same way I was taught to address all the mothers on our block.

The difference between these mothers and Mrs. Edgerly, was that Mrs. Edgerly was black. In those days we said Colored or Negro. So my mother, who had taught in a poor black school in upstate New York with other black teachers she became friends with, was quite deliberate about this.

I loved everything about Mrs. Edgerly: her kindness, her calm, quiet voice, the way her hands moved and the way she seemed to put my nervous mother at ease. I also noted the deep dignity  and intelligence she projected, which later would help me understand she had offered to do this job once a week for a length of weeks of her own choosing, which suited her other work and family needs, and my Mother supported that. I think at some point she was able to get a job as a nurse or something similar she was educated to do, and my mother may have also been a character reference for her.

Early in the mornings the garbage trucks would arrive to dump the garbage and I would watch from the window because sometimes I would see Mr. Edgerly was one of the two black men riding the back of the truck. He would wave if he saw me, but he could not linger or smile like he did at church. I noted that the men who dumped the garbage into the truck were always black, and one day I asked my mother why this was so.

She didn’t mince words, but being the good teacher of children she was, she also explained to me in words I could understand the inherent unfairness  in the reality that black people often had to do the jobs nobody else wanted to do because white people wouldn’t hire them for anything else. So when I was four years old in Sacramento, California I saw for the first time the effects of whiteness, and why my mother thought it was important that I  treat Mr. and Mrs.  Edgerly with the respect of their full names.

About a year after that, when Mrs. Edgerly was no longer cleaning our house, we took a trip on the California Zephyr back east to visit relatives. Many many decades later, I wrote this poem about it, which appeared in a tiny literary magazine called Gumption.

The California Zephyr

1961

I was only five,
but I remember these things:

peeled orange slices,
cut from the center of the orange
arranged like bright suns
on the plate, dusted with granulated sugar,
one maraschino cherry
as the sweet sweet center.

I could have stayed in the dining car
and eaten that breakfast all day,
basking in the solicitous kindness of
the black waiter in his starched white jacket,
beyond what must have been a stoic resignation
to his part in the “vacation unto itself”
he was no doubt underpaid to provide
all us stiff white people
sitting at our crisp white tablecloths
appointed with silver, drenched in sun.

Yet there was something more
in his kindness to me, a chubby,
worried little girl with a dull
metal brace on her leg;
perhaps I knew, and he knew,
we both knew, we didn’t belong.

And I remember the vista-dome:
the curved windows like giant
clear, glistening eyes, opening
onto sun-painted desert blooming
sharp and jagged, brightness everywhere,
how I opened my eyes and mouth
and pressed myself to the glass
to see, and almost taste, until
my two year old sister,
who was teething,
bit down hard on my arm.
My mother snatched her away

as my skin, so close to the color
of the bleached pink sand,
turned red then violet within
seconds, an instant sunset,
and my own eyes
welled, then pooled with betrayal.

Caught in my mother’s dark look,
I choked back great sobs
to learn a life long restraint as the oldest child.

The gleaming showcase train
hurled us into dazzling, unfamiliar land.

 

I don’t know how I knew, but I did understand that these discriminatory practices were a larger force woven into the way things worked in the grown up world, and were not just the result of personal behavior by a few mean people. But I was also taught that individual people could make a difference by standing up to help things be better.

I wouldn’t learn until I was about age 10 that also when I was small, when a Chinese American family moved in across the street, their white next door neighbors and other white neighbors (among them a police officer) started a petition to force them off the block. When these haters came to our door, my parents refused to sign. Instead they went directly over to the house of the Chinese American family and introduced themselves, which is why I always remember them as our dear and life long friends. Their actions were key in taking the steam right out of the hateful petition effort. Others followed my parents, and our friends were there to stay.

I am taking an online class where we discuss and try to become more aware of systemic racism and how we can stand up to help dismantle it. We have listened to an excellent podcast series called Seeing White, which I highly recommend. As at many other times in my life, I am reminded again that the upbringing I had was more unique than I ever considered, because to me it was normal. But evidently it is much more “normal” or likely that white people I know have not had this kind of upbringing or have had to break away from much more overt racist views their family held. Either that or they weren’t exposed to people of color at all in their lives, much less work with them or on behalf of their empowerment, as my mother and I both did in our own way as educators. I am also acutely aware that my own upbringing does not exempt me from benefitting from a system of white privilege, and that I am still learning how to better leverage that privilege to help empower those who don’t have it. (If you are white and the term “white privilege” leaves you confused or defensive, here’s a good article  that clarifies what it means, and updates Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

There is a lot of thinking and discussing about how to get white people to see their whiteness and the systemic and mostly unconscious or automatic acquiescence to its power to shut people of color out of opportunity and justice, or keep them in literal danger for their lives. We see it now in the controversies of voter suppression in our electoral process.We see it in our system of incarceration. We see it in police shootings. We see it in criminalizing immigrants. There are many other places to see it as well.

I don’t know the exact best way to become more aware, but I do know that all people need to see something as a moral dilemma before they can respond to it that way. I was lucky to be taught to see whiteness that way from the start. But I’m also seeing that thinking back to discover the first time I became aware of my whiteness also helps me become more aware of the choices I am making—or not making— now, to help create a truly more just, equitable and compassionate country–one that, as expressed so movingly toward the end of the film 13th,  “changes the way we understand human dignity.”  This first moment of awareness about how whiteness works is perhaps the most important one, whatever age and place it happens for any individual, because it provides a personal starting point.

True strength does not come from wielding power unfairly. Instead, my life has taught me, it comes from deep and shared compassion that buoys me to keep on when it’s hard, even when I am afraid, and from looking, as Fred Rogers said his own mother taught him to do, for the people who are helping, and learning how to follow their example. My mother gave me a powerful beginning that way. She was always one of the helpers.

Maria (moonwatcher)

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marge Evans November 11, 2018 at 11:26 am

would very much like to know how to enroll in the online class.

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2 Maria Theresa Maggi November 11, 2018 at 2:01 pm

Thanks Marge! Here’s the link describing the class. Our last meeting is tomorrow, but I bet Sacil Armstrong, the facilitator, will be running it again. https://artbeingva.com/im-so-over-racism/ Here is her contact info so you can write her and ask: https://artbeingva.com/contact/ I am also in a Facebook group she facilitates, well, two actually: Meditations for Persistence and I’m So Over Racism. I’ll let her know you might contact her. I can’t say enough good things about Sacil. She is an excellent facilitator. xo

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3 Marge Evans November 11, 2018 at 2:21 pm

Thank you so much!

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4 Donna Reeves November 11, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Thank you for another excellent commentary on this life we have made for ourselves. I enjoyed this one a lot. I have been reading your missives for years. My MS also in remission, sort of, since I changed my diet to WFBNO. Thanks for sharing.
Donna

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5 Maria Theresa Maggi November 11, 2018 at 6:35 pm

Thank you so much, Donna, both for your words about this post and your long faithful readership. You made my evening. So happy to hear you are also in remission,sort of, eating this way. So nice to have your company! 🙂

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