Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bernice (Black and White Grits)

Helen's story that began and ended in Savannah left everyone in the room in a dreamy mood. Everyone but Bernice, that is. She waited till the last round of ooh's and aah's passed, then launched without warning into unstoppable speech. Honestly, right now I am listening to the tape of her talking and transcribing it (with the speed control dial set to "slow,") and I still have to hit "pause" every second just to catch my breath. If Helen's stories are slow waltzes, Bernices' are fast and furious break dances. Actually, I am kind of serious. When she talks, she moves her whole body and breaks into little dances in her seat. And when we laugh too long at one of her jokes (she has many) she taps my elbow, and says, hey, hey, listen to this, you gotta hear the rest of this. Oh yes, she rattles something in you. She takes you right with her. And ready or not, here she goes...

Georgia! The year was 1953, 1954. I was in Georgia too. Not Savannah though. My husband was stationed in Fort Bennie. Army Base. Columbus, Georgia was a town about nine miles from there. I got there. One corner, the black USO. Another corner, the white USO. So I went to the white USO looking for my husband. Why not, right? I asked him for Private David Moore. He told me I was in the wrong place. He said, what color is he. I said, red, white and blue. He said, you mean, your color. I said again, red, white and blue, six feet tall. He said, the black soldiers are two blocks up. I had a white soldier and a black soldier walking me there, carrying my suitcases up. So I tell you, I had black and white soldiers. That time my daughter was three years old, my son was four years old, I had them and two suitcases. My husband was supposed to meet me at the train station. The train station was five blocks from the camp. When I was at the train station, he was not there. Another soldier had to carry my suitcases to show me where to go. When I saw my husband, I said to him, you are not my husband, he is. I meant the white soldier because he was at the station to meet me and carry my suitcases for me. My husband said, I couldn't meet you, because I have to stop somewhere. Where he had to stop, I didn't know.

Hattie, laughing wildly: "You didn't tell him how glad you were to see him?"
No way, I let him have it. Two suitcases and two children. All the soldiers there were laughing because I made sure he knew I was mad. I said, where were you? Sure, I was upset. He was there two years by himself. He knew more women's names than he knew mine. He probably forgot what name I had. Yeah.
Hattie: "How can anyone forget you." It wasn't a question. You can't forget Bernice.

This woman I saw flirting with him, she said, are you David Moore's wife? I said, yes, I am glad I'm here. I hope you're finish with him.

Hattie: "Ooo, we may need to turn that recorder off."

I said, I am the wife, I can take over from here. My husband couldn't get mad at me. He was there for two years all by himself and I just showed up with our kids. I ended up living there for three years. I couldn't get used to the black and white signs everywhere in the stores. I went into this restaurant. I was the only black person there, and the white people were cracking up. The waitress said, what do you want to order? I said, give me some black and white grits. She said, we have no such thing on the menu. I said, you have a sign here that says black, and a sign there that says white, so I want both. I want everything black and white. And I had all the people laughing. I pointed to the white section and told the waitress, see how good the meat looks? I am paying the same price. I don't want mine all cut up. I don't want something you're about to put in the garbage. Some leftovers from yesterday? Uh, uh, baby, not me. Slice me some nice stuff. I told her, I am no garbage disposal.

And I went to the grocery store. I was the first black person there. A woman there said to me, don't you know your place? I said, don't mess with me, I am from the south. Ha, I made more enemies than I made friends! Hey, hey, listen to this. I said to her, where do the colored people hang out? She said, there are a lot of trees out here. You know what that means, they hanged a lot of black people in the trees. Back in the 20's and 30's, they hanged a lot of black people because of the color of their skin. They couldn't stand smart black people. You had to be a dummy.

Black men couldn't be seen with white women. Some white women were crazy about black men. But they had to cover their secret. It shouldn't be that way, but that's the way it was. It goes way, way back. Some grandmas, some great-great-great grandmas, they hated blacks. White grandmas would tell their white kids, I don't want you seen with black men. Lumps of black coal. At that time, if you were white, and you were married to a black man, you would be dead. This racial thing goes all the back to when there were slaves. And the dumbest thing about it is the white men could go to bed with black slaves. They say, those slaves are mine, I can do whatever I want. They bragged about it. But not the other way around. If black men went to bed with white women, they would be hanged on a tree.

Now things are better. It's all colors now.

Back then, during the war, you knew the soldiers had sex with the women, that couldn't be helped. Black men were stationed everywhere without their wives and they met other women. It couldn't be helped. And they had babies with the women. Mixed color babies. During the war many things couldn't be helped. Some enemies treated you nice. Others treated you terrible. Now in World War I, my grandfather was stationed in France.

And war is a terrible thing. Just imagine you are the enemy. You are eighteen. I am eighteen. We are both young. My brother was seventeen in the Japanese War. Now they didn't kill my brother. They let him go. War is a terrible thing. It goes back to the Abraham Lincoln days. They had a war between the north and the south. Now if I am from the south with a brown uniform, and you are from the north with a blue uniform, I have to kill you, even though we are young. We are brothers.

Some people say you shouldn't talk about the past. But I think we should talk about the past in order to learn about the future. Nobody should be slaves. God didn't make slaves. God made people. I talk to my great-grandkids. I show them army books and tell them I saw bombs. War started because people don't get along. That's all. There shouldn't be war. But people think they should get what they want. That war is their way of getting what they want.
Helen glides in, in her slowly waltzing kind of way. (Yes, even on heavy matters, she can glide.) "What I did experience - I had never been to the south before - it was ok, you could sit where you wanted on the trains, you know, leaving from Philadelphia. When you got to Washington, then the southern train that you had to board, you had to sit at the back of the engine -"

Hattie slips right in, precisely and gently as always. She says everything with a smile. I like that. "My father blamed me for that. I will have to tell you later."

Helen continues, "I was really angry. Inwardly. Because I had never experienced anything like that. But I did it because I didn't want to get into any trouble. And when I was in Savannah, if I went into town, I sat in the back of the bus, because I wasn't the kind to make any ripples."

Everyone teases, "Not like Bernice!"

"So I just sat at the back of the bus. They didn't put signs up. They didn't make me. But I knew. I knew."

I say, "It's weird for me to imagine being in that kind of environment. Things aren't like that anymore. In a way. I've only read about this in books and in movies, but to hear this from your experiences. It's just very weird."

Hattie gives us the rest of her story. "I was about three years old. We always went to Washington to visit my grandmother's mother, which was my great-grandmother. My two sisters who were older than me - they were perfect little ladies. I was about three. Three, five and seven, those were our ages. And on the train, I ran up and down the aisles. I jumped on the people's seats. I scared them. I put my hat over my face. And did all kinds of things."

"But you were probably so cute!" I say.

"Yeah, right! When the train pulled into Washington, I was sound asleep. And my mother asked my father if he would carry me out. And he said, no, I am not even going to walk with her. No wonder why this train has Jim Crow. 'Cause of her." Hattie bursts out laughing. "I have a picture. I have to show you the picture."

"How do you know this happened?" I ask.

"They never stopped talking about it. All my life. And I have the picture, where my mother is walking me in the station, with a look that says, when I get you to where I am going, I'm going to kill you. No one else is in sight. Not my father. Not my sisters. He was ashamed. Embarassed by my behavior! I had a sailor hat on, and I would put it over my face. And I remember vaguely doing that. But like I said, the fact that they talked about it so often, and somebody took a picture, that's how I know. So my father blamed me for segregation and Jim Crow, everything that ever happened to colored people. I have to bring that picture that week."

I can't believe it, but here we are talking about segregation, and everyone in the room happens to to black. Yet no one is mad. Everyone is laughing. Warmly. There's something amazing about this. Meanwhile, Bernice got her second wind. She is back with steam and more to tell. No more war or segregation stories though. She's onto something else.

Now the happiest day I had was the day I met my twin sister for the first time at the train station. I didn't see my twin sister till I was eight years old.

Hattie: "Oh my goodness, there is another tear jerker."

So when I saw her, I said, hey, you look like me! I had my Raggedy Ann doll, my Raggedy Doll - they are worth money now - and I met my twin sister for the first time. I said, Mama, why does that girl look like me? She said, 'cause you are Twins! And me and my sister have been together ever since. We are  both seventy-six years old. She is the mother of twelve, seven boys and five girls. I am the mother of eleven, seven boys and four girls. Yeah!  I've got seven sons and four daughters. She's got seven sons and five girls. That's right!

No joke. I remember this part vividly. Bernice has her arms in front of her, rocking out in a mini dance party of her own. I love that!

My oldest daughter. She is fifty seven. Born in 1952. She is big and tall and she calls me Mama. All my kids are bigger than me. My youngest son, he is forty-four years old. My baby is forty-four.
We are all laughing. It's become officially impossible to stop laughing at this point. Hattie teases, "So every two weeks you had the baby!"

The head nurse remembered me. Every time she saw me, she said, you haven't stopped yet? You are here again. Bernice, not again! My oldest daughter, I had no trouble with her. The first birth, that's the hardest one. I felt so sorry the other day when I heard about someone in labor for a long time, for her first child. My oldest son, he died, but he was eight pounds too. Ah yeah, cancer. Forty years old, when he died. And then my daughter, she was thirty, she died. Heart tumor.

And then I got my granddaughter, she died of drugs. Drugs. I had met her that morning, on my way here. She said, Grandma, Grandma, you got another money? I didn't think she was buying drugs. I thought she needed some food. But she bought drugs. And it killed her. I gave her ten dollars. Next thing I know, one of my neighbors called me up, she said, Norma is at the hospital. And when I got to the hospital, she was dead. Her eyes were open to the ceiling.

People get the needles from the drugstore and shoot stuff up their bodies. The drugdealers don't care. They are making money. I tell my kids, my grandkids, why have a habit that can kill you? Something that can destroy you? Everyone's gotta die. But why die unnecessarily? Why die before your time? When I die, I want to die in my right mind. Everyone's gonna get old. But get old gracefully. Everyone's gonna drink a glass of wine, but not half a gallon. You should only put a little bit in your glass. Me and my twin sister are both seventy-six.
I notice that Hattie has something to say, "Hattie?"

She says, "Can I just sneak something in before class is over? I wrote something that I want to share.

Today was one of the happiest days of my life. When I came down the stairs I noticed the mail had arrived.

I didn’t recognize the return address….as I opened it, there appeared a beautiful “Butterfly” greeting card….the handwritten message warmed my heart. As I share it with you, notice, the sender was Helen Lahr.

Thank you Helen, it certainly is beautiful.

Bernice: "Aw, the card is cute!"

Hattie: "I love butterflies. But most of all I love beautiful people."

She reads from the card: "Dear Hattie, Knowing you helps make everyone brighter. Sincerely, Helen."

Helen: "I didn't know you were going to try."

Me: "Oh, Helen!"

Helen: "She loves butterflies."

Bernice: "That's pretty. That's got pretty colors!"

Hattie and Helen start telling about how they met at the senior center, that they just met and were immediately drawn to each other, because they are both drawn to the lighter things in life. I tell them about my grandma and her best friend, who told me once that being happy is a conscious choice she makes every day. We realize that Bernice has started drawing. We talk about how talented she is. And hilarious. For a second she stops drawing to finish her story.

1937. That Raggedy Ann doll I had with me at the train station? Yeah. I gave it to my sister when I saw her. And I haven't seen that doll since. Yeah, I love my twin sister. We have fun.
At the end of class, she hands me two pages. One contains the drawing (you've got to see a separate blog entry for this one, yes, it was so amazing that I had to dedicate a blog entry to it.) The other contains this dense but short little paragraph:
The year was - 1953 &4. Happy things in my Life was as a child going to the store for older people and helping water the Gardens and cleaning their houses and making sure they was alright. As I got married I still helped people. My husband was at Fort Bennie, Ga. I could not get used to the black and white sign on the door. I made many friends. One day I almost got lost. I was in a all white section but they acted very nice and showed me the way home. I was there 3 yrs.