Saturday, November 28, 2009


My first lesson in the long and torturous history of race in this country came in the lap of someone I loved, but only later I realized that this moment signified something much larger than either of us.

Our family had a black cleaning lady who came to us by bus twice a week, and she worked for my parents until a bad hip forced her retirement.  The household was very quiet and ordered--on the surface--and I found her routines comforting, the hum of the vaccuum cleaner, the lemony furniture polish, the damp kitchen floor that signaled the end of her day.  I even sort of liked the way she'd scold us for trying to sneak across the wet floor to grab a snack.

E. herself had a nice smell, not sweet, impossible to describe, a smell that I thought of as 'like wood' and that I associated with the dark wood furniture in our house.  One of my brother's first memories is of E. and my mother, side by side on their knees with arms outstretched toward him, calling him to take new, toddling steps.

Skin color. What could be more neutral?  I must have been about three years old when I was shocked into a rudimentary understanding that in America, skin color is anything but simple.  One afternoon, E. held me in her lap in the living room.  Circled and safe, seeing her arm laced with mine, I had a revelation.  "Your arm is brown!" I cried, "And mine is pink!"  Her reaction was completely unexpected. She gave me a little cuff on the cheek.  "Don't be fresh!" she said, setting me on the floor.  Stung but not  physically hurt, I cried. She had erupted in a shocking way.
A couple of years later, my friend Mary and I worked in a coloring book out in the hall while E. cleaned my room.  "I'm going to make this kid a Negro," Mary said, matter-of-factly.  We lived in West Mount Airy in Philadelphia, and Mary went to the racially integrated public school down the street.  I wouldn't let Mary color anyone's skin brown.  "Shh!" I hissed. "She'll hear you." 

If I consciously thought about race, it was with a vague sense of shame, as of something too loaded to mention.  We were Philadelphia Quakers, pretty much a guarantee that we were also political liberals.  My father contributed to the United Negro College Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU.  But we thrived in the longstanding structure of white privilege, and not looking at race was a way of reconciling these realities.

When I was in junior high in a private Quaker school, black kids started showing up: Community Scholars, part of a new and ultimately successful program to integrate the school, but I was never sure who was a
Community Scholar and who wasn't. They were just there.  I envied their cohesiveness as a group, their easy mutual friendships, and and in high school, I actually believed that I possessed no ethnicity,  no color at all. I lacked a rich presence the black kids had.

E had an ability that I admired. She could drink a glass of water without making a sound.  I didn't realize then that perhaps instinctively, she avoided extending herself in any way that would create ripples on the calm surface of our household. When she cuffed me for mentioning our relative skin tones, perhaps she was concerned that my mother, always floating around the house, might overhear.  Maybe she thought I would start asking difficult questions. 

It was a mark of privilege that many years passed before I started asking myself questions about race.  Even then, I didn't have to.  I could have gone on ignoring questions of race, as I had been raised to do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


A friend of mine posted on Facebook, "What is everyone doing for Thanksgiving?" My response didn't take much thought: "Holding my breath till it's over."

Sometimes I think that holidays are a celebration of my lizard heart. I'm just not one of those hold-hands-around-the-table types. Years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we spent Thanksgiving with his family, which meant, since my brother was living in another part of the country, that my mother and father 'kept Thanksgiving in their own way,' to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge. A day or two later, I called my mother to ask how the holiday went. By way of answer, she quoted a hymn. It was originally written as a comfort to those unfortunately separated from their loved ones. "Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away..." My mother kept the wording, but her interpretation was genius. The way she recited the line was more like this (I could hear her expansive smile) : "Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones FAR AWAY!!! WOO HOO!!"

You might say I was raised to appreciate solitude, a quality which is present in inverse proportion to high-carbohydrate food on holidays. But my parents aren't responsible for the fact that I work at home in a small house, that my desk is in a central location (so convenient! It used to be the dining room) and that my husband also works at home, rarely goes anywhere, and has no concept of why anyone would want to be alone. Ever. He's a great guy. It's just...we look at solitude philosophically. To him it's empty. To me, it's full. I'm happy that my college student kid will be here in a few hours...but there are a few things we need to talk about, and I'm a little anxious about whether I'll handle it right. Then put the older one together with my young teenager, and you have...nonstop hilarity. Man, they have a good time. Hang on to the breakables. Until mid-day Sunday, the median age around here will be about 7.

Then there's the Day Of. Since Turkey is not in my job description (thanks, Mum, and I'm not being sarcastic) I'm looking forward to making that cranberry stuff in a pretty dish and that long car ride with two overgrown 7-year-olds. The thing is, Extended Family isn't always the easiest planet to visit. I've rarely managed to navigate my way around my particular one without making a weirdo of myself. My skin gets too tight. My idiosyncracies start flaking unmentionably into the decorously prepared (and healthy!!) T & stuffing. I notice my when my children are bored or uncomfortable, and I want to squirm with them. I am the recipient of many polite, tolerant smiles, and all I want to do by pie time is find a fellow lost soul to crawl under the table with and giggle our guts out.

It's all gonna start hitting in about three hours. If I had my druthers, I'd spend the weekend with my husband and kids and a few solitude breaks. No big shebang....So what do I do about my lizard heart? Aargh, it looks like I have a choice to make. Either I take a thirsty look at gratitude or...well, or what? The problem with being a sarcastic type who detests greeting cards and prefers her holiday movies to skewer what they celebrate is that I might miss something important. Remember how glad I was yesterday that my husband's checkup turned out...fine? Remember, I'm telling myself, a few weeks ago when I was so worried about that college kid; and then, the thing I was afraid of DIDN'T actually happen? Remember last Thanksgiving, when I decided to visit Planet Extended and had an unusually honest and refreshing conversation with someone I'd previously written off? Remember how good it felt, for once, to ignore my lizard nature for a few hours?

Remember, I'm thinking, that I chose to put my desk in its commuter-station-like central location...And remember what I do there. What I'm PRIVILEGED to do here, when I could be sharpening pencils at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, or out of work entirely, which, despite the fact that this recession hit us hard, is not the case. Think of what I do that lots of people would like to do, and can't.

Why, I can take all the above AND, with a little luck, a lot of love, and a realistic infusion of gratitude...I can TURN IT INTO FICTION!!!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009


I got the Quaker bonnet out of a large box that came from my mother's house.  It smells like my mother's house, like her bureau drawers--a mellow, clean, much-cared-for smell. The word "bonnet" suggests something quaint or coy.  But this hat, poised  on my kitchen table atop a tall glass boot I got at a jumble sale, is so completely black that it looks like the only thing of weight in the room.  Other than pleating, there is no variation on its matte, silk surface. The hand stitching is intricate, the construction complex. My mother told me it was a dress bonnet, which means it must have been worn at public events, Meeting for Worship, weddings, or funerals. There's a faint sweat stain on the cream-colored band inside,  sweat that foreshadows my own DNA.  According to the densely written two-page note which my mother put in the box, Anne Emlen Howell, (1824-1905...mother of...etc.) is pictured in a family photo wearing a very similar bonnet.  If I were writing this as a book, I might clone her.  (Let's do it! My daughter said. Then we'll have a baby!)

The bonnet, hidden for so long, is the only dark thing in my kitchen at night, denser than the washed-looking sky outside, which is made glossy by our French doors. All the appliances, the refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, look insubstantial, as if they could float away. Even the tile floor and back splash appear lacy compared to the bonnet.  A dark wood apothecary cabinet that once stood in my grandmother's attic, full of souvenirs she picked up in her days as a Quaker missionary and now containing china and silver, is lightened by grain and sheen. 

The bonnet is a presence.  Its shape is complex, neatly engineered.  It refers only to itself, like an unexpected rock formation in a desert.  If I looked at it long enough, it might tell me something.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Quaker Child Reads Malcolm X and Virginia Woolf

When I was a kid, I thought Quakers were the most boring people on the planet.

At least one family in our meeting had no pictures on their walls. The 4th Commandment: Graven images and all that.

I was glad that wasn't us. We were dull, but the walls weren't bare. In fact, my mother had worked for the Philadelphia Museum of Art before she got married, and she had collected some very nice prints. Over our mantlepiece was a William Blake engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims riding in procession. The Wife of Bath faced the viewer, her ample bodice loose enough to reveal part of a nipple. That dark fleck repelled and fascinated me, like the sucker on an octopus.

On the whole, being artistic was encouraged as long as the art didn't get too challenging. My parents' taste was impeccable. Their furniture was dark and polished.

We read like fiends. The Friends Free Library, on the campus of my school, was founded and funded by an 0ld-time Quaker who had believed that fiction was a stew of lies; it wasn't allowed among the adult books. Only in the children's department. As a very young child, I felt relieved about that and pitied the grownups who were deprived of stories.

That has since changed, and the founder of the Friends Free Libarary has been overruled.

We read all kinds of things. When I was about 12, I found an off-limits paperback book on a shelf of my mother's closet, which made it instantly enticing. I'd heard my parents talking about it--someone my father knew had written the novel, but they didn't want us kids sticking our noses into it. The book was about illegitimate babies, and jazz, and drugs. It sailed over my head. I loved it, and it scared me. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which my older brother had left lying around. I didn't understand most of that, either. I learned a new word from it, one whose context sang of sex and power and adult stuff that I recognized instinctively but couldn't define.

"Pimp," I said out loud, alone one morning in the stiff dining room. The new word had to be tasted. "Pimp."

I loved Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting Orlando, but I didn't finish it. Too challenging in ways that made me uneasy. When I was 12, I read Isadora Duncan's life story. "I'm surprised she knew how to read or write," my mother snapped, when I tried telling her how much I'd liked it.

That clinched it. I knew who I would try to become, once I could get free of a mother who only let me wear white underwear.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Silence 2

A no-frills religion, Quakerism. But if you like formality, as my father did, you can transform a moment of silence into something elaborate.

My new husband and I were seated at my parents' carefully set dining room table, east and west, with my parents at north and south. A portrait of my great-great grandfather as a girlish little boy, with ringlets, overlooked the room. The gleaming silver had the austerity of old bones.

"Shall we say a silent grace in the Friendly manner?" Dad spoke for Steve's benefit, enunciating every word as if it was a complete sentence in itself. I figured my husband already knew what was up.

We bowed our heads. The silence almost howled, it felt so empty. I have known silence to be as rich as plum cake, but in those days I always tense at my parents' house. We knew how long to keep our heads down, even Steve. You learn these things without realizing it; they seem instinctive.

Unfurled napkins were arranged on laps. Steve was hungry, and he picked up one of two mini-muffins from the edge of his plate. "These look good. Is there any butter?"

My father drew himself up with great dignity. This was a moral matter. He cleared his throat. "That's not necessary," he told my husband with gracious condescension.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


It was all very serious, this business of silence in Meeting for Worship. I knew it was serious from an early age. Why else would they prop up a dead body to gaze down at us every week from the Facing Bench?

The large, plain meeting room at Germantown Monthly Meeting was a tank of beige light. Long windows on three sides allowed glimmers of green and sky, distantly, from outside. Each side had a high double door, and during meeting they were never locked. Our family attended every First Day, AKA Sunday, where we sat in the same place every week on a long, dark wood bench with green cushions. It felt good to twist the buttons on these cushions. My mother could stop me with barely a hiss, barely a movement of her hand. Her dagger eyes were enough.

The Elders, or Weighty Friends, sat on the Facing Benches, which were raised at the end of the room where in a liturgical church, an altar would have been. There was no decoration except for an austere spoked wood medallion set into the ceiling, so faces were important. Every so often, someone rose to speak. The diffuse sound of gathering limbs and clothing served as the speaker's preface, so many people were already looking before the speaker said a word. They uttered brief, important things about life and God. I didn't understand, but important things weren't supposed to be simple.

At Christmastime a mitten tree was put in the aisle between the two Facing Benches. The mittens were brightly colored, and they would go to poor children. The Elders on either side looked very serious.

Dr. McPhedren was deceased, I was convinced, because he never moved. His pale, bald head rested against the back of the dark bench. His eyes were closed. Weighty in life, so in death. He was there to remind us that Meeting for Worship is a grave matter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"'In my old leather breeches and my shaggy, shaggy locks/
I am walking in the glory of the light,' said Fox."

I thought Philadelphia Quakers lived at the core of the world. I thought we were more enlightened, close to the center of anything that mattered. In time, the world would listen to us. The world would change.

In third grade at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, where I was a 'lifer,' Mrs. Cadbury taught us about the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten, apparently the first monotheist in the ancient world. She had kept us in some suspense before his unveiling; Akhenaten was a relief after the weirdness of half-jackal Anubius, the god of embalming, or Isis, who was married to her own brother. Isis--not a nice girl, in a similar way in which the Barbie doll, (which my mother wouldn't allow in the house), wasn't a nice girl. And third graders didn't like the idea of a religion that found god in the process of sucking dead people's brains out through their noses.

Akhenaten made me less anxious about the state of humanity; even back at the dawn of thought, before central heating and daily baths, progress had been made. People like us had gotten somewhere. Reason and light--Monotheism, my third grade mind embraced, okay, maybe only a sun god, now known to be a big old fireball, but one god closer to our state of enlightenment.

We Quakers had grown farther than any other group: away from superstition, pitying those who relied on crucifixes and florid rituals that lingered on bloodshed, to me suggestive of half-naked ancestors suffering noisome panic each time the sun went down...We got our lunch delivered to the classroom every day on a steam cart by a lady in a white uniform.

The way my father put it was that over generations, our family had evolved. But my friend Mary, whose family was Episcopalian, had a pretty, carved crucifix in her bedroom. I asked my mother if I could have one. Vulgar, she said. We don't do that.