We had a housekeeper, and I loved her. I'll call her Julia. She grew up on a farm in Virginia, but she didn't like country life. Philadelphia became her home, white families her employers. She worked for my parents from my early childhood until arthritis forced her retirement, and we used to visit the senior citizen high-rise where she ended her days. I think my mother was the only one of her employers who religiously paid her Social Security taxes. Julia never married, and she used to joke that my brother and I were "her children."
She was part of the atmosphere of blessed, surface order in our home. Twice a week she came by bus, changing into her white uniform in our basement bathroom. We'd come home from school and half-welcome the scolding we got if we walked on the newly washed kitchen floor. One of my brother's earliest memories is of toddling toward Julia and my mother, both on their knees before him in the living room, arms outstretched, calling him to walk. Now I wonder which one he went toward?
I loved to sit in Julia's lap when she could spare me a minute. Her smell was so different than my mother's, both earthy and warm, unlike anything in our house. I imagined she carried it with her from the vaguely envisioned home she told me of, where she kept a cat called Smudge. When I was about three, Julia was holding me in a chair, and I happened to notice my small arm resting on hers. I was amazed at what I saw. "My arm is pink!" I cried. "And yours is brown."
Julia gave me a little cuff on the cheek and said, "Don't be fresh!" She added that she had to get back to work. I slid to the floor. I wasn't hurt. I knew she loved me. But I started to cry, shocked and confused. Later, I realize how I must have taken her by surprise. It was 1959 or 1960, and in a subsequent year, she might have felt it was okay to be low-key about the whole thing. I think of how she was continually aware of my mother's presence in the house, and how Julia had the skill of drinking a glass of water without making a sound, as if she had taught herself a kind of invisibility. And, though I doubt she ever heard my father make one of his infrequent racist comments, she had surely learned how close these remarks can be to the tongues of white people.
This was the only direct exchange I can remember having in my childhood household on the issue of race. The conclusions I grew up with were a slurry of observation, confusion, and experience, all steeped in what I've come to think of as an atmosphere charged, as if with unseen electricity, by the agonized legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era.
Much of what I learned supported what Julia taught me: That here in America, skin, in its varieties of pigmentation, is like the outer layer of a dangerous, sleeping animal. To avoid hurting anyone, I learned it was expedient to pretend that skin color didn't exist. But that awareness never went away.