My parents did meet, like the old song, in a “5 and 10 Cent Store.” Okay, technically, it was a drug store, People’s Drugstore, but that’s close enough. It was after the Second World War in Richmond, Virginia.
Daddy had been a Marine, after being drafted at about age twenty-two, to serve in the “Pacific theater.” He’d boxed for them and….
“Dug foxholes and hid in them,” which was always his answer when we were growing up of, “What did you do doing the war, Daddy?”
He told us nothing about that time, never once glamorizing it or his part in it. Finally, a few years ago, he told one of his grandsons and I listened, silently, afraid he’d clam up like he used to do.
He told of loading and offloading death-reeking bodies of soldiers.
“A smell you never forget.” He hadn’t known Mama, then.
Our mother, for her part, at that time, sent letters to soldiers, ones she knew and those she hadn’t. They’d liked her letters and shown to their friends who asked if she’d write to them as well. After the war, she got a job at People’s, where young black women could only bus tables at the food counter, because the racism of the time said they couldn’t serve white customers.
My thought: Didn’t the slave grandmothers and servant mothers serve whites their food? How absurd.
Daddy arrived in Richmond, from Ohio, there to attend tailoring school, but still needing money to live on and so entered Peoples Drug on Broad Street. When he looked up my mother was the long-haired “Negro girl” working on the mezzanine level of the restaurant in store, looking down at him.
Her boss had broken tradition and put her up there “So people can see you” and he’d let her serve him his coffee—which ticked off the white girls there to do waitressing.
And so, George looked up and saw Mamie, and his heart skipped.
Mamie saw George and thought, “He needs a haircut.”
The Hardest Story
Okay. You don’t know this but this is one of the hardest stories I’ve ever tried to write.
Not because I don’t know it and it’s not because I don’t have feelings for it. But because I know how faulty memories can be, and how our egos can recraft a tale, to make us the most special ingredient of it, or to leave out relevant facts.
And, sometimes, parents and grandparents lie. Not always intentionally. Maybe it’s, “One day I’ll tell her the whole truth—when she’s old enough.”
I’ve been grown awhile. Or….
“It’s so long ago, what does all that matter now?”
Recently, I’ve realized my mother has NEVER told us one story about her, that entailed her being in error or a bit of a fool. Hell, Harry Chapin and I make great characters from our flawed behavior, and hours of fun stories for my nephews and you, about imperfections and how an apparent weakness seen by others won’t end you.
The Randomness of Meetings
How we unite and commit in love and friendship, on levels from physical to spiritual, are the most important things of our most fond memories; the truest meaning of our lives remembered, when we smile our last breath.
Yes, you can know someone a long time or you’ll run into someone, maybe literally. And you’ll gasp inwardly.
“Oh, man! Where did they come from?” As your heart leaps at the sound of their voice; or you tremble at their touch.
Back to the Five and Dime
George saw Mamie, and his heart skipped, or so I believe; I don’t recall him ever saying. And Mamie said:
“He needs a haircut.” She’d also said he’d been “determined” in pursuing her, even waiting at her cousin’s house, for her to get home from working, dating, wherever.
Mama always said that she was pretty, highly sought after, smart, and highly envied. And that she’d had boyfriends who’d been Hollywood handsome and rich; always seeming to imply Daddy was something else. Maybe, it was because he didn’t have “good hair.”
Peeved, last year I said, “Daddy’s pretty hot, too.” She KIND of nodded agreement.
“Why did you marry him?”
“I felt sorry for him. He had a harder time growing up; his mother died, his sister died.” And his grandmother was nice but had issues I won’t discuss just now. “His brother, your Uncle Bob, said I reminded him of their mother.”
Separate, Yet Together
Last year, my dad George died in Room 218 of his nursing home after many tough months of recuperating from chest surgery. He left another woman as his widow.
Around the same time, I admitted my mom Mamie into a different nursing home. She was ranting at unseen people (which I can deal with), but wasn’t taking her meds and not eating. The eating being most important. She’s eating, still refusing her meds, but QUIETLY laughing with friends (famous or not), family (dead or not), and my dad.
I’d told her that he was sick, but she’d “just” seen “him pass our house,” or he’d “just” been “visiting.”
And with that tangible connection always visible in their interactions, she often still sees him pass her window, or visit and talk to her, or annoy her, in her room, also Room 218.