What I Shouldn’t Write
Sometimes I think I shouldn’t write about my past. So many stories, best kept to myself. But then there’s a summer afternoon in Virginia when memory opens like the pages of a book. And I miss being someone else. Or the child who picked peas with her nanny in the July heat of childhood. Who was carried in her large black arms back to the house where they shucked peas in the kitchen, a fan blowing fly strips overhead, the nanny, Miss Mary, humming hymns, calling her Little Pea, dragging her thumb down the open pods, the peas bouncing in a silver bowl. The girl asks, “Which little pea am I?” The nanny laughs and smacks her thigh. “You a funny little pea. The funniest, specialist little pea—that’s the pea you is.”
My Racist Memory
Who wants to read my racist memory—that begins with a white child in a black nanny’s arms? But isn’t that an iconic image from the history of the South? Can I forget it? Or how, in the morning we took breakfast scraps (“the nasty stinkin slop,” Mary called it) to the pigs, gathered eggs, dug potatoes in the garden, hung clothes on the line, me handing her the pins. Before eleven, she carried me upstairs for my nap and sat beside my bed sipping Pepsi. “Shut your eyes,” she said. And I did. When I peeked, she was open-mouthed, asleep, her breasts rising and falling inside her starched cotton dress. I’d play with my baby doll until she woke and said, “I just had me a little beauty rest.”
Damn White Folks
I remember another day in Little Pea’s life when her father caught her hiding in the loft after she snuck out of the house during naptime. Lying on her back on the top of haybales, she watched mud daubers build their clay nests, barn swallows flying in and out, straw in their beaks. “How many times do I have to tell you not to play up here?” her father shouted before dragging her down the ladder, pulling down her pants, and smacking her. Whap-whap. When she looked up, Miss Mary was running down the hill beneath the mimosa trees. “What you doing to my child?” she screamed and snatched her from her father’s arms and pressed her against her chest, her body slick with perspiration and rage. The whole way back to the house, she muttered under her breath, “Damn white folks—don’t even know how to raise they own chillen.”
Where Racism Begins
Is it racist to imitate Miss Mary’s accent and vernacular? Is there a point where racism begins and ends? A line I can be careful never to cross? I want badly to say no and then yes. I call Miss Mary back from the dead. She looks so tired when she arrives, her hair in a net, sweat beading on her forehead as she fishes ice cubes from her water glass and drops them inside her blouse. “Cooling my chest,” she called it. We had no AC in 1963. I think how hot it was.
I know what you’re thinking. She wasn’t just a nanny. She was a cook, a laundress, a housekeeper, a savior, a saint. Writing now, I realize how much I needed her then, even after she passed. She was my protector, mother, first love and I felt her like a song, a longing, an ache. Now I’ve kept her with me all these years as a secret, close as my own breath. When I sit down to write, I ask her how she is, and she says, “I’m blessed, Child. I blesses you, too.” It’s a little ritual we do.
But I think it’s time I asked her permission. “Is it okay for you to be here? In these poems and stories?” She stares at me aghast. “Good Lawd, child,” she says. “I’m 118 years old if I’m a day. An old southern ghost. You think I get to pick where I stays?” She shakes her head. “Ain’t nobody never choose the time, the skin, the heart you gonna live on in. Not me, not you, Little Pea. Not your daddy neither. That old SOB.”
I sit back and wonder, still unsure. But how can I help that Miss Mary’s here? In the steamy kitchen of my Virginia past. Deep inside my aging white heart?
When my father discovered I wanted to be a writer, he gave me a list of things not to write about. The list grew long over the years.
1. “First and foremost,” he said, “don’t mention class. Never say someone is lower, middle, or upper class. Americans live in a caste system, just like the British, but they don’t admit it.
2. Don’t talk about the farm we grew up on. People will want to know if you were the child of wealthy landowners with their white-fenced fields full of thoroughbreds, or of subsistence farmers, working their hands to the bone.
3. Don’t use the words redneck, white trash, hillbilly, even if it’s true—the rednecks on our farm called themselves rednecks.
4. Don’t talk about race. If you mention someone you think is Mexican, never say he’s Mexican. What if he’s Cuban? Like Mr. Rodriguez, the farmhand said, ‘Cubans don’t want to be mistaken for Mexicans.’ He said don’t use words like Latino or Hispanic. No one wants to be labeled, even if it’s true, everyone is labeled. If you talk about a man who is African American, do not write the words, African American. Or colored or black or negro. Whatever term you pick, I promise you, one day, it will be the wrong one.
5. Never tell people you were raised by a black nanny. They will blame you for the South’s history. They will think of you as a spoiled brat, a modern-day Scarlett O’Hara. Miss Mary, your nanny, wasn’t black. She was part-Native American, part-white, and part-African, and she had her own term for herself. Don’t mention it.
6. Don’t tell how Miss Mary, your nanny, and her sister Frances Bee fought about money. Frances Bee was a miser, and Mary a spendthrift. One night in the winter of ’51, Frances kicked Mary out of the house. That’s why she came driving up the road in a Yellow Cab and knocked on our door. Said she’d heard a white lady was having babies like popcorn, and she reckoned the missus might “need a hand with them chillens.
7. Don’t imitate how she spoke or tell how she called you Little Pea when you behaved and Picky Ninny when you were bad. How, when she lost track of you, she’d say, ‘Ain’t nobody seen hide nor hair of my Picky Ninny.’ Picky Ninny—you know that’s a racial slur.
8. And don’t mention all the spankings you got—you disobeyed every rule I made, building hay forts, playing matador with the bull calf, fighting, swearing, answering me back.
9. Even if it’s true, don’t say nobody raised you. Not after Mary left in an ambulance. What were you, four, five, six? You kept waiting by the window, watching for her. We neglected to tell you she was dead.
10. But don’t blame me. I was working then. And your mother—she’s from New England. You know how cold she and your Yankee relatives are.
11. Don’t talk about all the fights we had—about money, children, land, and the men your mother called “your father’s friends.”
12. Don’t tell our secrets—you know the ones. I suspect you will. You always do as you please. You learned that from Miss Mary way back when.
“Anything else?” I asked when he was finally quiet. He shrugged, shook his head, and spread his arms out wide, as if to show me the wingspan of shame and regret.
I was in high school, a newly licensed driver, cruising around town in my father’s beige Buick when I found Miss Mary’s tiny brick house on the street where the university ended, and African American housing began. I apologized to her sister, Frances Bee, for arriving unannounced. I worried she wouldn’t remember me.
“Come on in,” Frances said, looking me up and down through her screen door. “Ain’t nobody drops in on old Frances Bee no more.” She was dressed in a robe and pink slippers and was as bent over as a question mark. “Course I remembers you,” she laughed. “Mary called you Little Pea. Said you was like her own.” I asked if Miss Mary was in, and she stared at me, shaking her head slowly, before telling me Mary had passed ten years since.
“Why you don’t know she’s gone?” she asked. I wondered, too. And how do you say I’m sorry after so many years? The room fell silent. Frances picked up a broom and began to sweep. There was dirt everywhere, rising from the cement floor. She swept and hummed and then swept some more. The broom brushed my feet, as if she wanted to sweep me away, too. And all that hung, unspoken, in the air.
As a girl I lay awake at night, listening to the grandfather clock bonging the hours in the front hallways, the radiators hissing and sputtering. The chairs and closet turned into their dream selves, and somewhere inside or behind them, I was certain something was watching me. Scared, I raced downstairs on sock feet, climbed into Miss Mary’s bed, and curled against the soft curve of her back. I turned and wiggled and turned and wiggled until she woke.
“It’s watching me again, Miss Mary,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“You got to name it,” Miss Mary said. “That way it don’t scare you no more. It lets you be. Talk to it, too.”
“And say what?”
“Say: Don’t bother me no more. Little Pea be needing her sleep now. Say it quiet so Miss Mary gets her rest.”
“Little Pea be needing her sleep now, ” I whispered as I stared at the ceiling. “That’s me. Little Pea. She be needing her sleep, don’t bother Little Pea, sleeping now, . . .”
I said it over and over again until it did, it let me be.
The Death of Little Pea
“I will die before I grow up,” I thought as a girl. I knew it as a fact, something I could see, like my freckles, blond hair, and crossed eyes. Once, I went to the cemetery with Miss Mary where she placed flowers on her pastor’s grave and prayed out loud and sobbed while I traced the names and dates on the stones and raced from grave to grave. I found an angel next to a small ancient stone with no words on it. This must be my stone, I decided, and stretched out in front of it. “Here lies Little Pea,” I announced, letting myself sink into the wet dirt. The angel stared down at me with granite eyes.