Just before I entered the first grade, my parents moved from Seattle’s very white Queen Anne Hill to Beacon Hill, which was rich with Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Jewish families. The move from an all-white, upper class neighborhood, full of large, gracious old homes to the more working class, diverse neighborhood of Beacon Hill was truly unremarkable to me until a few months later.
Our rental house was old, sat up on a retaining wall and had a monkey tree in the front yard. It was just north of the Jefferson municipal golf club and I often found stray golf balls in our front yard. I was surprised that any of the balls were not white, but pink, blue, green. I loved the yellow ones.
The house had an attic, which scared me, a large, glassed-in front porch, cavernous living and dining room and a kitchen with high counters. The ceilings were high and the windows tall and thin.
My mother brought all the pretty things she’d had in the other house—the cranberry glass candy bowls, the emerald green candle holders and her precious set of milk glass vases. She hung the sheet white Priscilla curtains in all the rooms and taking pride of place was her bright, polished cherry wood Steinway piano.
I just knew that this house, this neighborhood would be where we’d stay forever. No more moving around. I was tired of packing and unpacking all the time and having to move somewhere new. My mother solved challenging problems by changing houses or neighborhoods, but this time I just knew that my mother would stay in this house for good.
Moving to a more diverse neighborhood was not a big deal to them. My parents were jazz lovers and, therefore, immune to issues of race…or so I thought.
With the exception of Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como, all of their favorite musicians and vocalists were black. I grew up with the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and The Ink Spots harmonizing like angels on the wing lilting from the record player. Their styles ran the gamut—traditional, be-bop, piano jazz and the sweet smooth vocals, derived from the deep misery of slavery, of the Mills Brothers.
As far as I knew, my mother admired black people. She didn’t use any derogatory names for them like so many other white people did at the time, and told me that I wasn’t to use those words either. That lesson was made clear to me, one day when I came home from first grade and told my mom I’d learned a new song. “It goes like this: eeny meeny miney moe catch a nigger by the …”
“No, no, no!” my mother said; “Where did you learn that?”
“At school?” My lower lip began to tremble. I thought I was in big trouble.
“Honey, that’s a terrible word.”
“What word?” I asked, as she sat down in her favorite rocking chair and pulled me onto her lap. She sat down in her deep, soft brown and pink rocking chair and pulled me onto her lap. In the background, on the record player, Nat King Cole sang Nature Boy:
And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.
“The word that’s starts with an “N.”
“Oh, you mean nig….”
“Yes, that word. What you say is…’catch a tiger by the toe’, okay?”
“Even if everybody else says the other word?”
“Yes, even though everyone else says it. You won’t say it because now you know better. Right?”
One day, shortly after we’d settled in, a black family rented the house next to ours. Their little girl, Yolanda, and I became best friends. At five, she was a year younger than I and only in kindergarten. I was in the first grade and since I knew so much more of the world, I became her advisor in important things like how to ride a bike, kill slugs and play hopscotch. We loved music and dancing and watched American Bandstand every afternoon, hoping to see Sam Cooke sing You Send Me or the Coasters sing Searchin’ and the Jimenez sisters dance the calypso. We held hands and twirled around my living room, being careful not to break my mother’s prized milk glass vase that sat on the coffee table, resplendent with artificial roses.
Yolanda was everything I wasn’t. She was small and dainty; I was tall and clumsy. She had beautiful black curly hair that her mom put up in braids; I had limp brown hair that, despite barrettes and headbands, was constantly falling into my eyes. She had a buoyant disposition; I was often sick with asthma and had to limit my activities.
On a beautiful spring day, sitting on the grass in my backyard, we decided to conduct an experiment. The cherry blossoms were starting to send out their pink blooms and we could smell that wonderful scent of brine drifting up from Elliott Bay. I felt, like I always did, the newness of spring enter my body with the joy of flowers blooming and grass growing. The grass we sat on was wet, as were the bottoms of our play pants, staining them bright green.
“Hey, Yolanda, look, the color of the grass comes right off,” I said, rubbing my hand on the lawn and showing her the green stain on my palm.
“Wow!” she said, “I wonder what other colors will come off.” We tried rubbing stones and sticks and dandelions on each other, giggling at our discoveries. Dandelions turned us yellow, but stones didn’t do much at all.
“I know!” I said, a brilliant idea forming in my seven-year-old head, “How about if we rub our skin together? I’ll bet you’re pink underneath your skin, just like me!”
“And I’ll bet you’re brown underneath your skin, just like me!” So we rubbed each other’s arms to see if the color came off. When it didn’t, it was a revelation to us. Skin color is just part of who you are, we surmised, like black hair in braids and brown hair falling in the face. The experiment ended when our moms called us in for dinner.
After I set the kitchen table, I told my mom about our experiment. “Mom, Yolanda’s color doesn’t rub off! Mine doesn’t either!”
“Well of course it doesn’t, silly. She’s colored and you’re white.”
“What does that mean? She’s colored? Aren’t I colored too? There’s a crayon in my box called ‘flesh,’ so that must mean my flesh is a color.”
My dad had come in to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, “What are you two talking about?” He sat at the table, took a sip of his strong black coffee and sighed.
“I’m telling Lisa that a person’s skin color doesn’t rub off. Her little friend Yolanda next door is colored.”
“Well, Jesus Christ, a nig…”
“Leo, I also told her not to use that word.”
“I’ll use whatever word I want,” my father said, lighting a cigarette.
“No you won’t. Not in front of our daughter.” It was clear to me, even at seven years old, that skin color was indeed a problem. I thought about the musicians and singers my parents admired. Most of them were “colored.” I wondered why white people weren’t called “not colored.” We were beige, and that’s a color. There seemed to be something mysterious and important about skin color that made people act angry or afraid. I thought it all very confusing.
After dinner that night, I stood next to my mother drying the dishes she’d just washed. My dad was still at the table, reading the newspaper, “Mommy, I still don’t understand why skin color is so important. Everyone you listen to on the record player is colored, and you like them. Why does it matter?”
“Sweetie, there are a lot of things in the world that you’re too young to understand now.” I set the last dry plate on the counter for her to put in the cupboard since I wasn’t tall enough to reach that high.
“When will I be old enough?”
My dad put the paper down and heaved a sigh; “Don’t you have something better to talk about, you two? Lisa, go to your room or something.”
I looked up at my mom. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, why don’t you go to your room and play?” My room was right off the kitchen and as I closed the door, I heard my parents start to argue. My dad’s voice was raised.
“What is she doing playing with a little nig…?”
“Leo, I’ve already told you not to use that word. Do I have to tell you again?”
“You don’t tell me what I can say, dammit. I’ll say whatever I want.”
I laid in my bed, hugging my sock monkey, and realized that I had ventured into a topic that caused grown-ups to be nasty to each other. I had no idea what this had to do with Yolanda, but I was soon to find out.
A group of neighbors came to visit my parents. There were six of them—big, white men with dark hats and mean faces. I only recognized a couple of them, our neighbor Mr. DiJulio and the school crossing guard, Mr. Stanley. “Lisa, go to your room now,” my mother said. I wanted to protest, but I could tell by her tone she meant business. Being sent to my room when I hadn’t done anything wrong meant a grown thing was about to happen, so I left my door slightly ajar so I could peek out and listen.
Mr. DiJulio said, “Mr. Ulrich, we’re here to talk with you about your daughter’s playmate.” He spat that last word out as if having a friend to play with was somehow distasteful. I felt my stomach lurch and my blood run cold. What had Yolanda and I done wrong? We hadn’t broken anything or trashed my dad’s marigolds or pelted passing cars with the golf balls we’d found.
“What do you mean?” my dad asked.
“Don’t be coy, Ulrich. I think you know what we mean. Your daughter is to stop playing with that little pickaninny immediately.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Stanley said, “if not sooner.” Then he looked at the floor, his face suddenly flushed red.
I listened to the men talking about Yolanda, saying she was a mongrel and that if God had intended the races to mix, he wouldn’t have made white people the master race. Voices were raised. I heard the neighbors use curse words and the “N” word my mom said was so bad. I wondered why my parents weren’t saying anything. As the rants of the neighbors got louder and louder, my parents said nothing. I opened my door a little more and saw the men standing above my parents holding their fedoras while my parents were sitting on the sofa. Several had their arms by their sides but their fists clenched and I got scared so I quietly shut my door. Not long after, I heard the front door close and they were gone.
“Lisa. Come here,” my mother called to me, her voice shaky but stern. Sitting together on the sofa, my mom and dad looked stricken. “Sweetie,” my mom took my arm. “Sweetie, you can’t play with Yolanda anymore.”
“Why?” My lower lip began to tremble and tears formed in my eyes. “Because I said so,” as if that was a coherent answer; “And don’t ask questions. And stop crying right now.”
She was wringing her hands and her brow was furrowed. My dad sat next to her; the cigarette in his hand shaking and I stared at it, waiting for the ashes to fall on the carpet. “Just do as you’re told. No more playing with Yolanda,” he said from the couch; “Now go to your room!” I stood there, defiant and confused, then turned around and stomped to my room, where I cried myself to sleep.
But Yolanda and I continued to play, surreptitiously, like little spies. We met up in my parents’ garage, both of us feeling a bit frightened and bewildered. I took her hand and we held each other tight. She was wearing a yellow dress with a belt and I was in my play dungarees and shirt. Her hair smelled like deep red roses, “Did your mom and dad tell you we can’t play together too?”
Her eyes were big with fear; “Yeah, they did. But I don’t know why.”
“Did some men come to your house?” She nodded.
“Yes, some men mommy and daddy didn’t know. They threatened my daddy and my mommy cried.”
“My mommy cried too. I just don’t get it.” We were standing all the way in the back of the garage. A car smelling of burnt oil sputtered down the alley and startled us. We crouched down behind my mother’s ’51 Ford Crestliner.
“Do you think we should sneak?” she asked me.
“Maybe we should run away!” I thought leaving home would show the grown-ups that we meant business.
“No, I think we should just sneak for now.” Yolanda was obviously a cooler head than mine, even though her eyes were wide with fright. So we ignored all the parental dictums and continued to play together, quietly and in hiding. Sometimes we played in the cellar steps of her parent’s home, other times in my garage. We thought we were successful at making ourselves invisible.
A week or so later, after dinner and wash-up, there was another knock on our door. The knocks got louder and turned into pounding, but my parents wouldn’t answer. They cowered in the kitchen as I watched from my bedroom, “Open up, Mr. Ulrich. We know you’re in there.” The voice was loud and angry.
My dad, his shoulders hunched, walked through the living room and opened the door. In they came, a whole group of them, the same men as before but with some women as well. Mr. DiJulio’s jaw were flexing like spasms. Mr. Stanley stared straight at my parents. My parents invited them to sit down, but none of them did. One of the women glanced around the living room. Her eyes fell on the collection of albums my parents had and she looked with disdain at the cover of the Louie Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald album cover. “We won’t be long here, Mr. Ulrich.” This time their tone was much more strident and scary.
I’d left my room and was hiding in the stairway to the attic, where I could hear better. Mr. DiJulio spoke again, “We advised you, Ulrich, to keep your daughter from playing with that nigger girl. You apparently didn’t hear us.” I gasped and clapped my hand over my mouth. They said that bad word, I thought, and my parents aren’t telling them not to. I don’t get it.
Another man, Mr. Levine, said, “We don’t want to get serious about this, but this mingling of your daughter with a mongrel child of evil must stop or there’ll be consequences.” I wasn’t sure what “consequences” meant, but I knew if I were talking like that I’d get a spanking and sent to bed without dinner.
DiJulio added, “Perhaps you’ll heed us now.”
That’s when my mother spoke up. “I see your point and assure you there won’t be any more problems.”
“I’m so glad you see the wisdom in our advice,” Mr. Levine said. “So, we won’t need to bother you again?”
“No, you won’t have to bother us again,” my mom said; “We understand your viewpoint and will comply. Your knowledge about such things is far greater than ours, isn’t that right Leo?” She motioned to my dad who was sitting on the couch looking like a deer in the headlights.
“Ah…yes…absolutely right,” he said.
Soon the door closed and it was quiet. Again, I was called to the living room and told that if I played with Yolanda any more, that I wouldn’t be able to watch American Bandstand and would have to stay in my room for weeks and weeks.
“But I don’t understand,” I cried; “Why not? What’s wrong with her?”
Wham! My mother’s palm stung as it hit my face. She burst into tears. I fled to my room and crawled under the bed, the place I always retreated to when things got too heated. Through my sobs, I could hear my parents arguing.
“What are we going to do?” my father asked; “Obviously we aren’t getting through to her.”
“How can we? She doesn’t understand what’s happening,” my mother responded; “But we have to do something!”
“Well I don’t know what we can do other than lock her in her room until she’s grown up,” my father said.
“Then we’ll move,” my mother replied.
“Move? That’s your answer to everything.” There was a long silence.
“Do you have a better solution?” There was more silence.
“Right. I thought so. I’ll start looking for a house to rent in the papers tomorrow.”
I had no idea why we moved so much. I thought it was what all families did. But I learned many years later that if the heat got too hot in my mom’s kitchen she’d find a different kitchen. I looked around my room—the yellow walls, the tall windows, my little play kitchen. I would have to move away from all this because my parents were afraid of the neighbors and of my friendship with Yolanda. Had the neighbors also gone back to her house threatening “consequences” as well?
A week later, the U-Haul in front of our house was loaded and ready to go. Just as my mother was about to put me in the car, Yolanda ran up to her. Her eyes were wide with fright. She opened her small hand to reveal a coin. “Mrs. Ulrich, if I give you this dime, can I please play with Lisa?” My mother shoved me in the car and slammed the door.
“Just be quiet,” she said to me; “And don’t look back.” But I did.
The last time I saw Yolanda, she was running after our car, crying, with the dime lying in her little brown open hand.
Now I’m one of them—a grown up. I don’t know what ever happened to her, but I think of her often. I see the news and hear the rhetoric. The questions I had asked then are still not answered, although some people have tried.
I didn’t even know her last name, but I hope—if she is reading this—that she’ll get in touch with me. I really want to apologize.