1 In Stories

The First Good-bye

Desegregated Elementary School in the 1970s.                                                      Source: Getty Images

 

The world was in turmoil as I was entering school.  Kennedy had been shot a year after I was born and when I was five years old, I watched Martin Luther King’s funeral. I can still remember it.  My mother and I sat on my parent’s bed riveted to the fuzzy screen of a small black and white TV.  The old antenna had long ago been replaced by a wire hanger that often needed adjusting, but it worked and it was all we could afford.  At one point I turned to watch my mother who was also folding clothes.  Tears were streaming down her face.

We had just moved into that small colonial house in South Minneapolis. It sat on a quiet street with magnificent Elm trees soaring some 40 feet above. Like so many neighborhoods in the city, they stood tall and strong, then leaned their arms majestically across front yards and well over the road. To me, walking or driving under them on a summer day always felt like I was under a green cathedral. Our new neighborhood was a working class area filled with small starter homes and a mixed population of black and white families. My sister and I made friends with two girls on our block – a smart, talented African American girl named Nancy whose father was an architect and Mary, the oldest of our little group. She lived on the corner, the youngest of eight children in a large, very traditional, catholic family.

School was just a block away, around the corner from where Mary’s house stood. But unlike my sister and I, Mary went to an all-girls catholic school that was in the other direction.  We were good friends, but I always knew we were very different.  Her family was white, much more conservative than mine and did not necessarily approve of my mixed heritage. Only the girls had to clean the house and her mother was so old fashioned that she still used an ancient clothes washer with two heavy steel rollers through which she wrung out clothes by hand. Catholic school meant that Mary had to wear uniforms to school. In the late 60’s, such a harsh restriction on my friend’s individuality seemed cruelly oppressive to me.  But she didn’t seem to mind and her parents were always welcoming, keeping a close eye on us as we over took the living room with Barbie dolls in the summer and spent winter days building snow forts in their back yard.

At Nancy’s house, we listened to Simon & Garfunkel and laughed for hours listening to Bill Cosby describe Fat Albert on her father’s LPs. We put on plays for our parents and in the school yard, we tried our damnedest to play Buck Buck just like Cosby had, though we could never quite figure it out.

My parents were not officially hippies, though they were both fans of the ‘mod’ style. Like my neighborhood friends, my mother stayed at home to take care of me and my sister while my father put on a suit and went to work at a Honeywell plant. We were automatically considered to be the wild family, however, since my parents were younger than my friend’s parents. It was obvious that they were more liberal too since they had married each other – a white woman and black man – in 1962.

By the time the first American stepped on the moon, I was 7 years old. My whole family watched this event in a small upstairs room that was soon to become my bedroom. As exciting as this was, the blurry images didn’t have near the impact on me that MLK’s funeral did. After all, my Mother did not cry when Armstrong took those first steps ‘for mankind’. And although it was a big event for school discussions that week, we did not commemorate the walk on the moon at my school. We did, however, gather together in the elementary auditorium on Martin Luther King’s birthday for an assembly. I can still hear the sound in the auditorium as we ended the ceremony every year with the entire school holding hands in a large circle singing We Shall Overcome.

By the time I was eight, my parents were on the verge of separating. As they were coming apart, so was our neighborhood. It was 1970 and integration had reached the midwest. I didn’t understand why, but there was a new tension on the street that summer. One night my parents attended a community meeting in the school gymnasium to discuss the district’s desegregation plans. When they returned, they were furious at Mary’s parents who had spoken against integrating my elementary school even though their kids didn’t even attend. I continued to play with Mary, but they never forgave her parents after that.

Our neighborhood was mixed, but ours was considered one of the black schools so the following year, we were combined with another white, wealthier school.  My little sister went along with the others in grades K-3 to the other school. As I was entering forth grade, I got to stay were I was. On the first day, a few buses filled with new 4th, 5th and 6th graders pulled up to the curb.  One of them brought my new best friend.

Josey lived just a couple miles away, but she was from a different world. It wasn’t just that all the kids were white. By our standards they were from the rich side of town. Josey’s dad was a doctor and her mother a nurse. Her father had left Josey with her mother, an older brother and a younger sister in a brick house that was very well appointed. It wasn’t a large, but it smelled of money. There was a casual formality to it. The ‘den’ had wallpaper made from grass, the carpet was new, and the exterior was brick – none of which was not common in my neighborhood.

Josey and I were opposites, but instant friends. She was classically pretty and thin with long blond hair and bright blue eyes.  She was also smart, strong, full of energy and fun to play with. I was a chubby brown girl with the same qualities who talked so loud that my second grade teacher recommended hearing tests.  We were a perfect match.  We played together constantly and I often joined her group of friends of other girls, who rode the same bus.  One month in the 5th grade, after reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, all of us spent several lunch hours standing in a circle pumping our arms back akimbo and chanting “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”

Josey and I came from different worlds, but neither of us cared. I adapted to her interests for the most part and learned how to fit in with her friends as much as I could. We played horses incessantly. A subject that prior to the school bus program, I knew nothing about. Most of her friends took riding lessons and fantasized about owning a horse. I learned to canter and neigh on the playground right along with them. I’d flutter my lips, throw my head back as if I had the same long mane of hair that they did.  We all named our fantasy ponies, though we all knew I would never have one. It didn’t matter. It was fun to play along and unlike the birthday parties in my neighborhood, when Josey turned 11 we piled into station wagons and drove to the stables to go riding. Because of my friend, I learned the difference between a western and an English saddle when she got the later for her birthday.  That was the year I learned to ride for the first time.

Source:  Making History in Minneapolis  | School Integration 1970

This was also the age of the sleep over and in this area, I excelled. I hosted slumber parties with a large number of girls at ten and eleven years old. My events were highlighted by too much sugar, terrifying ghost stories and all of us laid out on a large palette of mattresses that I would gather from around the house and use to fill the attic floor.  Having inherited my parent’s love for playing hostess, this was the ultimate fun for me. Not so much because I wanted to be the center of attention, but I always wanted to be in the center of the FUN.

Josey’s mother had been a blond too, but her hair had darkened with age. Josey told me that she expected to lose the blond as she grew up too.  Most of the time when I saw visited, her mom kept her cool. In fact, that is the way she almost always treated me – cool and distant. Sometimes, however, she was cruel. He anger would burst out in a contemptuous comment or a short temper which seemed to be reserved only for me. Josey fought with her mother about plenty of things. One of them was her friendship with me. She was tough and stood her ground, but I knew it wasn’t easy. Josey kept her mother at bay somehow for the three years we spent together in elementary school. When it came time to graduate from sixth grade, she and I spent a weekend at my aunt’s house sewing our own dresses for the big day.

We remained best friends because although on the outside it may not have appeared that way, we had a lot in common. Both of our parents had separated and we were living through their divorces. She was the middle child and felt ignored and anchor-less.  She often felt left out when her brother got so much attention being the oldest, and her little sister was just that. The little sister.

Unlike Josey, no one called me pretty. I was brown and fat and more than a bit of a tom boy. By 10 years old, I was brushing my hair to one side and wearing a green army jacket. As the older of two girls, I felt it was my job to ensure that I was not a bother to either of my parents during and after their separation. I was left alone at the bottom of the stairs while parents ran to comfort my younger sister as she cried following the announcement of their pending divorce.  Instead of wanting comfort, I was angry at her for ‘bothering them’.  I tried not to be a burden.

At 10 years old, when it became clear that my father was not going to show up for his weekends with us anymore, I took on the mantel of family warrior for myself and my sister. I began writing him letters in which I demanded that he see us. Neither my mother or my sister would speak with me about what I wrote or how I felt.

I wanted a father. So did Josey. She was the only friend I could talk to. She understood being stuck in the middle. We both felt trapped in homes full of people but where no one who seemed to notice us. We listened to each other.

I wanted a father. So did Josey. She was the only friend I could talk to. She understood being stuck in the middle. We both felt trapped in homes full of people but where no one who seemed to notice us. We listened to each other.

After our elementary graduation, we all went our separate ways for summer vacation. I was looking forward to Junior High. I was nervous as well because this time the rich kids were not coming to my turf, I was going to theirs. For the first time, I would be bused to a new school in a new area. I didn’t know what it would be like or if I would fit in, but I had high hopes.

Josey and I might have gone to the same school, but her mother had other plans. She got married that summer to a man who lived in a suburb and also liked to ski as much as they did. Josey’s Mom was determined to take her kids out of the city’s public schools by moving in with her new husband. Years later, I realized that she was one of thousands of white parents who flew to the suburbs during integration. But at that time, I knew nothing of such trends.

One day, after the move to Bloomington, Josey called and said she wanted to visit. The next day she took the city bus by herself and came to see me for the afternoon. The sun was high and her hair was just as blond and bright as always when she stepped down and onto the corner of 38th and Chicago Avenue. It was late July, hot and muggy with a strong wind that blew her hair in waves as she walked.  We popped into a drug store built of dark brown bricks that was just across the street, then headed back to my house.

It was amazing how much things had changed in just a few short weeks. We were at the age when a lifetime occurs in a summer. As if the heat had helped each of us bake and rise more quickly, we had both grown a bit taller and suddenly seemed so much older. Still, it was a thrill to see my dear friend. We caught up on the happenings of the last couple months, her mother’s wedding and their new suburban home. Josey was happy to have been a flower girl in the ceremony, but she seemed just as trapped as ever. There was a new kind of resignation in her voice when she told me she didn’t mind the new house, but she missed her old friends.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Josey had a new air about her that day. She was wiser and older and sadder than I had ever known her to be. I could sense that something was wrong. There was a tension between us as we talked that went unnamed. It made me shrink inside. As we chatted through the afternoon, I found myself wanting to hold my breath.

 

***

The sun was heading for the horizon and it was time for her to go. As we walked back to the bus stop, I asked if she would be able to take the bus to my house during the school year. Since we were going to different schools now, when would we be able to see each other?

And that’s when she told me.

“No, I won’t be coming back again.” She said with resignation.

“Well maybe I can get my Mom to bring me out to your house.” I said. “Maybe we could do a sleep over sometime.”

“No.”  Josey’s voice was stronger this time. Less resigned. More determined.

“Oh… why not?” I asked.

I should have understood, but I did not. She was here after all. How far away could her new house be?

Josey glanced over my shoulder and down the street, which made me turn around and look as well. The bus was only a block away now. I could hear the hum of the motor as it accelerated. Even with all the traffic, I was tuned into that gruff sound. Usually it was a happy sight.  When a bus is close enough that you can hear the engine, it’s like smelling cookies baking. No more waiting on the corner. Anticipation, whether heading to school or heading home, was always sweet.

Now that feeling was replaced with dread. I was confused. I didn’t understand what was happening. The bus’ hum came ever closer and grew louder over the din.

“My Mom won’t let me come and see you anymore.”

For just a moment, the street froze.

“She doesn’t want me to be your friend anymore.”

“Well, why not?” I couldn’t help asking, even though I knew better.

“You know.” She replied, in a low voice.

“If I agree, if I stop being your friend, she’ll buy me a horse.” And hearing this, I felt my cheeks begin to burn. Finally she looked up off the ground and directly at me.  At once, her eyes showed resignation, shame and determination. The decision was made.

“I just can’t fight it anymore. I’m not coming back. I can’t be friends anymore.”

And there was the bus.

And there was the driver with his hand on the door trigger.

The world was moving again as the bus doors folded open. People bustled past as Josey stepped up and off of my street. Her coins clanged as another young man got on behind her. Then she quickly made her way to the back. The people, the traffic, the exhaust and the heat all swirled around me. But for all that commotion, time had stopped on my little piece of the sidewalk.

Later that year, when I was hit by a car, I flew right out of my body. Instinct protected me from the worst of the pain of that impact and the sound of my bones collapsing.  But not on this day. Instinct had failed me. This was no accident.

I was colliding inside, but there was no black out. No out of body experience. Just an internal explosion. Something in me seared, then sputtered, then stopped. A silent implosion.

Something in me seared, then sputtered, then stopped. A silent implosion.

I watched Josey bounce onto the back seat as the street light turned green. The hum of the motor revved up again. She turned around and waved at me through the back window. I waved back and watched as she faded into the distance.

No words.

No thought.

As I made my way home I was numb. There was a flashing in my head like rescue flares shot from a sinking boat. I knew there should be sound. I should hear a boom as the bright pink flames ignited and exploded in my brain. But there was nothing.

I crossed paths with people heading up the sidewalk and journeyed down the block, then turned the corner onto my street. The houses around me were the same, but I could hardly see them. Everything seemed to be swirling and swooshing silently around me. I kept walking and made my way home.

Years later Josey sent me a picture from her high school prom. Her smile was just as beautiful as always and her hair was still as blond. She stood next to her boyfriend in his tall tux and she in her long green dress. Her letter said she was happy and that she liked this boy a lot. I tried a few times, but I couldn’t respond.

Every time I thought about it, I just went numb inside and no words would come.

I never spoke to her again

… and I never told a soul.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Roger Hankey
    June 19, 2020 at 3:37 pm

    Just read First Goodbye. I understand. First the divorce, then the loss of a friend, not by your choice. The pain is real. You write well and I could really imagine the scene at the bus stop. Now that bus stop has even more meaning, as the area of George Floyd’s murder. I hope writing the story was good therapy. I found it insightful. Thanks.

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