by Toni Martin
My ninety-six-year-old mother, shrunken two inches under five feet, sits in her recliner and waits. She says that she has never lived like this, in a place where she has to wait for everything—to go to meals, to come back from meals, to wash, to dress, to go to bed. As though it is the fault of the help in assisted living that she is stuck in a wheelchair. Because of this limitation, she would have to wait wherever she was. A few years ago, after fourteen years living with one daughter and the next, she wanted her own apartment. In those years, when she could still walk, she said she wanted to be independent, as though she were twenty-one and setting out from her parents’ home. She has never seen herself as others see her.
When my mother visited the passport office for the first time in the nineteen fifties, they thought she was white because of her light skin color, and they thought she was crazy because the birth certificate she offered them as proof of her identity read, “Black baby born, April 21, 1914.” She had to locate her baptismal certificate, which included her name and sex, before they would issue her a passport.
She left one senior apartment in a huff because the white people there couldn’t tell that she was black. Always her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, even when she held a job, she had never faced explaining to white people on a daily basis how she could be black. Lucky her.
Lucky, too, that her father was a wealthy man who owned an insurance company, a funeral parlor, real estate, and the only movie theatre in the ‘colored” community of Savannah, Georgia. At a time when most white people didn’t finish high school, both her parents were college graduates, from Tuskegee and Fisk. In the winter, my grandmother took all the children to live in Columbus, Ohio, where they attended integrated public schools. In the summer, my mother sat on the porch and read. She never needed a summer job. Lucky her.
But marriage was a shock, because she did not marry a man as rich as her father. She had to learn to cook at least, though she never learned to clean.
“Why did you have so many children, Mommy?’
“Because your father liked babies and I always had full time help.”
My maternal grandfather’s two brothers went north and passed for white. My mother only met her New York cousins once (they didn’t know that their father was “colored”), and now they are lost to our family. When I asked why her father stayed in Savannah, Mother said, “He was a businessman, and he saw more opportunity in Savannah.” Opportunity to make money: he was much more successful than his brothers. But the family couldn’t eat in the restaurants downtown or shop in the white stores. The police could arrest them for drinking from the wrong water fountain. They kept to their own. As a small child, I didn’t think that there were white people in Savannah, since we never saw any.
My father, the son of a doctor, also grew up in segregated Savannah. His father was Cuban, and his skin color gives me my ambiguous ethnic look. Jewish? Arab? Latina? People never know. My bone densitometry results, like my mother’s, lists my race as “white”. No one asked us.
Anger fueled the ambitions of my parents, who both held masters degrees. My father became the editor of Negro newspapers and then a politician. My mother worked as a free-lance editor until age 90 and wears her Phi Beta Kappa key on a chain around her neck. But anger does not burn clean. The legacy of segregation hung over our family of five girls like a toxic cloud. The unspoken question in our household was, “What would white people think?”
Since the stereotype of black girls is that we are loose and sexual, we were raised to be uptight and inhibited. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” Chewing gum, blue jeans, short skirts, made us look like whores. “Jitterbugging and fingerpopping” were forbidden. Although we were “just like other black people.” my father refused to buy watermelon in the supermarket, in case someone might see him. The song from “Porgy and Bess”, “I got plenty o’ nuthin, and nuthin’s plenty for me” sent my mother into a rage. How dare that white man Gershwin imply that black people enjoyed poverty. They were always looking for racism and they always found it.
Their intent was to protect us, but my parents didn’t give me much hope. My father said that white people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too much like them to dismiss. And black people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too different from them to embrace. We all coped in different ways but once I left for college, I never spent a summer at home. I moved to California from the east coast, I married a darker-skinned man whose optimism is a balm, and I became a doctor. I couldn’t breathe in their house, and I wanted to see all the stars in the sky
My mother’s backbone has collapsed from osteoporosis and she can’t walk, but she still nurses her grudges. She is afraid that we will forget. How could we forget? She lived to see the end of segregation, traveled the world and dined with presidents, including the young black one, but in her mind, it is too little, too late. Nothing about her life was lucky. She is jealous of the opportunities we had, and says that her primary role, a mother, was “worth nothing.” None of us were ambitious enough for her, despite our careers. The toxic cloud still hovers above her, threatening to envelope me again at each visit.
I type her fantasy memoirs, where she imagines that but for segregation she would have become a Nobel prize-wining psychiatrist, called in to counsel heads of state. This woman who avoided cafeterias because she couldn’t make choices quickly and worried about making the people behind her wait, thinks she was tough enough for medical school in the nineteen forties. If she were white, she could probably fly, too.
I wish, in her old age, that she could not forgive, not forget, but escape the segregation of her youth. Ignore who’s watching and act the fool. (I wish that for myself, too.) Take pride in what she did accomplish. Create her own happiness. But my mother will die believing that there was another, better life she could have lived, if only she had been born white.
Toni Martin is a physician and writer. Her second book of non-fiction, When the Personal was Political: Five Women Doctors Look Back, was published in 2008. Her work, medical essays, memoir and fiction, has appeared in the East Bay Monthly, The Threepenny Review, ZYZZYVA, LiteraryMama.com, The Los Angeles Review, and The Bellevue Review. She lives with her husband in Berkeley, CA, where they raised their three children. Visit her website.