Don't Drink The Koolaid

Linda A. Dougherty

© Copyright 2020 by Linda A. Dougherty

Photo of young Linda.
Photo courtesy of the author.

This is both a catharsis for me and an invitation to my daughters to understand my world which was so different than their own childhood. It is a story of hope too, that we do not have to remain stuck in the past but reconciliation is always within reach if we dare to make the first steps.

It was September 1968. While integration roiled throughout the US, it seemed only Catholics were the minority in my high school. Those of us in that minority would whisper, “I’m a Catholic are you?” We blended in, a secret subset.

On that count I was somewhat a mongrel with a non-practicing Protestant father and a first generation Italian Catholic mother. Back in the Fifties, that was another kind of crossing a line. My father had to promise to allow me to be raised Catholic and so he did. My grandmother, Dad’s mom, sang her beloved Gilbert and Sullivan songs to me.

I'm called Little Buttercup — dear Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why,
But still I'm called Buttercup — poor little Buttercup,
Sweet Little Buttercup I 

My favorites were her old Sunday School songs that she crooned as she wrapped me up in her pillowy arms whenever she would visit.

Jesus Loves the Little Children…all the children of the world….red and yellow, black and white….they are precious in His sight….Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

I believed my grandmother, every word she said or sang. But that world of color was not my world in our then-rural township outside of Philadelphia. My world was as easy as the gentle summer breeze that brushed the gold-tasseled corn fields crowding behind our yard’s back edge and it was vanilla like the soft serve ice cream we savored as a summer treat.

The fact that I didn’t see a single “red” or “yellow” or black face in elementary school did not seem unusual to me. I didn’t understand that I was living a segregated life. It was the only life I knew until one day in high school.

My dad was busy during the sixties, giving a running commentary about the nightly news on TV. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. The Cold War, Vietnam, Presidential elections, Civil Rights Movement- he interpreted it all for mom and me.

In his estimation, President Kennedy was bad for the United States, though I didn’t understand why. Like most kids, I was caught in the net of hope cast upon troubled waters by a young president. My father pointed out a domed building at the nearby Johnsville Naval Air Base and told me proudly that it was where the fledgling American space program trained its astronauts to withstand pressures in space. He called it a centrifuge and my imagination spun a picture of the future that included the flying cars the Jetsons drove across our TV screen.

Life on our pitted dirt road was quiet and slow. Long rows of tomatoes rumored as grown for Campbell some years and soy beans other years stretched the length of the road with only the antique plastered stone farm house and a spring-fed pond breaking the flow of rolling fields. On our side of the street, dark green swathes of woods stood between unimposing ranch homes or small cottages on acre lots dotted along the dusty road’s edge, hemmed in by long cornfields pushing from behind . There were no children my age to keep me company.

My nose burrowed into the pages of one Bobbsey Twins book after another. I became enamored of the Childhood of Famous Americans books, then the Little Maid series, and passed then on to Nancy Drew and all of Baum’s tales of Oz. Tinkerbell flitted in on Sunday evenings to bring me The Wonderful World of Color, though Disney’s impish fairy stayed black and white for a couple of years beyond the introduction of the marvels of technicolor on TV. A color TV came later into our house than in other houses.

School was a different kind of sameness. I loved climbing on jovial Mr. Diamond’s bus. “Good morning, Puddle Jumper,” he’d smile in the mornings. On rainy days, he’d conspiratorially encourage my propensity to stamp my red boots into every puddle along the dirt road between my house and the bus stop at the end of the road to the dismay of my cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness mother. Dad’s nightly commentary was the only snag in a tapestry of smoothly woven threads in my daily life.

On November 22, 1963, my fourth grade teacher came back from lunch, crying, and told us between tears that President Kennedy was dead. She‘d played a record about Kennedy and his little boy, John John, right before lunch with the promise that she would finish playing it afterwards. We never heard the rest of the recording. Now that little boy and his sister would not have his daddy and we would not have a young president who wanted to change the world. We fourth graders sat silently at our desks, lost.

Dad bought a commemorative Life magazine and clipped newspaper articles to paste into his scrapbook. Not that he rejoiced in anyone being robbed of their life, but he hated all Kennedys as the worse kind of liberals…. phonies in his eyes. But, he was solemn the day Camelot died and we watched the funeral procession with the rest of the nation.

When the First Lady became an icon of courage, he curled his lip with disdain saying, “Jackie wasn’t trying to help the Secret Service man get onto the car to help the president after he was shot, she was trying to get away to save herself.” I just kept quiet.

My grandparents, Maria and Guiseppe, like all good Italians, had a picture of JFK in a place of reverence right next to Pope John on their kitchen wall next to the wall of cabinets. The Sacred Heart of Jesus was in the living room. I was proud that JFK had been the first Catholic president because I knew it was important to half of my family. My father kept quiet in the home of my grandparents out of respect for his in-laws.

Dad believed firmly that people should “stick to their own kind.” He talked with an edge in his voice about Sammy Davis Jr. who “married a white woman”. I wondered at his anger, but knew better than to ask questions which would be seen as a challenge.

I remember musing as I grew what “their own kind” meant. The only people of color who I saw regularly came through the TV screen when dad watched the evening news. Sometimes, we saw black people walking along the sidewalks when we visited my Italian grandparents in South West Philly. I quietly watched them from the back seat of the car as if that sliding glimpse would help me understand.

When Dr. King was assassinated that April of my eighth grade year, I knew our world was wrong if a man who said he had a dream could be killed simply for the color of his skin. But I kept silent. After all, my father made it very clear that he was the king of his castle.

Dad would inevitably growl at the TV, talking disdainfully about black leaders on TV who were “wearing his ‘Ralph Abernathies’” in reference to overalls. But, it was Dr. King who’d asked protestors in 1963 to join him in wearing overalls until Easter not Ralph Abernathy. I didn’t know that then, but the overalls didn’t offend me anyway the way it seemed to irritate my father and I still kept quiet.

Dad got a lot wrong. He got a lot right too. Important things. He was a good father. He taught me so much that was good. Be polite. When someone gives you a gift, write them a thank you note whether you like the gift or not- it’s the thought that counts. “If you do anything, do it well.” Save your money. Always tell the truth. Of course there was the “close the door, do you live in a barn?” He didn’t make much, but he worked hard and was an honest man. He was a faithful father and husband. He read to me almost daily when I was little and gave me a love for books that hasn’t stopped. He wasn’t afraid of showing affection…..or what he considered righteous anger. My memory is full of fond memories and love my parents gave me. Good things I built my life upon.

Then I met Elzada. We somehow found each other, early in September of 1968. I don’t remember how we crossed paths, too many years passed between then and now. But, she was there, smiling quietly. Friendly. Different only in the tones of our skin and curl of our hair- but I knew in that meeting that we were the same in all the best ways.

In the fall of my freshman year, Elzada and I were heady with prospects of all we would do- friends. We laughed and talked at lunch. We made plans. I went home and talked about my new friend. Could I invite her over to our house? When it became clear my new best friend, my only real friend was black, my father sat me down to explain the way of life in America in 1968- or at least, the way he saw it.

The message was unmistakably clear- I could not invite Elzada to our house. I could not use his phone that he paid for to call her. This man who I’d adored as a young child looked concerned and earnest. “ Don’t be her friend in school, “ he said, “ other kids will look at you differently.” He was convinced he was right and I was equally certain he was wrong. I just clamped my mouth shut tightly and internally combusted.

Next Monday morning, I stood, ashamed to tell her the truth. “My dad said you can’t come over because you are black, and my parents won’t let me use the phone to call you and I have to obey them because it is their phone that they pay for and their house,” I blurted, “but they can’t make me not talk to you in school!” I was embarrassed and angry.

In what seemed like weeks after my confession, she told me that she received a scholarship to attend a nearby private Quaker school. I felt glad for her to have the opportunity, but sad I would not see her. I moved on, adopting the same survival tactic as I employed in middle school: find a few friends, work hard, and keep a low profile. Nobody ever felt like Elzada- truly the right kind, but I managed. I believe people today would remember me as a “nice” girl, if they remember me at all.

Years later, I matured enough to imagine how my well-meant words probably wounded my friend even more. Then, at almost fourteen, I fancied our fledgling friendship was the victim of parental blind prejudice. I felt cheated. Later, I realized I had unwittingly set her up for hurt. I should have known it was going to end that way. My father had been telling me that message for years; I just didn’t want to believe it.

I didn’t understand something she probably knew about me- I was an almost fourteen- year old coward despite my bravado. I didn’t need to have courage, but she was born to it by necessity of the color of her skin. Her innate dignity was partly of what drew me to her.

Some six or seven years ago, I looked her up on her school’s alumni website. I saw she confirmed intentions to attend her class reunion that year. I guess high school meant more to her than it did to me; I have never once attended a reunion. Elzada didn’t wander far from home it seems. I have lived in North Africa and now live in New England, three hundred miles from home. I pushed away the thought of Elzada with maybes- “maybe she doesn’t remember me…”
maybe it will be too weird.”

But, sometimes you are surprised with a second chance, an opportunity of grace. I decided recently to once more try to find a the flesh and blood woman Elzada rather than continue to keep company with the ghostly girl of 1968 who was tall with thin legs and a big smile.

A computer search of her name turned up the barest of traces that led to dead ends. I found a blurred black and white photo that showed two African American girls in a Class of 1972 group graduation photo on Facebook. The group is closed to alumni. This time, I didn’t give up. I emailed the director of alumni at the school and told her my story. She forwarded my email to Elzada who was in their files and I got a short email, in fact two, today. She remembered the name of the town where I lived at almost fourteen and told me to forget the past and remember the good.

Almost fifty-two years later on a Friday night in June 2020, at 7:00 pm, our voices tentatively reached out to one another. Since then, we’ve emailed each other photographic snippets of our lives. Two adults trying to retie a broken cord.

The spiked cup of Koolaid my world handed me spilled on the ground between my father and I the day I told Elzada she was the wrong color to be my friend.

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