The Upper Room

It was first my daughter’s when we moved into this tall St. Paul house. One of two rooms on the third floor, it was the one facing south. And until the locust and olive trees grew tall enough for shade, it was flooded with morning light, even in winter. She wanted pink carpeting and blue fleur de lis wall paper–a feminine, girly look, for a teen in the interesting, challenging process of growing up.

Initially, given the divorce agreement that split her time between her dad in Minneapolis and our blended family in St. Paul, she spent only half her time in this lovely room, with postcards of moon and sun from Nuremberg above the door, winking and blinking in deep night sky. Midway through high school, she tired of shuttling back and forth and made this room her permanent abode.

For six more years through college, the room absorbed her sweet smell: eyelet pillows on the bed, a dream-catcher I’d commissioned from a Minnesota Native American artist hanging on the door to catch her bad dreams and let them melt in morning light.

The pink carpet, blue fleur de lis wallpaper, and dream catcher are still there, but I can no longer sniff her presence on the air. Slowly over the twenty years since she left, I’ve positioned my own mementoes along one wall.

There is a photograph of my great-grandfather from Sicily, the soldier turned Protestant minister who was forced from a chapel outside Palermo. Ruffians burned missals, shattered windows and cracked the organ. Leonardo D’Anna–his first name passed on to my father, and his last to my operatic sister. The man himself I never met, yet I see above the huge walrus moustache of the era, a “lead on, oh kindly light” in his eyes. They were blue, inherited by his grand-daughter Eleonora, named after Eleonora Duse, the great Italian soprano. My Eleonora, the last of her tribe, who died two Februaries ago at age 94.

There is a photograph of our family in New York when I was five, wearing heavy bangs and long bob, sitting beside my sister with pale eyes and curls. We were 5 and 3, sitting on a table in a famous New York seafood restaurant which my mother had bragged about. Our parents, Maxine and Leonard, sit at the table across from his paternal cousins, Lena and Eda.

My parents’ beauty, those many years ago, takes my breath away. Their faces unlined, their hair well coiffed, and my father, smirking below his rimless glasses, full of pride and self-confidence. He is the apple of every female eye. My mother, shy and subdued, yet covered in a quiet sheen of loveliness.  Not yet dashed aside by marital argument and bringing up daughters “on a professor’s salary.”

There are other photographs but today they don’t speak to me. Instead I notice a copy of H. G. Adler’s Panorama, a quiet yet damning memoir of the Holocaust–hard to read because of the author’s elisions but unmistakably, a work of genius. Many other books line the shelves, but few others claim my attention like this one. I believe it was either lost or repressed for years until it came to light and was reprinted. Perhaps I’ve made this up. Yet, that something like this happened feels authentic since until this century the book was not well known in the United States.

Also on the shelves sits an “upside-down” doll from my South Carolina childhood. The face and dress that are currently “up” belong to a blond, vacant-eyed white lady. Under her skirt wait the face and plainer dress of “a colored lady.” The weight of prejudice, barely conscious as I used to slip these two–mirror images of each other, but now so obvious–racist, joined under their skirts. In my South Carolina childhood, racism against black men often took violent, jeering forms, but its formula among colored and white women was more subdued. Out of necessity, perhaps, because white women and their children depended on black women to work their stoves and laundry tubs, to clean their toilets, even raise their children. There is a sickening fondness for “Mammy,” in some closets of white culture, the Mammies who were shuttled to shacks along Low-Country roads, who sat toothless in their old age, sucking their gums as they rocked back and forth, staring at the passing traffic.

This too is a strong memory, not that I was raised by a woman of color, but I noticed the exhaustion of those maids and cooks who  mounted the steps of a city bus in the days of segregation, carrying heavy shopping bags, and making their way to the back. The color of my skin weighed like a judgment of shame. I was so ashamed of what my white race made these tired brown women do. And I was proud when the ones, namely Rosa Parks and those she inspired in Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted their segregated buses.

This shame has entered my bloodstream and made me attentive to the burden racism puts on African Americans. When I teach these students in Minnesota schools, I tell them this memory and read them my poem “No More Back of the Bus” (published in my poetry collection, “Between the Houses,” from the Laurel Poetry Collective via Amazon). The poem helps ease the students’ mistrust of me. Helps me reach through history to encourage and empathize, acknowledge what my kind of people owe their kind of people. I cannot forget, or pretend that just because “kids” of color act up, they are deficient, or not open to learning. We who are complicit must work against what has hurt us all.


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