Eating Candy with a Stranger

The year must have been about 1973. I was four years old but would be turning five later in the year. It was a beautiful spring day and Mom was making sure my brother (Scott) and I were ready for church before she left us to our own devices so she could get herself ready.

Scott looked snazzy in his little Sunday suit but I, of course, was in a dress. I much preferred wearing Scott’s hand-me-down overalls but that was not proper Sunday School attire. I didn’t like wearing dresses but had not yet grown to utterly despise them.  I hadn’t quite reached the age when I was expected to behave differently when wearing a dress. I was still young enough that I was allowed to be a kid rather than a proper young lady.

Scott and I had been told to wait for Mom on the front porch as she finished getting ready. I was told, specifically, not to leave the porch, touch anything or get dirty.

Mom used to call me her “Bold One”. The term was part of an advertising campaign for Bold laundry detergent back in the 70s, which was advertised to be so powerful it would even perfectly clean the clothes worn by your “bold one”. Mom used to claim I could go out perfectly clean, stand in one spot for fifteen minutes and come back filthy … and that’s what happened on this particular morning.

When Mom came out to take us to church, I had dirt on my face and dress, so in Mom took me to wipe off the dirt and put me in a clean dress.

We were a few minutes late to the Sunday service but quietly found a spot at the end of one pew and were seated. Scott sat on Mom’s left and I, to her right.

I pulled out my coloring book and crayons and proceeded to do my thing. As far as I was concerned at that age, church was the place where I went once a week to participate in structured coloring while wearing a dress and listening to monotone men speak. I use the word “structured” because this was not a normal coloring session. I had to listen for Mom’s cues to stop coloring and bow my head whenever a prayer was said. This little game always ended with all the members of the congregation saying “amen”. I would yell out the word with gusto before resuming my coloring.

I was busy coloring a masterpiece when Mom tapped my arm. I obediently put down my crayon and bowed my head waiting for the prayer, but there was no prayer. Then Mom tapped my arm again. I looked up at her wondering what had gone wrong with the prayer. She pointed to another row of pews, over to our left, and said, “Why don’t you go sit with her?”

Mom was pointing to a woman in her 30s who had just limped in carrying a cane and found an empty seat at the end of a pew. The other occupants of the pew gradually got up and found other seats, leaving her with the entire pew to herself.

I was upset that Mom wanted me to leave her and sit with a stranger. Strangers scared me!

Mom had warned Scott and me of strangers on numerous occasions and with me being a highly sensitive and perhaps more than slightly neurotic child, my fear was ten-fold. Mom had only wanted to instill a healthy fear within us, but I had the tendency to magnify all dangers to equate them with death.

Mom urged me again to go sit with the lady and appealed to my emotions.

“Look … she’s sad. She’s sitting all by herself. Nobody wants to sit with her.”

I had no idea at the age of four that the reason nobody wanted to sit with her was because of the color of her skin. I don’t think I even knew at that age that some people weren’t accepted based on their skin color. As far as I was concerned the world was made up of adults and children – some were boys and some were girls.

I had never before seen this woman in our congregation. In fact, I had never before seen any black person in our congregation, but that wasn’t even an issue to my four-year-old self. My only issue was that Mom was sending me to sit with a stranger, but her attempt to appeal to my emotions worked. I was still terrified to sit with the lady, but at the same time I felt sorry for her because nobody else wanted to sit with her.

Mom had given me specific instructions not to tell the lady I had been given orders to sit with her. Instead I was to politely ask if she minded that I sit with her. So I took my crayons and coloring book with me, walked over to where the lady was sitting and asked if it would be okay if I sat with her and colored.

The brown-skinned lady beamed, reached out and put her arms around me and sat me next to her while complimenting my excellent coloring skills.

I was delighted!

Mom had never been so proud of my art work as was this woman! In gratitude I tore out the page and told my new friend she could put my masterpiece on her refrigerator, which she agreed to do.

My new friend then raised a finger to her lips to make the sign to ‘Shhh!’ or ‘don’t say a word’, then she opened her purse and pulled out a small stash of candy. We each had several pieces as she draped her arm around me and cuddled me close.

I felt like the luckiest person in the world that day! I met a grown adult who raved about my excellent coloring skills, was thrilled to have a piece of my art work, gave me candy and held me so tight I felt like I was the most important person on planet Earth.

I don’t remember the woman’s name but I do recall seeing her many times after that day. She was baptized and became a member of the church. Sometimes, when she didn’t have a ride home, we would take her home to a place that reminded me of something out of “The Jetsons”. She called her huge futuristic home “the projects”. I thought she was rich and was proud to know someone who lived in the projects. I was equally as proud that a piece of my art work was displayed in the projects. 

I sat with her a few more Sundays after her first visit. She always greeted me with enthusiasm, shared her candy and held me close to her. Gradually, over time, people stopped getting up and moving when she came to church. She made a few friends and several members would take turns making sure she had a ride to and from church.

One Sunday I sat scanning the chapel for her. I finally spotted her and asked Mom if I could go sit with her. Mom looked in the direction where she was seated and noticed that she no longer had to sit alone. She turned back around, smiled and said, “No, she’s okay. You stay here with us.”

I didn’t understand what she meant by “she’s okay”. I just wanted to sit with my friend and eat candy. I hadn’t realized she hadn’t been okay before.

Why nobody wanted to sit with her those first few times was beyond my comprehension. It wasn’t until a few years later, during a conversation with Mom, that I realized what had happened that Sunday morning.

“Do you remember that time when I was little and we went to church and you told me to go sit with that black lady?”

“Yes, I remember.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Well, I couldn’t very well sit with her myself and leave you and Scott sitting alone. If all three of us had gone to sit with her in the middle of the service we would have drawn attention to her and I didn’t want to embarrass her. I sent you, instead of Scott, because I thought she might be more comfortable with a little girl than a little boy.”

“Why did people get up and move when she sat down?”

“Because some white people don’t like black people for some reason. They don’t realize that underneath the skin we’re all the same. You can have a red shirt and a blue shirt, both made of cotton that was picked out of the same field, and some people are going to think the red shirt is better than the blue shirt, not taking into account that it’s the same cotton and God created all the colors of the rainbow. No color is better than the other.”

I never regarded that Sunday when Mom sent me to sit with the brown-skinned lady as a lesson taught … but I suppose it was. She taught me something about racism before I even knew that racism existed, before I had even learned to identify people as black and white, before I had ever heard of the N-word or was aware of our country’s history regarding slavery and oppression.

I don’t know if my outlook on race relations would have been different without this lesson, but what I do know is that Mom gave me a beautiful memory.

Mom died 25 years ago this last February, at the age of 52. There are so many things I’ll never know about Mom but memories like this one give me insight into what she was made of and make me proud to have been her daughter.