ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: Shades of gray
© Another Day in the Country
Last week, I told the story of being invited into a playmate’s home, which was as different from my house as black and white!
Her parents were wealthy. Mine were poor. Her parents were Catholic. My Dad was a Seventh-day Adventist preacher. Our household was conservative. Her family was quite liberal and very inclusive.
We inhabited two different worlds while living in the same town — Great Bend — and attending the same fifth-grade class with the amazing Mr. B as our teacher.
Just standing in the entry hall of Martha’s house was culture shock. We hastily moved toward the kitchen at the back of the house, which, to my delight, was all black and white.
Black and white tiles patterned the floor. The counter tops were white ceramic tile — wide and expansive — edged in black. The refrigerator and stove were gleaming white with delicate black trim on the handles.
In my home we still had an ice box and the kitchen colors were beige with linoleum on the floor — albeit waxed and shining clean.
Into this kitchen we stepped, me with eyes darting to take it all in, and met the maid.
I was stunned.
She was black! Her uniform was white.
“Oh, this is Miss Mae,” Martha chirped. “She’s our maid and she’ll clean up any mess we make in here. She’s nice.”
As if Miss Mae wasn’t hearing every word.
Stunned was an understatement. I’d never known anyone with a maid. In our house we cleaned up our own messes.
Miss Mae was the first African American person I’d seen close up and she was very dark; her skin shone like polished ebony.
This white child stood transfixed, embarrassed.
Graciously, Miss Mae vanished into another room and left us to our play.
“Surprise,” Martha laughed. “We’re going to make brownies and bake them in the oven. Really.”
I’d never had brownies!
She produced white flour, brown cocoa, white and brown sugar, white eggs, and a blue bowl, and spread them all on the countertop.
Gathering my senses, I volunteered to stir things up — my already natural ability — while she read the recipe.
She pulled out an electric Mix-Master.
I’d never touched one before. My mother always used an egg beater or a wooden spoon.
That day I learned to use modern conveniences.
“Wait until my mom hears about this,” I thought.
Tiny tin pans materialized from somewhere and we filled them. Batter blew around the kitchen and smattered our faces as we licked the beaters clean and laughed with childish delight at our concoction — almost better raw than baked!
Crawling to the top of the kitchen shelves, Martha produced a toy percolator.
“We’ll make coffee,” she announced.
“Coffee?” I stammered. “We don’t drink coffee (notice the Imperial WE).”
In my black and white world, coffee was a sin right up there beside Coca Cola and beer. I’d heard my father preach about this kind of evil.
“Your body is the temple of God,” he said.
No coffee for me, even from a cute, toy percolator that really worked.
Martha wondered what we drank at our house and I told her “Postum” even though I abhorred Postum.
“We have some,” Martha crowed. “Miss Mae always drinks it. We’ll use that instead.”
I immediately felt a kinship with Miss Mae, a softening.
Even though everyone knows Postum is unperkable, we dumped it in and watched it bubble and boil across the white countertop and drip down on the black and white floor.
This was my first tea party.
In short order, the brownies were baked, the Postum perked, the corner table set with real China — and two girls sat down to tea — well not REAL tea, that was also forbidden in my world.
There were many firsts that day. My first brownies, my first Postum, my first walk into the world of the wealthy. My first view of a maid and my first memory of a black woman.
All of this combined with the sweet taste of chocolate, powdered sugar and the delicious conspiracy of cooking for real — not pretend as we usually did.
Because we shared the experience, Martha’s world became part of mine, inextricably intertwined. When I went home that afternoon, I took with me this story of a walk in someone else’s shoes.
My mother listened to me tell the story. I was breathless. She sighed. She knew that my black and white world would never be quite so delineated now. Had she done the right thing to let me go?
Black was now tinged with brown, the color of Miss Mae’s eyes and mine. White always will be flecked with shades of chocolate and powdered sugar.
Over 70 years have passed since I walked into Martha’s world. I never saw her again after we moved to Kansas City, nor did I ever tell her how thankful I am she became my friend and invited me home, into her world, on another day in the country.
Last modified Sept. 9, 2020