Posted by: Maryann McCullough | August 28, 2011

Story for September 2011

My "show and tell" moment at recent meeting of Wise Women Write

 

 

 GROWING UP WHITE

Maryann McCullough

I didn’t even really know any Negroes back then…except, of course, for Daisy.

There were none in my school or my church or even in the stores where I shopped. There were no rules about that. It was just the way things were in the Fifties in the suburbs of Chicago. The strongest experience I had of “segregation” came during my senior trip to Washington, D.C. The drinking fountains in the White House were labeled “colored” and “white only.” I had never seen anything like that before.

Of course the Fifties ended and the next decade was rife with racial unrest. While not the hotbeds of political action like Selma or Montgomery, Chicago was changing. The city’s slums, full of ramshackle houses, had been bulldozed to make way for a great social experiment called Cabrini Green. Monoliths replaced the decaying single story family houses. The new residents of Cabrini, all poor and black, soon joined in the angry response of their southern brothers and destroyed the structures in a matter of two years. In River Forest, busing of children, even from suburban parochial schools like the ones we attended, was scheduled. It was not well received. And it did not happen.

I remember when the subject was presented in the homily portion of a Sunday Mass. Some parishioners got up and walked out right in the middle of the liturgy. Our family stayed in the pew but I learned (overhearing the many phone calls that transpired later that day) that for my parents, the idea of sending their children to some poor black school in the heart of the city was the issue. Welcoming black children to Saint Luke’s was not the problem. Though, in truth, my mother and father were not exactly on the same page.

My father, a gentle and kind man, was nonetheless a product of the Irish culture that deemed their nationality far superior to any other. From him I learned other names for blacks and Jews and Chinese and Mexicans. He was shaped not just by his heritage but by his professional life. He was vice president of Automatic Electric, a large company that employed many of those ethnic groups for work in their factory. On a regular basis the parking lot was the setting for stabbings and other criminal activity. He saw a bad sample of the black community.

On the other hand, my mother, a woman more enlightened than most of her vintage, was active in the support of issues affecting the black community. She started a free storefront preschool in the inner-city. I know she scoured the city for black baby dolls in lieu of the more common blond and blue-eyed version. She eventually found some, as well as a statue of a black Blessed Mother. I wasn’t living at home at the time so most of the details of that part of my mother’s life are missing from my memory but I know she had a different image than my father.

So, from these parents I learned (not surprisingly) some confusing, conflicting things about the people who were different from ourselves.

But eventually I got to know one of them up close and personal. Her name was Daisy.

I figure Daisy made the trip from the innards of Chicago to our home in River Forest every Tuesday and Wednesday for about thirty years. In my mind she always seemed an ageless person, though I know in those years after I’d left home Daisy’s ability to spot a dusty corner had diminished along with her energy. But it didn’t seem right to my parents to say good-bye to the woman who, like the proverbial postman “neither sleet, nor rain, nor snow…” had dissuaded.  She’d come with such loyalty to that three-story home overflowing with children for so many years.

My mother would call our housekeeper “Mrs. Rickman” even though we called her Daisy. She did this because Daisy refused to call her “Mary.” She was always “Mrs. Shanahan” to the black woman who cleaned our house; this despite my mother’s attempts to equalize the relationship.

My parents are gone now. Daisy is gone as well. Black students have sat in my classroom and black families have shared the pew with me at our parish church. Barach Obama is our president and a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. has been carved in stone and sits amidst memorials to the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in our nation’s capital.

Like most today, I have serious concerns about the future of the country that’s my home. But a backward look reminds me that some pretty amazing positive changes can happen in a period of just fifty years. I’ll hold onto that thought.

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Responses

  1. Great stuff Mom. I like the ending, an encouraging reminder that good things can happen in a short timeframe.

  2. Fantastic and topical writing, Maryann. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you Maggi. I would be interested to read your take on it. Samr family. Same Daisy. But close to a generation later.

  4. This is wonderful. Shocked me a bit (which is good) with beginning sentence that served the perfect purpose of sending me back 50 years. Inspiring.and insightful. Please publish!

    I have decided that birthdays are very good for writing, another year of perspective to add to the mix.

    Love you Minnie.

    Maggi


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