When I was little, before I started kindergarten, my mom took my sister and me to the PX:
- In Texas at the time, kindergarten was a luxury for which a family paid handsomely, unless they were willing to leave their child in the tender care of religious instructors.
- For military families, The PX is the “Post Exchange.” (The Commissary is for food. The PX is for the good stuff.)
- Uniformed military personnel have priority at The Commissary and The PX. If they are in line behind you, they are actually entitled to be in front of you.
I honestly don’t remember what we were shopping for, and it doesn’t matter. When we finished shopping, we got into line. A lady got into line behind us. She was in uniform – and I knew that meant she should go before us – but more interestingly, I noticed that she was fat.
She was extremely, undeniably fat. In fact, she was fatter than any lady I had ever seen before. She was weird-fat.
My older sister was distracted, and as the baby of the family, I took my opportunity. I was very proud of myself for having deduced these facts all by myself. I turned to my mother, and blandly announced something like, “Mom. She’s in uniform. She needs to go first. Plus, just look at her. She’s… different.” [At the age of four, Southern manners had already established a beachhead in my brain. I knew how to use euphemisms.]
My mother grabbed me with more force than normal, and marched me to the walkway, away from prying eyes, leaving my sister to hold our place in line.
She bent down to me, staring intensely into my eyes. “Don’t ever say that again. That’s wrong,” she furiously hissed.
“What? Why? But, she is! What…?” I stammered.
“She is no different than you and me. We are no better than she is. Do you understand me?” my mother demanded.
“What are you talking about?” I begged, pointing back to the checkout line for emphasis. “She’s fat, Mom… Look!”
I can honestly say, there are few moments that stand out from my early childhood, but this is one of them. My mom froze for a moment, and I could actually SEE her thinking. She took a VERY long beat, turned back to me, and calmly explained:
“She is not fat. She is going to have a baby very soon. That’s her baby, inside her, and it’s almost ready to be born. That big tummy is not her. That’s her baby inside of her. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
I looked back at the lovely lady in uniform in the line, and tried to imagine that humongous stomach as a person. It seemed ridiculously far-fetched, but I was willing to take my mom’s word for it.
“A baby? Really? When? Now?”
As I remember it, my mom hugged me, and explained it would probably not happen that soon, but that you could never tell. I was right. We should definitely let her go first in line.
I was around four years old when I went shopping with my mom.
The story was just a funny family anecdote until I was in the fifth grade, and it happened again. For real this time.
You see, at The PX, my mom was concerned that I thought the lady in line behind us was different because she was black… not because she was fat (pregnant).
My parents – who are awesome beyond the bounds of all expectation – never gave me the race stuff. To anyone raised with it, I cannot explain being raised without it. My best analogy is, imagine a world where curly and straight hair were germane differentiations… Where they were incredibly powerful sociopolitical identifiers. Now imagine that your parents taught you that hair was just hair.
[SIDEBAR: My hair is kinkier than… well, anything!]
When I was 10, wanted to ask Aklilu to my first school dance. He was not only smarter than anyone I had ever met, but he was nice, and he was a fantastic friend. [I believe in modern parlance, this is referred to as a “triple-threat.”]
The Principal called my parents to explain that this simply could not be tolerated, this potential interracial abomination. [Pre-pubescent 10-year-olds dancing to FM radio hits? SCANDAL!]
I was 10 years old. He was my best and most-admired friend. I’m not saying that if I were 16, I wouldn’t have leapt on him like a firefighter on a flaming victim. I’m just saying… I was ten. It wasn’t in the cards.
My parents explained the denial to me, but it was quite a different conversation than the one my mother had with me when I was four:
“Aklilu’s no different than you and me. We are no better than he is, but they can’t see that. You can’t go together. Do you understand what I am saying to you?”
Dear Reader, I didn’t understand then, and I didn’t pretend to. I was plenty pissed, and I believe I made that clear the way a 10-year old does to her parents.
I’m still pissed now.
If Aklilu ever found me, I would find a way to make that dance-date-that-never-was a dance date that he would never forget.
I could do it.