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Morning Is a Long Time Coming
By Bette Greene
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Bette Greene
All rights reserved.
At the very moment Mrs Turner began piano playing "Pomp and Circumstance," we graduates were given the nod to march on "with dignity." Our gym was divided for the occasion into two equal sections of people, most of whose behinds overlapped their narrow metal folding chairs. Even though a gym is always a gym, the freshly strung crepe paper, along with the grandeur of Sir Edward Elgar's music, made it feel as though this was a place where something important was about to happen.
But unless I'm mightily mistaken, it didn't smell altogether different. For I could still smell the sour sweat of yesterday's basketball players mingling with the soap and perfumed dusting powder of today's graduates.
"With dignity," I took my seat on the stage along with the other seventeen graduates of Jenkinsville High School (class of 1950) and began searching the audience for familiar faces. I knew practically everybody by sight and most of those I could hang a name onto. In the first row was the biggest landowner in all of Rice County, Arkansas, Mr. J. G. (for James Grady) Jackson and his wife. And next to them was Gussie Fields, who has been clerking in my father's store since even before her husband died.
And two rows behind Gussie were my father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Harry M. (for Morry) Bergen, and my kid sister, Sharon (alias "the pretty Bergen girl" and I've even heard her referred to as "the sweet Bergen girl"). It's her black hair with just a hint of a widow's peak and her oval face that encourages people to say, "She's the spitting image of her mother." But the thing that really amazes me about Sharon is that she's the only one of us Bergens who seemed to be born in this world knowing exactly the right thing to say ... and do.
And next to Sharon are my grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Fried, who drove all the way from Memphis—forty miles—just to see me graduate.
Standing before the lectern, Superintendent Begley (he hates being called Coach Begley on formal occasions) was saying, "We're all real pleased and honored today to have as our commencement speaker one of Arkansas's up-and-coming young politicians. so lets give a big hand of welcome to, State Representative Billy Bruce Stebbins."
A whole burst of welcoming applause greeted Mr. Stebbins, who folks say is a good bet to be governor someday. He's got about every qualification. A few years ago he was a star football player at the University of Arkansas and later on he killed enough Germans to qualify as a genuine World War II hero. And frankly speaking, his poppa's money—the E. P. Stebbins of E. P. Stebbins & Sons, Ginners—won't hurt him. Not a bit.
With his back against us graduates and his face toward the guests, Billy Bruce Stebbins said that he was here today to bring a "personal message" to us graduating seniors. Right off, it struck me strange that anybody would say something personal with their back against you, but maybe that was only because he hadn't as yet reached the personal part.
"Six years ago, I was honored to have helped my country win their world war. I was there, ladies and gentlemen, when America called me. I was there when, with some help from our allies, this great Christian country of ours crushed the Axis powers to smithereens." He stuck his hands in his pockets in a way that showed that here at last was one man who'd never run from a fight.
"So you say we destroyed Hitler and Mussolini and that little Jap, Hirohito, so we've done our job. Nothing more to do!" The representative let his words lay uneventfully on his audience before suddenly bellowing out, "Well, is that what you all think?"
When the only sound that came back was the half-echo of his own question, he supplied, "No, ladies and gentlemen, that is not what right-thinking Americans led by real true patriots like Senator Joe McCarthy and I believe. No, sir, not by a long shot! We Americans have got to stand like Christian martyrs against any and all those faceless, Godless isms. Fascism! Communism! And Socialism!"
He talked on and on about "alien ideologies" and how we Americans can't one bit more accommodate ourselves to the Russians than we could to the Germans. After a while, I noticed that some of the audience couldn't quite accommodate themselves to their skinny chairs. Finally Mr. Stebbins half-turned from the audience toward us graduates, and I suspected that at long last our own "personal message" was coming right up.
"And so it is to you, the fine young men and girls of the 1950 Jenkinsville graduating class, that I want to personally tell, each and every one of you, that you MUST stand straight and tall against all Godless teachings in whatever form they are presented. And always remember this: All of us Christians represent God's very own soldiers. Soldiers who are never afraid to fight!"
The applause that sounded for his ending remarks seemed a whole lot less vigorous than the applause that had first welcomed him, but it's really hard to judge that sort of thing. So I could be mistaken.
After Coach—I mean Superintendent Begley thanked Mr. Stebbins, he introduced all of our class officers before turning the program over to our class president, Edna Louise Jackson, who gave a grand speech called "Jenkinsville High School, Farewell."
I told myself that just because I was passed over for class office is no reason for me to feel bad. After all I'm not really a leader like a president or a vice president has got to be.
But probably more important, I stand convicted of exactly two crimes too many. The first charge is premeditated murder (after-the-fact—more than nineteen hundred years after the fact) of one Jesus Christ. Around here it is put more emotionally but less legally than that: "It was your people who killed our Lord."
Once the charge was even made in home ec class (of all places!) by our teacher, Mrs. Henrietta Gibbons. I raised my hand to answer the lie, and when my hand wasn't recognized by Mrs. Gibbons, I stood up anyway and spoke my piece. "Mrs. Gibbons," I said in a voice trembling with fear and anger, "historians who don't seem to have quite so many axes to grind as Baptists say that it was Roman soldiers and not Jews who committed that crime!"
Anyway, I think I should have been elected class correspondent even though Juanita Henkins can spell and punctuate rings around me. Because her vocabulary is rudimentary compared to mine. And that's the truth!
It's not because I'm smart, it's only because words are my hobby. I would never want anybody from around here to know this, but I began studying Webster's Elementary School Dictionary when I was in the second grade. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had graduated to Webster's Collegiate. And just last year my grandparents gave me the great Webster's Second International Dictionary. Unabridged and indexed and on genuine India paper. But then it oughta be great. It cost twenty-five dollars!
But since my vocabulary isn't that noticeably great, I wouldn't have felt quite so upset about Juanita's being the class correspondent if I wasn't already a professional writer. I've written articles ranging from the Rice County Horse Show to the big Earle fire to the time last winter when Mr. Conrad Ellis, legislative assistant to Senator Fulbright, spoke before the Jenkinsville Rotary Club.
Now my being a stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal may not exactly intimidate Pearl Buck, but at fifteen cents per column inch, it's not exactly nothing either. So would it have been so terrible for my classmates—far too much of a concession to this outsider—if they had allowed me to be class correspondent?
Besides having all the usual reasons for wanting one of the nine class honors, I guess I had still another reason. I needed an honor. Something that could erase from people's consciousness the memory of my second crime. Anything to blot out some of the dishonor!
I'm making too much of it. After all, spending nine weeks in a reform school didn't exactly make me a convict ... did it? Besides, I truly believe that everybody has more or less forgotten all about that by now.
Sometimes though when I'm with somebody who seems especially nice, I want to ask them, personally speaking, if they ever think about that anymore. About what I did. But I always stop myself just in time because I know that it would only serve to remind people of the very thing that I need them to forget.CHAPTER 2
Suddenly Mrs. Turner struck up a livelier, more spirited "Pomp and Circumstance" and we graduates marched triumphantly off the stage and out the door into the gym's dressing rooms. First thing Edna Louise Jackson and Juanita Henkins did was to bring out little mirrored compacts to apply fire-engine-red lipstick while Jimmy Wells shouted for quiet. "I have a big surprise for everybody!"
When the noise level dropped to almost bearable, Jimmy announced in capital letters, "Surprise everybody! I have joined the United States Marines!"
Trying to become more of a member of the festivities than I actually felt, I sang out, "Anchors aweigh, my boy ..."
Jimmy, looking for the world as though the one thing that he hadn't patience for was simple dumbness, stood incredibly straight and in a voice that was occasionally on key sang out, "From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli ... We will fight our country's battles, on the land as on the sea...."
"Boys and girls ... boys and girls!" Mrs. Turner came into the room wearing a look that could only be described as undiluted rapture. "I want you all, each and every one of you all, to know that you did yourselves proud. That was about the finest graduation that any school has ever had. Congratulations and I'm sure that you'll all do just fine in the life ahead."
Mrs. Turner further advised us to take "a breather" for the next ten minutes or so or at least until the auditorium chairs were taken off the floor and the sweet table brought on.
I felt inside the pocket of my graduate's gown for my lipstick and pocket comb and then went to the only place in the gym where they have a mirror. The girls' toilet. Just as I had feared, the place smelled of unflushed urine and just as I feared, I began backing out the door. "Oh, come on," I encouraged myself, "the smell of a little pee isn't going to kill me."
I held my breath as I went on with my personal beautification. Finally when I had to come up for air, I told myself not to worry about it because a lot more lethal than this odor is my mother commenting for the whole world's edification on some variation of the theme: How can Patricia go around looking the way she does? And then followed by the inevitable conclusion: Because she's a born slob who doesn't care how she looks. Only the last half of that is a lie. Because, you see, Mother, I do care. I do very much care.
The gym was now cleared of its folding chairs and in its place were dozens of people clusters. Many of the clusters had a black-garbed graduate as a nucleus. The very largest cluster, though, had our pink-cheeked state representative at its core.
And there on the opposite side of the cookie and punch table was my very own cluster of five. I felt vaguely embarrassed about my grandparents. They looked too prosperous, too non-Protestant, and far too citified for this poor, rural bible-belt community. I guess my own parents once seemed that way too, but after twenty years of running the biggest store in Jenkinsville surely everybody should be very used to them, by now.
At my cluster's hub, not surprisingly, was Mother, whose carefully preserved beauty struck me afresh. Only a few times—on a few rare moments—have I actually been able to translate her obviously admirable features and lovely figure into beauty. But because just about everybody else automatically makes the translation, I know that it has to exist, only not for me. Not at all for me.
Maybe I'll give her an honest compliment. Tell her how beautiful she looks. Well, why not! Aren't graduations a time to put away old things? To try for new beginnings?
When my grandpa saw me approach, he broke out into a little run to greet me with a full wraparound hug. "Mazeltov, my darling Patricia! Hmmm ... such a graduate."
Then Grandma placed her freshly lipsticked lips against my cheek and I got to hoping that her red print wouldn't stain me for the duration of the day.
Without actually making contact, my father made a slight kissing sound next to my cheek. And as I turned to give my mother my compliment, she gave me an obligatory kiss and an obligatory smile before saying, "I see you've combed your hair. Too bad you didn't remember to do that before the ceremony."
I must have combed my hair before the procession. I couldn't have forgotten something that important, could I? An image of how horrendous I looked with my hair as unkempt as an orangutan thrust itself upon me. I felt private fury over my public humiliation.
"I was really hoping, Mother"—I heard the sounds of a hurt little girl within my own voice—"that on my graduation day you would have been able to find something nice to say."
"Well, I certainly did," she insisted. "I said your hair sure does look a heck of a lot better now than it did while you were up there on that stage."
I remember asking my mother years ago why was it that she said so many things that hurt my feelings. And I can still see her laughing riotously as though she were enjoying herself for the first time in a long time. "You oughta thank me," she said. "'Cause I'm the only one who cares enough about you to tell the truth. Are you such a baby, Patricia, that you'd let the truth hurt?"
Maybe those had been the words that had robbed me of my clean, unobstructed right to anger. All I know for sure is that somewhere, someplace, my private fury became mixed and muddled with guilt every time she made me her victim. Was it fair to become angry with her just because I was too much of a baby to handle the truth?
But one question continued to nag at me: Was she actually saying all these hurtful things for my own good? And were her constant reminders about my hair, my clothes, and my general lack of attractiveness actually painful or did it only seem to be so to supersensitive me? Because what wounds me wouldn't necessarily wound anybody else. And certainly wouldn't wound her. Or would it?
After all, I can't believe—I mean, why on earth would a person who's supposed to love me stretch so far to maim me? If there's an answer then I would like to know what that answer could be. Cause I don't know. I really don't know!
I guess it was Madame Curie, more than anybody else, who showed me what it was I had to do.
Lying across my bed one evening last winter, I was reading a biography of the great scientist which told how she had to laboriously go through eight tons of pitchblende to isolate just one gram of radium.
Well, in some way, it struck me that I had to do that too. Had to scientifically find a way to isolate the essential gram of truth from among Mother's vast volume of words and actions.
If I could devise a kind of replica of one of my mother's insults and then use it against her while at the same time proclaiming that I'm only doing it in the name of love, how would she respond? If she didn't bleed, wouldn't that prove that there was nothing wrong or brutal about her and her words? That there is only something off target with me for reacting so vehemently to so little stimulation?
By the time I had perfected my plan for isolating my own gram of reality, several weeks had passed and it was Thursday, December 29. I told myself that it was necessary for me to wait two more days. Mustn't dilute the effect. Must wait until she was most vulnerable—until New Year's Eve.
She was wearing a silver lamé evening dress which hugged the generous, but still surprisingly solid, curves of her thirty-eight-year-old body. And even without the upper swell of her breasts, she would have received attention. Had to give her credit for that.
She fluffed her black almost shoulder-length hair away from her ears, while her diamond earrings caught the light from the vanity table's lamp. I watched her eyes coyly flutter up and down just as though she was already beginning to enjoy the masculine attention that she would soon receive.
I drifted deeper into her bedroom to lean against the edge of her pink satin bedspread. "Getting ready for the big dance?" I asked pleasantly while wondering if I had either the heart or the stomach to follow through on the plan. But I had to. Had to end the confusion and the guilt. Once and for all, I had to know if I had the right to my own anger.
"If I talk to you, you'll make me late."
Excerpted from Morning Is a Long Time Coming by Bette Greene. Copyright © 1978 Bette Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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