Certain things shape you, change you forever. Years later, long after you think you've escaped, some ordinary experience flings you backward into memory, transports you to a frozen moment, and you freeze. Being poor is like that. Living surrounded by fear and rage is like that. I grew up hating the cold, dreading the approach of night. Thirty years later, a too-cold room at night can trigger a flash of terror, or a wash of ineffable sadness. Voices raised in anger can still make me shrink. Every now and then, a sudden, innocent move by my husband makes me duck to protect myself. It took many years for me to think of night as a time of rest.
I can't remember what awakened me firstmy mother's urgent voice, the thick, sooty smoke, or the blasts of icy air through our bedrooms.
"Get up, Ro, go sit in the kitchen while I air out this room." I had bronchitis, and the smoke was already starting to bother me. I stumbled through the dark into the dim kitchen, lit only by the burners on the gas stove and the faint flicker from the broiler. The oven door was open, and though the rest of the room was still cold, the space near the stove was almost toasty. I coughed a little as my mother brought my brothers and sister into the kitchen, then disappeared downstairs.
The house's boiler was out again. An ancient coal contraption, it always seemed to go on the blink in the dead of winter, pumping thick black smoke through the house. Whenever this happened, only turning the boiler off until the morning would alleviate the problem. There was a janitor for our building, but Mama often knew more about the boiler than he did.
Mama came back upstairs and led us back to bed in the now-frigid room. We climbed into our beds as she went through the rooms closing the windows again. It was four A.M. or so; in a couple of hours it would be time to get up. But Mama wouldn't sleep anymore that night. Already I could hear her putting one of two big buckets into the kitchen sink. She would fill them with water and place them on the back burners of the stove so we'd have hot water for washing up. By morning, the water in the house would be ice-cold. As long as the stove was on, someone had to stay awake. That someone was always Mama.
Poor, afraidthese were not the only things I was. There were long stretches of time when I gave no thought to my condition. I was black, I was a girl, I was smart, I was the oldest of four: these were the things I knew about myself; this was the knowledge I held on to in my own little universe. My world was an area of twenty square blocks on the South Side of Chicago, bounded by Forty-third Street to the north and Forty-seventh Street to the south, and by Drexel Boulevard to the west and Woodlawn Avenue to the east. The neighborhood was called Kenwood-Oakland in better times, but those times had come and gone.
That cold room, that ancient boiler, that shabby kitchenthey are gone, too. A vacant lot dotted with old trucks and cars is all that remains of the building I grew up in4466 South Berkeley Avenue. Ours was the corner building; a once-grand limestone mansion with a stone porch and beveled-glass windows, it had been hastily converted into several overpriced apartments. Berkeley Avenue was the kind of street where folks sat on their porches and played cards and drank wine. Neighbors fixed their cars in the street and changed their own oil, watching it run down into the sewer grates. Women waited on the watermelon man and the vegetable man, with their green, horse-pulled wagons, to shop for staples on Saturday. Our street was the kind of place where everyone knew each other by sight, and most likely by name: Miss Elizabeth and Mr. Jones; Yvonne and Jessie; Mr. Bob and Mr. Brown; Mama Woodward and Miss Kathy and Stafford, Clorine, and Rowena; Mr. Davis and Mrs. Davis and Diane and Deborah. And then there was us: Mrs. Bray and her four children. People rarely spoke of our father, except in rueful, hesitant tones. They knew enough about him to know they wanted no part of him.
The block itself was unremarkable, typical of the transitional neighborhoods in ghettos throughout Chicago. The buildings were mostly low-rise limestones and brick townhouses, interspersed with large apartment buildings. Directly across the street from us were the two biggest apartment buildings on the block. I always wondered what they were like on the inside, but we never even walked on that side of the street. The residents were the folks you heard at nightfighting, drinking, yelling at each otherwhen you were trying to sleep. The tenants regarded our family with great curiosity, but let us be.
If you walked two blocks to Forty-third Street, the limestones and apartment buildings gave way to once well-kept stores with prices too steep for us. The local department store, Alden's, sold a little bit of everything. Shoes and dresses, coats and hats. We looked a great deal, but we didn't touch. Our regular stops were the Walgreen's on the corner, the newsstand, the A & P and the High-Low Foods, and, every now and then, the bakery in mid-block. It was a memorable place, not only for its pastry, but for its decorative blue mirrors, which lent the place a serene charm. I used to like to go in there just to see them. What most of the stores had in common was that white people ran them. Occasionally, someone black worked in them, but if there was ever a question, someone had to find a white man or woman with the answer. Yet I had never seen any white people living near us.
I didn't know it, but all of us were part of a great urban transition taking place in the Black Belt, a stretch of Chicago that extended roughly from Thirty-ninth Street to Sixty-third Street, from Lake Michigan on the east to as far west as Western Avenue, though we never considered such far-flung streets as "our neighborhood." The neighborhood we lived in was once an exclusive area occupied by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a situation that changed in the 1920s when German Jews began to arrive. The trickle became a wave in the years during and after World War II, and by 1950, 85 percent of Kenwood was populated by German Jews. In just ten years it would become 85 percent Negro. It was the same all along the Black Belt: between 1940 and 1960, the population of black Chicago would grow from 278,000 to 813,000. Ours was the kind of neighborhood that urban pioneers would, thirty years later, fight to resettle, to turn into a showcase of gentrification. (On Oakenwaldonce a street so thick with gang members that Mama forbade us to walk thereone of the renovated limestones recently sold for $200,000.) Landlords took advantage of a combination of factors, including the profound residential segregation still common in Chicago and the dearth of housing for black families in these last days before the advent of public housing. Thus the six of us came to be wedged into a first-floor apartment originally designed as the public space of an impressive home.
Our front door opened from the hallway into the living room. The room was furnished with a couch covered in a green-blue, faintly iridescent fabric, where Mama slept each night, and a stuffed chair, a bookcase I pretended was mahogany, and a gigantic console radio. To the left, through a set of curtains, was the children's bedroom. To the right was an enormous room with built-in cabinets. This clearly used to be the dining room; for us, it was both dining room and kitchen. Next to that was a kind of alcove, complete with a little closet where Mama stored the old wringer washer she sometimes used. Across from the alcove was the one bathroom in the apartment, painted a succession of ghastly colorsexcept for a memorable coat of emerald green enamel, which I loved because I was a May baby, and emerald was my birthstone.
At the other end of the apartment were a back door and two rooms. One room, which was unheated, was used as a storage room. Mama kept the rollaway bed in there, and an old desk, and a big orange freezer that Daddy had hustled for her somewhere. Mama kept a clothesline hanging in that room, for drying clothes we were in no hurry to wear.
The other room was Daddy's room. It contained a dresser, a chifforobe where he kept his clothes from a past, flashy life, a double bed with a patterned headboard, and a night table adorned with pill bottles, a lamp, and a radio. There were also two ice-cream-parlor chairsthe kind with bentwood backs. The pair had been painted every conceivable color; you could see the layers that had chipped away from long abuse.
I knew a lot about those chairs. Sometimes we sat in themgathered around my father's bed like soldiers at the campfire, listening to grandly told stories of adventure. Sometimes they fell victim to my father's rage, tipping over as Daddy lunged forward to beat one or more of us for some infraction. Sometimes they were used for the interrogation of my mother. Daddy would scream at her to sit her big ass down, and he'd close the door to berate her away from our terrified eyes. Sometimes I glimpsed her through a crack in the door; she'd be sitting in one of those chairs, wearing a flowered housedress, my father looming over her, screaming, cursing.
"You lying, no-good whore!"
I lay in my bed in the front room, crying in the dark. Two rooms away, my father continued his tirade against my mostly silent mother. I could tell from the air on my face that the room was ice-cold; the boiler was out again and the whole building most likely was freezing.
"You think I don't know about all your men, you stinking bitch? You think I'm some kind of damn fool?"
I heard my mother murmuring what might have been an answer. Then I heard the slapping sound of flesh against flesh, and the thump of my mother's body against a wall. I knew they struggled, because I could hear the grunts they made as Mama tried to defend herself and Daddy continued to attack her. The floor .vibrated with the blows from their wrestling bodies. It felt as though they were fighting right up under my bed.
"You think I don't see all these men after your ass, you no-good whore? They used you up, bitch!" Daddy was screaming, growing hoarse with the effort, but the more hoarse he became, the louder he got. I could tell from the sniffles in the room that I wasn't the only one awake. My brothers and sister could hear them fighting, too. But I didn't say anything out loud. I was too busy monitoring the dreadful silences between his tirades, wondering whether he had killed Mama, straining to hear the murmur of her voice that would tell me she was abused, but still alive.
He started in again, with more blows, the sharp slap of his hand against my mother carrying clear through the house. I jumped up from my bed and ran through the cold rooms to where they were. "Leave her alone," I screamed. "Get away from her! "
Both of them turned toward me, standing in the doorway.
"Get your little ass back in that bed," my father snarled.
"I'm all right, Ro. Go on to bed, baby," my mother said, in the same moment. "He's not hurting me." Her voice was warm, but anxious; she didn't move from the chair.
"Stop hitting her! Why do you have to hit her?" I didn't understand what he was so angry about. Why couldn't they smile at each other, hug and kiss the way folks did on television?
Daddy ignored me, turning his attention to Mama. I wanted to go to Mama, protect her, make Daddy stop. But I knew if I stayed, he would turn on me, cut my skin with the leather belt he wielded, sometimes without regard to where its buckle was. I was too afraid to stay, ashamed of being so young, so small that I couldn't defend her. All I could do was go back to bed and lie there, listening to the ebb and flow of my father's rage, waiting for it to subside enough for me to sleep a little, crying and asking God to make it stop, hating the night and longing for morning.
In the morning, I woke up before my brothers and sister to the sound of the back door slamming and the distant roar of a starting car. My mother was in the kitchen, singing some spiritual under her breath. I was filled with an aching relief. He was gone for the day; Mama was all right. I went into the kitchen to see for myself, and she was there, in her flowered duster, getting ready to fry bacon, the dull silver of the coffeepot winking from the back burner of the stove. Mama had already poured herself a cup of coffee, which she sipped as she worked. When she saw me at the doorway, she smiled a little and reached over for a purple cup and saucer made of melamine. The cup was cracked and stained from too much use, but it was beautiful to me, a symbol of quiet time with her. She poured in a little coffee and a lot of milk, stirred in some sugar, and presented it to me at the kitchen table. All the while she worked, Mama talked.
"We have to wash clothes today, and go to the store. I need some neck bones. I'm going to boil them down with potatoes and onions, and make us up some corn bread. That ought to be a good dinner. I need soap powder too, but I got enough bleach...."
I sat next to her, safe for the moment, listening to her make the list of things to do that day. It felt good when Mama confided in me about the work of the household, and I tried to be a help to her in every way I knew how. But the thing I wanted to do most, I couldn't do. I couldn't make Daddy leave her alone. I couldn't make them stop screaming, or make them act like the mothers and fathers on television. I couldn't make peace.
For all her passivity about my father, Mama was unbending in her insistence on a set of standards for herself and for us. We represented her, and she refused to tolerate anything that smacked of rude or thoughtless behavior. She was much kinder in her strictures than Daddy, but no less firm: there were kids we could play with and kids we couldn't, folks we could associate with and others to whom we were permitted to exhibit only a perfunctory politeness. "I hate a bum," she used to say as we followed her from chore to chore, and much of her time was spent distinguishing herself from the people she thought were bums.
My mother's endurance was a mystery to me. I understood why she said she could not leave us. I was grateful that she refused to disappear. But what I never understood was how she was able to do what she did for as long as she did it. It was my mother's genius at making do, combined with a vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor, that made our lives work as well as they did. Yet there were no kind words for her, no respite, nothing to look forward toexcept, perhaps, the dream, a conviction that our lives somehow would be different. There was only the relentless quest for survival.
She shopped ruthlessly, bargained, cajoled, charmed storekeepers and managers of all the little stores along Forty-third Street, where we shopped. She brought us with her everywhere she went, so there could be no denying that she had several mouths to feed. The butcher shop, redolent with the smells of sawdust and uncooked meat, was a place where she bargained for an extra piece of meat or a spare neck bone. She knew people sometimes felt sorry for her, and she didn't care, if it meant more food for her kids. Contrary to my father's opinion, she was not running around on him. There was no time or opportunity to cheat on your husband with four kids in tow. But she could have if she'd wanted to, because my mother was a big, pretty woman with sparkling eyes, and the men in the neighborhood noticed her. Even as a little girl, I came to recognize the slow drawl and insinuation in the voices of men who offered to help my mother with all those packages and all those kids. My mother always declined any offers, except for those from a couple of very familiar neighbors. I suspect that Daddy had taught my mother everything about men that she ever wanted to know. The result was the suppressionif not the endof her desires. We became, and remained, her primary passion.
Mama's food store of choice was High-Low Foods on Forty-third Street near Drexel. Part of a small local chain that no longer exists, it offered sometimes slightly spoiled, always overpriced food that was nonetheless cheaper than the food at more prominent chains, such as A & P. For Mama, the most important aisle was the one with canned goodsrows and rows of them in bins stacked three high. There were pork and beans, creamed corn, mixed vegetables, sardines, Vienna sausages, and potted meat, all at ten cents a can. If she had the cart with her, she could roll home dozens of cans of everything it took to make a meal to stretch for six. Jack salmon was twenty-five cents a can. Jiffy corn bread mix was a dime a box; so was piecrust mix. We helped out of necessity, scurrying around the store like couriers, searching for forgotten items. If bacon was on sale, that meant baked beans with strips of bacon on top. If potted meat was plentiful that week, it meant lunches of potted meat sandwiches and mayonnaise with sweet pickle. If Mama found salmon, she could mix it with eggs and flour to make salmon croquettes.
Later, we would go to the A & P for frozen orange juice, milk and sugar, and Cheerios or cornflakes for breakfast. It was Mama's chance to say hello to Miss Mildred, who worked at the checkout counter. And it was a chance to earn Plaid stamps, which Mama kept in a drawer. Every few weeks, we'd all get redemption books and sit around on Saturday night, pasting in the stamps, talking about what we could get. Mama once used them to buy clippers to cut my brothers' hair; she still has those clippers. She got a really nice set of drinking glasses, too, that we could use for the holidays; they had white flowers etched on them. Most days, we used old jelly jars and some aluminum cups we had.
Food stamps made things easier. The formal Food Stamp program began in selected areas of the United States in 1961. I cannot remember a time when we did not have those slender coupon books, put aside in an old purse my mother kept in a dresser drawer. For a certain amount of money each month, say fifty dollars, you could buy sixty-five dollars' worth of food stamps. There was a host of rules about their use; no toilet paper or diapers were permitted, but milk and bread and other food staples were allowed. Stamps had to be in their books. You weren't allowed to tear out a five-dollar coupon and run to the store for some basics. And in the early days of the program, even your change at the checkout came to you in food-stamp coins: plastic disks of burgundy or gray.
Mama bought food stamps at the same place she conducted all of her AFDC-related business: at the currency exchangethe closest thing to a bank in the ghettos of Chicago. In other cities, these are known as check-cashing places. Whatever they're called, they are the financial institutions of the poor. Mama cashed her check there and bought food stamps, got money orders to pay the phone company and the gas company, even bought stamps to mail her bills. The charge for their services: as much as 1 percent of the total amount cashed. Not terrible, but enough for us to notice.
The endless counting of change, the rush to search out dropped pennies, the constant monitoring of the curbs and vacant lots for empty pop bottlesthese are the memories that exhaust me. I am profligate with money in response to all those years of relentless scrimping. I flail against them by going into grocery stores and buying what I like. I never look at prices; I don't want to know. I simply shop until the money runs out, determined in this one thing at least to have what I want: not the things that are cheaper, not the things on sale, definitely not the generic, no-frills food that reminds me of the packages of government food we sometimes got from church. I had no shame about eating it; it didn't taste worse than the other food we ate. But to see those packages now, to actually buy them and keep them in my house, would mean I had gone backward, and one of the few things my mother and father agreed on was the importance of never going backward. Whenever you move, they always said, go forward.