Vol. 2 No. 6 2009



CHAPTER TWO
TIME ON THE CROSS

An Excerpt from a Memoir
By Fred Beauford

…And Mistakes Made Along the Way


I remember vividly the first night in the place we would call “home” for almost the next seven years. Our mother had dropped us off at a large house in a black, middle-class section of Buffalo, New York, called Cold Springs. That first night I lay in a strange new bed with my brothers, Richard and Robert. I started crying loudly, “I wantta go home. I wantta go home.”

Finally Richard said to me in a soft, sympathetic voice, “You are home.”

I remember stopping my crying and thinking about what he had just said, and immediately saw the logic of his words. I did not shed a single tear after that and promptly fell asleep.

At this point, I should say a few words about my mother. She had always been tight-lipped about her past, but I have been able to put together a narrative of sorts; one, to be sure, that may only be a figment of my imagination but that could explain how we had ended up at this “home”.

It seemed that when she was sixteen or so, some young, charming sharpie knocked her up. And it is easy to see why, because every male within a hundred miles of the farm must have had their eyes out for her, as she was extremely beautiful, a genuine beauty.

Still, in those days this was considered a major disgrace to the family, especially a prominent, proud family like the Morton’s, and either a hasty shotgun marriage was arranged, or, if the would-be beau was totally unacceptable, he ran for his life, and the girl was quietly sent away to a distant relative to have her baby.

In my mother’s case, she was sent to an older sister who was living in Asbury Park, then a lively resort city in New Jersey that offered a lot of work for poor, uneducated blacks from the south. That’s where Richard was born, and that’s where she met my father.

I know nothing about my father, just as Richard knew nothing about his. I don’t remember living with either my mother or my father.. I have a vague memory of my father taking me to a parade, and later, a crowded bar with a loud jukebox. However, I am not sure that that actually indeed did happen.

***

So there we were, in yet another home in Buffalo, New York. This “home,” which was to be our only home for the next seven years, was run by a heavy-set, dark-skinned woman by the name of Mrs. Thompson. She took kids in, who came from a variety of sources. At times, there was up to sixteen, or as few as four. Kids came and went (some deeply disturbed), but we stayed, year after year.

I have written about Mrs. Thompson in both essays and fiction. This woman, more than anyone else I have met in my life, has haunted my memories. Perhaps it was because it my first confrontation with pure evil. Here is how I had my character, the urbane, brilliant Art historian, Dr. Lawrence Ridley, in my novel, Orphans, describe her to his friend, a fellow orphan, the lovely Iris:

Professor Ridley continued speaking about the “home” that he knew. He was a thin, light brown-skinned man with a well trimmed little beard and small round glasses. He looked to be in his mid-forties, but he had just told Iris that he had just turned 50.

“The big five O.” he had said to her, widening his eyes in mock horror. Scorpio. And you?”

“Cancer.”

Iris didn’t bother to volunteer the information that she was five years older than him. He also looked exactly like what she would expect a college professor to look like.

“Terror, as you well know,” he continued, as he returned to the story of his younger life, “is random, unexpected violence;, the headlines in the newspapers and on television have taught us all that.” he said. “But our terror had nothing to do with religion, or territory, or oil; it was just about someone who wanted to control us poor wretched little orphans, for reasons I can only guess. We’d be sitting at the dinner table and she would just reach out and pop one of us hard upside the head. The poor victim would slowly pick him or her self off the floor and ask: ‘What did I do? What was that for?’

“Mrs. Thompson would just keep eating her fried chicken indifferently, not even bothering to look at the deeply hurt child.”

“You didn’t do anything,” she would say, finally. “That was just in case you might be thinking of doing something.”

“Oh my god!,” Iris said, her brown eyes opening wide in horror. She could feel the pain even more because she knew what being in a home meant; poor children trapped, with nowhere to go, and no one to tell their stories of woe to.

This wasn’t the early 50s, when married woman didn’t have first names, and men and women both wore hats. It was the late 50s and the early 60s, when few people cared about orphans, especially black ones.

“Her favorite little trick was to hide behind the door with her famous ironing cord, and light into us as we walked in the door,” Professor Ridley continued.

“WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! I can still feel the pain of that ironing cord and the confused panic as I tried to escape her. Jesus! How could anyone want to torment little children like that? I mean what did she get out of it? I still don’t understand it.”

Professor Ridley looked at Iris as if he wanted her to give him some answers to something that he had thought about most of his life.

He continued on, not waiting for an answer to his question. “But I personally escaped most of her wrath. For some reason, I had that old fat bitch wrapped around my little fingers. I became her willing slave. But in many ways, she became my willing slave. I would smile at her, flatter her, tell her how beautiful she was when she was going out, with her old-fashioned string of fox fur, each fox in a death bite on the other, wrapped around her neck.”

“You look so beautiful tonight, Mrs. Thompson,” I would say.

“Her fat, dark-skinned face would light up, and I knew I had her in my tiny little grip. I ran all her errands, washed her large back when she took her weekly bath, rubbed down her big tits with the soapy water, and warmed her bed for her when she went out, so that when she came back home late at night on wintry nights full of the cold and snow, she could climb into a warm comfortable bed, and lay next to my little body.

“I was able to steal money from her purse, a dime here, a dime there, nothing too much; and as I think about it, she probably knew I was stealing from her, but let me do so. I was able to buy food for myself and the other kids with that money, because we rarely had enough to eat.

“Yes, she used me, but I used her as well. I was the provider for the other kids, bringing them day-old donuts, which a nearby bakery sold by the bag for a dollar, and candy they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. I had figured out a way to help them. And I never told them how I did it. I just showed up with the food.”

As horrified as she was by his story, which he delivered with slow, professional calm, Iris instantly got it. Yes, she thought to herself, he was a clever, lovely, highly intelligent little charmer just like she had been.

He had the same instincts, and intuitive understanding of human nature that she was gifted with, which her poor brother, Stephan, did not share. Stephan was wrong about one thing: it wasn’t only women who had these skills. Professor Ridley was living proof of that.

***

As always, the fiction writer is never to be completely believed. His creations are often unreliable witnesses, not to be trusted, because they are people who never let truth get in the way of a good story, even though many people like to believe that most fiction is autobiographical (and most autobiography is really fiction!) But, after all, the very art and essence of the writer of fiction is the ability to tell a convincing lie.

In this case, the real story took place in the late 40s and early 50s, and the true hero in that home was not me, but my brother Richard. Yes, I took great pleasure in out-thinking and charming Mrs. Thompson, but it was a smart, deliberate, mental war. I worked quietly in the shadows; no one, not even my brothers, knew what I was up to.

Richard was openly defiant, saying in clear, unmistakable terms, “Fuck you bitch!” Her ironing cord didn’t intimidate him, although he was on the receiving end more often than anyone else. Richard was the one who would steal out of the upper floor window, cross the roof, and bring us back the day old donuts, and whatever other food he could lay his hands on.

That’s when I first discovered that it was a good thing to have a mean older brother that did wild and crazy things. I can see now that he was at once our father, mother and older brother, and that he took his role very seriously.

One day Mrs. Thompson told us that the woman who came to visit us once every few years was not really our mother, but a social worker. She would visit and sit quietly, but watchfully, in the living room with us and Mrs. Thompson. offering little.

I knew that low-life Mrs. Thompson was lying. But yet, there was still a small, nagging doubt. I wrote about these feelings in my novel, Orphans, as Professor Ridley’s related his story to his friend, Iris, who also grew up in a home from the tender age of four, with her brother Stephan, then eight, for 15 years.

His story stayed fixed in her mind, and flooded it with her own private memories:

By the time my mother died I barely knew her. I was 19, working, and living on my own. She was living in a home herself, in a large state institution on Long Island, NY, Pilgrim State Hospital. She was there those many years due to depression, and although she forayed out into the world on several occasions, she never could make it on her own.

remember what Professor Ridley said to me concerning his mother. It was so touching. He said he never knew her or his father. In that sense he was a truer orphan than I. He said he remembered walking the streets of Buffalo as a young child, and staring into the faces of women whom he imagined to be his mother’s age. He would look at them closely; even following them a few blocks just to get a better look, wondering if one of them was his mother. He hadn’t seen her since he was two or three.

“I saw my mother once on those streets, or at least in my young mind, I convinced myself that the woman I saw that day was my mother,” he told me.

“How could you tell? Did you know even what your mother looked like or that she even lived in the same town?” I asked.

“I think I heard she left for New York, or went back to her home in the south. Who knows? But I remembered that she was tall. Yes, tall, very tall and very beautiful. With soft, light brown skin and a kindly, intelligent face. That’s the woman I saw cross the street.

“I started following her. I walked carefully behind her for several blocks, often losing sight of her because of the other people on the street. I darted in and out of the people on the crowded street with my little self, pushing slow moving, unconcerned strollers out of the way, and trying my best to keep up with the woman that I just knew was my mother.

“But soon the other people enveloped her, and she just disappeared, never once noticing me.

“I thought about that wonderful, beautiful woman for months, and even dreamed that she came to The Home and kissed me good night, and promised me that she was going to come and take me away from the evil Mrs. Thompson.

“You promise me, momma?” I asked her, tears in my innocent young eyes.

“By now, I could see that she also had tears in her eyes. She pulled me to her and held me close to her breast.”

“Yes son, my beloved, handsome gifted son,” she said. “I’ll come and get you. Don’t you worry.”

“She started to softly rub my head in a slow, loving manner, so full of love, kindness, and deep sympathy for my unfortunate plight. She started humming quietly to herself a lullaby, and started rocking me back and forth. Soon, I was engulfed in a sound, peaceful sleep. I slept as only a young child would sleep if they were as sure as I, that they were loved and protected, and with the person who would never abandon them, but always love them unconditionally.

“Of course, she never came to rescue me. It was all in my mind, Iris. All in my mind, dear. Nevertheless, I came back to the same corner in Buffalo over and over again, but never again saw the woman who I spotted on the street that day, and who later came to me in my dreams; the woman who cried with me as she gently rubbed my head; the woman who I knew was my mother.”

I felt like shedding a heartfelt tear as my friend Professor Ridley calmly told me this story. How many times have I heard variations of that story over the years at The Home.

Of course their parents were tall! For a little kid, everyone was tall. But being tall told little. Some of the kids who had no idea who or what their parents were really like would tell me stories about how their “tall” parents were members of the Royal family from whatever country their ancestors were from. Others belonged to The Mafia. Or their fathers were great ballplayers; their mothers, great beauties. They were rich and lived in mansions and had colored servants. They were movie stars and friends of the President.

What I saw most was longing on the faces of the kids telling these stories. Their young faces would take on a faraway, dreamy look, as they described their wonderful, make-believe parents. I never interrupted them and told them they were full of it, as some kids would.

***

Wonderful, insightful writing. For once, the unreliable novelist got the story right, without too many embellishments and half-truths, and his story was highly nuanced, and brilliantly observed.

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