This entry is a continuation of “Slow Pirouette for the Dancing Girl.”
When the police and DCYF officials came ready to knock down the door of the apartment I shared with my mother in the projects, the real blow was to my mother’s psyche – not the metal frame as it shook on its hinges. She had already lost custody of one child. When they took me away that Easter day, I felt like I was the one disappointing her, not the other way around.
By nightfall, I found myself in a warmly-lit kitchen. My new foster mother was clucking her tongue, looking sideways at me.
“Poor thing.” she said.
I knew I looked a mess. My mother had hacked the hair off the left side of my head with scissor-wielding determination. I had raised red welts all over my back and behind, and I came only with the clothes on my body.
There was some sort of hullaballoo against placing me with a White foster family, though, and the next morning I was shuffled to my next foster home. That’s when I met Pearl.
Pearl was an old Jamaican lady. Her house smelled of moth balls, tissue paper, old carpet and spice. I had my own room there. She gave me a small, white, leather-bound copy of the New Testament.
Sundays were an affair. Her children – all grown – would come over and bring us to church. Baptist services were wall-to-wall Black people. The men came in handsome, well-cut suits with their hair trimmed tight. Women donned dresses in primary colors with big buttons. And the hats they wore! Afterwards, Pearl’s children would gather back at the house to share Sunday dinner. There was rice and peas cooked with salty ham hocks and hot, sweet plaintains.
I’m not sure why DCYF thought I would be more comfortable with a Black foster family. True, they had placed me with a Black foster family from the time I was born until I was three. And yeah, I spent ages three to six with my Italian mother and Black father.
But after my parents broke up, it was just me and my Italian momsy. And occasionally my Italian grandma (Mom’s mom) with the Chicken Cacciatore and wooden crucifixes all over her house.
When I arrived at Pearl’s house, I could pronounce “cacciatore,” and I knew that a rosary wasn’t a necklace. But I initially thought a plantain was a banana, and I had no idea why all the Black people were clapping and singing so loudly in church.
From that moment on, I was no longer half Black and half White. I was a little girl who was messed up in the head. And Pearl was amused.
First, there was the issue of my hair. I had to switch to Chittick Elementary School to finish out the rest of second grade, and Pearl wasn’t going to let me go looking a mess like I did. She wanted to put greasy stuff in it, but I wanted nothing to do with that slime. My mother didn’t slick me down like a sea otter with petroleum jelly. Why did this lady want to?
I had a new list of things I wasn’t allowed to do. Pearl taunted me endlessly, telling me that little girls who talked aloud to themselves were crazy. How was I supposed to know that? Momsy talked to herself out loud a lot. I saw nothing wrong with it. It was just putting the thoughts on the outside instead of the inside.
Despite my crazy hair and my crazier self-directed dialogues, Pearl always praised me for being well-behaved. Other foster children had come and gone, some taking Pearl’s property with them. She described them as thieves and violent little miscreants who swore at her and wouldn’t show any gratitude for having a place to lay their heads.
I might have been able to get away with the talking to myself thing if it wasn’t for a little experiment gone awry.
I had a habit of taking a long bath and having a nice chat with myself while I soaked. When I was through, I’d throw a yellow towel on my head and pretend I had long, blonde hair.
I decided one day that, as long as I had the blonde hair going for me, I might as well see what I would look like if I were White.
I took the big plastic shaker of Johnson’s Baby Powder and covered myself. Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes. Eyelashes, behind the ears (careful to avoid the mouth) and nose.
Michael Jackson may be older, but I did it first. I looked at myself in the mirror.
I. Was. White.
Nonplussed, I decided it was kind of boring being pale. Plus, some of the baby powder got in my mouth and it didn’t taste good. At least I smelled nice.
Pearl came knocking at the door to the bathroom.
“Emily? What is taking you so long in ther . . . chile! What are ya doin’ to yourself? What are you, crazy?”
I hadn’t planned on getting caught.
After I finished second grade, I moved from Boston to live with my maternal grandparents in Florida. My grandmother (Mom’s step-mother) made sure that I wrote Pearl often, and we kept in touch for many, many years. But after awhile, the letters stopped coming. I don’t know how old she lived to be. What I do know is that pearls and baby powder will always be two of my favorite things.