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Sunday Journal: Clarity arrives on a city bus

I was just 19 on Nov. 22, 1963, a failing student at Orlando Junior College, drifting away from any kind of education, disinterested in the possibilities that awaited me: teacher, nurse, secretary, housewife, mother. Like nearly everyone alive on that day, I remember where I was, walking from class to Scotland Yard, the oddly named campus center.

A boy I'd known from high school came out of the Yard crying. "They shot Kennedy," he said, the agony he felt apparent in his face.

"Good," I said.

I'm 64 now and this is the first time I've admitted to that repulsive, hideous, ignorant response. It wasn't as if I was political in any way. I was parroting my parents' fear of his presidency. Kennedy filled blacks with hope and some whites, but mostly Southern whites, with fear. As if granting justice, freedom and liberty to one race robbed the other. Thankfully, it makes no sense to me now.

I don't even know what my parents feared. My mother was from Iowa, Daddy from Nebraska. They'd probably never seen a black person until they moved to Detroit and adopted me. Even in Florida, where we were living, the only blacks in our lives were Jeff, our yardman, and Lucinda, our maid, who, by that time, had been with us for 12 years.

Lucinda was the ultimate in kindness — a friend, a confidant, a mediator between my menopausal mother and me, a hot-headed teenager. She emptied and washed the ashtray I hid under my bed and never told. She cried the day I graduated from high school, and hugged me with pride. She taught me to iron, in case I ever had to.

Like all kids, I never gave her existence much thought. I was home for a visit four years later when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I asked Mom how they could feel one way about all blacks and different about Lucinda. And she did. My mother loved Lucinda.

It was Lucinda who took care of my grandmother as Alzheimer's destroyed her mind. Daddy loved her, too. Later in life, it was he who kept me posted on Lucinda's failing health and called me crying when she died. But in 1968, when I asked my mother that question, she quoted an editorial she'd read about the difference between Southerners and Yankees, whom she blamed for stirring up the coloreds: "We love the individual and hate the race and Yankees love the race and hate the individual."

I nodded as if that made some kind of sense.

Lucinda's dashed hopes on the day Kennedy was killed never entered my mind, but just a few months later, my parents' ideologies and I parted ways.

My boyfriend used to drive me to school every day, but he'd gone to Virginia to see his family. That one and only time I would ever ride a city bus was fated to change me for the rest of my life.

Lucinda worked for us three days a week for $12 a day. She worked for another family the other two days. When I got on the bus, she was seated in the back in her pale gray uniform dress with starched white cuffs and collar. I paid the fare, smiled, waved and headed back to sit with her.

I remember her eyes. There was no joy to see me marching toward her. Instead she leaned, picked her huge purse off the floor and put it on the seat next to her. "You can't sit here, Ginny," she said when I was beside her.

She was looking past me, and though I was hurt and confused, I turned to see what could make her not want me to sit with her, make her drop a wall between us. The driver, though the light was green, held us all in place, the door still open, watching us — me — her — in his rearview mirror. Just a pair of cold eyes, staring. The other passengers were looking, too. In that instant all the hubbub about civil rights, Martin Luther King, the riots, the fire hoses, the "white only" bathrooms, lunch counters and drinking fountains, dawned on me and I did the most mature thing I'd ever done to date. I didn't "show the world" anything. I didn't risk Lucinda's safety by sitting beside her or across the aisle. I sat in front of her. I became the last white and she the first black in our respective sections. That satisfied the driver. When we were rolling, I turned sideways so we could talk. It would have been a good time to ask for forgiveness, but I hadn't gotten that far yet.

Forty-five years later, I have a chance to do what Lucinda only dreamed of and had never been permitted to do. I can vote, and this one, my dear, kind friend, I cast for you.

Ginny Rorby's novel "Hurt Go Happy" is a Sunshine State Reading award nominee.

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Sunday Journal: Clarity arrives on a city bus 11/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 6, 2008 12:13pm]

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