There’s the big canvas of history, and then there’s a small person’s perspective. What am I trying to say? I was very young when my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. So, I’ll do what I normally do, which is tell a little story about a woman I knew was important to the struggle, but who I recall as my parents’ friend. Remember, it’s personal, at the time I knew almost nothing of what she had been through or where she was going. I just remember I loved her.
Let’s call her…Ruth. She lived with her teenage children in a middle-class Black neighborhood called Baldwin Hills in the city of Los Angeles. She wrote studies that were noted in the press (I found out later), was called on frequently to speak on the news, and was an organizer and political activist. At home she spoke to me as if I were a vital part of any conversation and she spoiled me. I have a theory about that too. She doted on me because I was young and her own children were at that teenage stage where they thought they were going to rock the world and their mother was only standing in their way.
I don’t know why I had liberty to roam the halls of Ruth’s house when we visited, but I did. Her son had a TV in his room. I remember him sitting at his desk doing his homework and catching sight of me and gesturing me in to see somebody on the television:
Later at the dinner table Ruth’s son put up a spirited defense of introducing me to James Brown. I get the feeling she thought the artist’s moves indecorous, but I was already trying to figure out his steps. (And if I did pull off anything even remotely similar credit my rubbery eight year-old legs.)
I think in direct retaliation she loaded up the stereo with Nina Simone that night.
Elegant, precise, controlled, just like Ruth.
I only remember cracking Ruth up once. We had Christmas dinner at her house and I remember it was getting late and I must have been beginning to wilt and she suggested I spend the night. I was sent upstairs with the directive to get a nightgown from the drawer in the bureau and to climb into bed. As I made my way up the stairs I could hear the chatter of grownups in the living room. I’d never been in Ruth’s room before. I opened the door and saw a round bed, a round bed that looked like it was straight out of a story book, draped and swagged and covered with pillows — it stopped me in my tracks — but being a well behaved child I went to the bureau for the nightie. I looked in all the top drawers as I was instructed. There was nothing there that vaguely resembled nightwear, just piles and piles of lacy, slinky, silken things with spaghetti straps. I stewed, I looked at the round bed, I knew I should be getting ready to sleep, I thought, I puzzled, and then I went back downstairs.
“I can’t find a nightgown.”
“Did you look in the drawers?”
“Yes, ma’am. I looked. All I saw were slips.”
Ruth shot a glance at my mother and started to laugh, “Honey!” she turned to me, “Haven’t you ever seen a negligee?”
Now, I probably don’t have to say, but if I ever did see my parents in nightclothes they were covered up by robes. If I even stopped to think about what they slept in I would have imagined they looked just like my sensible cotton pajamas —our beds were standard boxy things — and the only albums I remember them putting on the stereo were “My Fair Lady” and a lot of Mozart.
That night I slept in silk and lace in a bed befitting a fairy princess. As I said. She spoiled me. And she taught me, deep in the recesses of my tiny mind, a vital lesson, once in a while, or as often as needed, it’s important to treat yourself well and embrace the beauty in simple things. Like bed, and nighties, and all people and things lovely.