Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Color of Water, by James McBride

I'm starting to read another autobiography for my online literature class. I'm about halfway through and I love it. It was published back in 1996, and it just might make it into my top ten favorite books.

Here's a sample from Chapter 2:

"Although P.S. 118 was only eight blocks away, I wasn't allowed to walk there with my siblings because kindergarten students were required to ride the bus. On the ill-fated morning, Mommy chased me all around the kitchen trying to dress me as my siblings laughed at my terror. 'The bus isn't bad,' one quipped, 'except for the snakes.' Another added, 'Sometimes the bus never brings you home.' Guffaws all around.

'Be quiet,' Mommy said, inspecting my first-day-of-school attire. My clothes were clean, but not new. The pants had been Billy's, the shirt was David's, the coat had been passed down from Dennis to Billy to David to Richie to me. It was a gray coat with a fur collar that had literally been chewed up by somebody. Mommy dusted it off with a whisk broom, set out eight or nine bowls, poured oatmeal in each one, left instructions for the eldest to feed the rest, then ran a comb through my hair. The sensation was like a tractor pulling my curls off. 'C'mon,' she said, 'I'll walk you to the bus stop.' Surprise reward. Me and Mommy alone. It was the first time I remember ever being alone with my mother.

It became the high point of my day, a memory so sweet it is burned into my mind like a tattoo, Mommy walking me to the bus stop and every afternoon picking me up, standing on the corner of New Mexico and 114th Road, clad in a brown coat, her black hair tied in a colorful scarf, watching with the rest of the parents as the yellow school bus swung around the corner and came to a stop with a hiss of air brakes.

Gradually, as the weeks passed and the terror of going to school subsided, I began to notice something about my mother, that she looked nothing like the other kids' mothers. In fact, she looked more like my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Alexander, who was white. Peering out the window as the bus rounded the corner and the front doors flew open, I noticed that Mommy stood apart from the other mothers, rarely speaking to them. She stood behind them, waiting calmly, hands in her coat pockets, watching intently through the bus windows to see where I was, then smiling and waving as I yelled my greeting to her through the window. She'd quickly grasp my hand as I stepped off the bus, ignoring the stares of the black women as she whisked me away.

One afternoon as we walked home from the bus stop, I asked Mommy why she didn't look like the other mothers.

'Because I'm not them,' she said.

'Who are you?' I asked.

'I'm your mother.'

'Then why don't you look like Rodney's mother, or Pete's mother? How come you don't look like me?'

She sighed and shrugged. She'd obviously been down this road many times. 'I do look like you. I'm your mother. You ask too many questions. Educate your mind. School is important. Forget Rodney and Pete. Forget their mothers. You remember school. Forget everything else. Who cares about Rodney and Pete! When they go one way, you go the other way. Understand? When they go one way, you go the other way. You hear me?'


'I know what I'm talking about. Don't follow none of them around. You stick to your brothers and sisters, that's it. Don't tell nobody your business neither!' End of discussion.

A couple of weeks later the bus dropped me off and Mommy was not there. I panicked. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the memory of her warning me, 'You're going to have to learn to walk home by yourself,' but that memory blinked like a distant fog light in a stormy sea and it drowned in my panic. I was lost. My house was two blocks away, but it might as well have been ten miles because I had no idea where it was. I stood on the corner and bit back my tears. The other parents regarded me sympathetically and asked me my address, but I was afraid to tell them. In my mind was Mommy's warning, drilled into all twelve of us children from the time we could walk: 'Never, ever, ever tell your business to nobody,' and I shook my head no, I don't know my address. They departed one by one, until a sole figure remained, a black father, who stood in front of me with his son, saying, 'Don't worry, your mother is coming soon.' I ignored him. He was blocking my view, the tears clouding my vision as I tried to peer behind him, looking down the block to see if that familiar brown coat and white face would appear in the distance. It didn't. In fact there wasn't anyone coming at all, except a bunch of kids and they certainly didn't look like Mommy. They were a motley crew of girls and boys, ragged, with wild hairdos and unkempt jackets, hooting and making noise, and only when they were almost upon me did I recognize the faces of my elder siblings and my little sister Kathy who trailed behind them. I ran into their arms and collapsed in tears as they gathered around me, laughing."

James McBride's mother died January of this year. I just found the article this morning.

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