“Stories of Mystery and Wonder.” This is a story about an ordinary event. The incident has bothered me ever after, and, in that sense, it clearly has special meaning for me. While the meaning of what was said cannot be determined, thinking about it in the context of Joe’s invitation I have come to understand why what happened has so much significance for me.
The incident was quite simple. I had started to teach our housekeeper to play the piano. After a few days my mother told me I could not do this. I knew this meant “you are not allowed to do this”. There were many instances when I was not allowed to do something. But none of these, including many which had made me much angrier at the time, now bother me. Only this one has continued to live uncomfortably in my mind.
My mother’s reasons for saying this can, of course, no longer be determined. She might have meant that, since I was not very advanced in piano, I was not capable of teaching someone else. I do not think her remark had racist roots. My mother chose a job at an adoption agency that required taking care of Black children and visiting Black homes across Chicago.
It is possible that my mother meant something like “that is not an appropriate thing to do”, i.e., for a child to teach something to their parents’ employee. I had, however, a special bond to this housekeeper. Her only pregnancy had ended in a still birth and she had been looking forward to my birth. When my mother came home from the hospital, she handed me to her saying, “Here’s your baby”. And I was. And she was my second mother. So, it is possible that jealousy played a role in my mother’s reaction.
But why has this, “You can’t do that” remained so troubling? I believe it is because I was trying to give this person something that I knew she wanted. Importantly, it was a way of relating to each other that had nothing to do with her status as our housekeeper. I knew enough about her life to know that she had had her share of hardships. This was something that could bring some joy into it. But I was not allowed to do this.
I should, of course, have asked, “Why not?”. I regret that I didn’t. But back talk was not allowed.
This failure to speak up in my defense, and in the defense of someone I loved, impacted how I relate to the world.
Naomi Pena is a close friend from planning school days in Chapel Hill from 1968-1970. She is a woman of many talents, whose career was mainly in saving the environment and championing just causes. She is now splitting her time between Washington and the Bay Area where her son’s family (including her first grandchild) live.