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A Short Story by Maribeth Shanley




           When I was nine years old, my oldest brother, Danny, and I boarded a city bus in Pensacola, Florida.  It was Danny's and my first day of school at St. Michael's Parish, located in Pensacola. The year was 1956.

           Our actual parish was St. John's, located only a few miles from our new home. However, it was the middle of the school year, and St. John's was at capacity for grades 4 and 5.  So Danny and I would have to attend St. Michael's for the rest of the year. 

Since St. Michael's was so far away, we had to ride our bicycles about two miles to another house on the main street where the city bus stopped every day.  That house belonged to a man who worked with our father.

          Our dad was an officer in the U.S. Navy.  He had been transferred from Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island to the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida.  It was the first significant move from where my brother, two sisters, and I were born and lived all our lives.  I remember how difficult it was to leave the only home any of us knew. 


           Merritt Road, in East Providence, was where all of our friends lived.  My best friends, Jeannie and Cathy, lived there.  The rocks, a slant tree, woods, and a dairy farm were also there. 

           The 'rocks' were a massive mountain of huge boulders.  Jeannie, Cathy, and I loved climbing the rocks.  It felt like we lived in a castle where we could look over the land.  Our favorite thing to do was to have tea parties on the rocks.  There was one large flat-top rock that became our table.  We sat on the smaller rocks that surrounded the table.  Of course, we didn't drink tea.  Instead, we drank cherry Kool-Aid and ate cookies.  It was lots of fun.

            The 'slant tree' was a tree that grew sideways in a meadow just behind the house that sat across the street from our home.  The tree belonged to Bay View Academy, so it became ours 'cuz no one at Bay View cared about the tree or about us climbing it.  I loved that tree.  The tree took me to mysterious places in my mind when I was sitting or standing high up on it.  The tree felt safe.  We often jumped to the ground when I sat on the tree with Jeannie and Cathy.  We liked being daredevils, like riding our bicycles down the street with no hands or feet.  We'd yell, "Look, ma, no hands or feet!" 

           The 'woods' sat behind Cathy's house and the rocks.  There was a well in the woods. Boards nailed together covered the well so no one would fall in.  All three of us moved the heavy planks away from the well.  Then, there was the dairy farm.

           The dairy farm, located at the end of a dirt lane, sat on the other side of our backyard fence.  Sometimes we'd see men dressed like farmers walking around the farm.  Mostly, though, we only saw cows, lots of cows that mooed loudly all day long.   Sometimes, a sick cow would cry all day and all night.  I felt sad for the cow, but I was just a kid and didn't know what to do for the poor animal. 

           The best thing about the dairy farm was the entertainment it gave all of us kids.

           Our neighborhood was small.  No more than twenty houses from the top of the street began at Pawtucket Avenue, ran flat, and then dropped down a long, steep hill to the bottom, ending in a cul-de-sac.  There were lots of kids in the neighborhood. We knew everyone.  Our house and the barn were located halfway down Merritt Road.

           It was tons of fun when the cows would break loose.  That happened a lot.  The cows would walk around our neighborhood.  Because our house was the first place the cows would walk, they'd knock down our fence and wind up in our backyard.  From there, they'd walk through our yard, out into the street, and into other people's yards.  When that would happen, our moms would send us into our houses to watch from the safe side of our windows as our mothers, brooms in hand, corralled the cows back into their barnyard.  It was fun watching our moms chase the cows.  It was like watching a movie with a bunch of Charlie Chaplin's with brooms.

           I loved living on Merritt Road, whether it was spring, summer, winter, or fall.  I remember how I could always tell when spring was just around the corner every winter.  There was a particular scent in the air.  Spring was my favorite season, but so was winter.

           Ever since I remember, it has snowed a lot in Rhode Island.  Our street was perfect for sledding.  All our parents worked it out with the city to leave half of our road ripe for sledding.  The plows would blade off the entire street but only sand one-half of it.  We all had American Flyers, which we'd turn upside down and soap the metal runner blades so they wouldn't get stuck going downhill.  The soap made the runner blades slick!

           The boys in the neighborhood would spend an entire morning building an ice ramp they'd hose down with water from a neighbor's outside spigot.  Once the ramp was frozen solid and smooth, we'd aim our sleds, fly up into the air, and smash down on the other side of the road.  Boy, if you were on the bottom of a long sled with a couple of kids on top of you, you, the pilot, would get a big belly smack when the sled hit the ground.  Sometimes, the kids on top would fall off when we hit the other side.  That was the only advantage of being the pilot.  You kept going all the way down to the bottom of the hill.

           I was nine years old when the Navy transferred Dad to Pensacola.  I didn't know any other life except the one I had and loved on Merritt Road.  I had no idea how lonely I would become in Pensacola.  Making new friends was hard; I wasn't used to making new friends because I grew up with all our friends.

           My grandma lived with us then.  For me, Grandma was larger than life.  She worked as a head seamstress at St. Joseph's Hospital in Providence.  Grandma was a fiercely independent woman.  I never understood why she felt so independent that she would never take any guff from Dad. But, later in life, I would come to understand. She felt independent because she was independent! 

           About a year after I was born, she sold her house on Landor Street in Providence, R.I., giving all her profits to her daughter, my mother, so Mom and Dad could buy their house on Merritt Rd.   Nevertheless, she remained independent because she earned a living in the world.  Because of her economic freedom, she could have moved out of my parent's home to stay independent if she chose.  But things didn't turn out like that for her.  Instead, she made the terrible decision to move to Pensacola with us.  She left everything and everyone back in Rhode Island.  I wish she hadn't done that, but that's what women did back then.  A woman like Grandma could be independent, but not totally and not really.

           Grandma was a kind person, and she loved her grandchildren.  I suspect that's why she moved in with Mom and Dad. 

           It was the late 1940s, a period in history that didn't look too kindly on independent women.  After all, a woman's place was in the home, having and raising children.  For women like my grandma, her place was with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. 

           Her sister, my Auntie, lived up the street on Merritt Road with her son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids.  It was just the way it was back then.  But even though it was, it didn't stop Grandma from asserting her independence from my father, who never liked Grandma.  Dad used to call Grandma uppity.  She didn't know her place as a woman and certainly didn't cow-tow to anyone, especially a bully man like Dad.  I loved Grandma for her assertiveness.  She became a role model for me as I became a woman.  My grandma inspired me to become economically independent so no man could own me like my dad thought he owned Mom and later Grandma.

           Grandma used to take me to downtown Providence on the city bus.  Sometimes we'd go shopping at the department stores and sometimes to a movie.  Before returning home, Grandma would always stop at Woolworths, where we sat on the shiny metal stools with bright red leather seats.  The stools didn't move in and out from the countertop. They were stuck to the floor.  Yet, the seats could twirl around 360 degrees. Grandma would sit on the stool next to me. However, if no one sat on the stool on the other side of me, I was free to twirl the seat around to watch other people come and go from the soda shop.

           We'd order coffee cabinets (kind of like a coffee ice cream milkshake), and sometimes we'd also have a slice of pie.   Then, when we finished eating, Grandma would always get me into a straw-sucking contest.  Usually, no one was around when we'd have our competition because, as Grandma explained, it wasn't polite to suck on a straw when the glass was empty.  But, when no one was close by, we'd suck away, and I'd always win.  I wonder if Grandma let me win on purpose.

           As we walked toward Woolworth's front door, Grandma would stop by the candy counter and buy several white bags full of candy.  She called them bags of smiles.  My favorite smile was the bridge mix, especially the ones with pink and white cream in the middle.  Although I was the only child Grandma took into the city, she always thought about my brother and two sisters.  So, when she bought three more bags, she always bought an assortment of my brother's and sisters' favorite flavors.  Grandma was thoughtful and generous. I loved my grandma with my whole heart!

           We walked a few blocks to the bus stop when we left Woolworths.  Grandma always knew when the right bus was about to come because we'd only have to wait a little while.  Then, we'd get on the bus and walk all the way to the back of the bus and sit on the long seat with the brown leather covering it.  Grandma knew I loved that seat because I could look out three windows at everything the bus passed.

           Life with my grandma was fun.  She always made me feel happy and loved.  But, like her independence, those feelings of love and happiness wouldn't last.

           It wasn't long after we moved to Pensacola that Grandma got sick.  I think the shock of being torn from the only home she ever knew, Rhode Island, and her independent life and all her friends and relatives were too much for her.  She had a major stroke. 

           Doctors didn't know much about strokes back then, so she never got better.  It was painful for me when she got sick because she could never remember who I was.  She loved me so much before; now, she didn't seem to love anything.  She was always sad.  Her stroke gave Dad a reason to treat her like the garbage he always considered her to be, and, believe me, he did a good job at that.  I hated the way he treated Grandma.  She didn't deserve behavior like that.

           Grandma had a hard time walking.  Mom and Dad would always ask us kids to help her.  I never minded helping her because I loved her so much.  My heart just broke in two when she got sick.  She was the only friend I had left in the world, and didn't even remember being my friend.


           As long as I live, I will never forget that first bus ride into Pensacola, Florida.  Danny and I boarded the bus and paid our fare with the nickels our parents gave us.  Danny sat right behind the bus driver.  He liked being up where all the action was.  I looked down the aisle to the back of the bus, saw no one sitting on my favorite seat, and walked back and sat down.  It was great because I had a clear view of the left, right, and back.  I was so busy watching all the new sites that I didn't know the bus had stopped. 

           The bus driver stopped the bus for a new passenger.  It was an old lady with a wire shopping cart.  I remember how she walked past all the empty seats up front and sat on the bench right behind the middle door.  I thought she must like sitting in the back too. 

           I was having a great time on the bus.  I was smiling at all the people in the back with me.  Most of the people on the bus that morning liked sitting in the back too.  Maybe their grandmas used to take them into the city on the bus, and that's where they sat.

           I was looking out the windows, and since my legs were too short to touch the floor, I swung them back and forth.  That's when Danny walked back to tell me that I wasn't supposed to sit in the back.  Instead, he told me I had to sit up front with him. 

           "No!" I told him.  "I like it back here.  This is my favorite seat, and besides, you can't tell me what to do because you're not my father." 

           That was that.  Danny turned around and walked back up front.  I expected the bus to start moving again, but it didn't.

           Suddenly, the two doors of the bus swung open.  They swung so hard that it sounded like thunder inside the bus.  Then, the tall, skinny, white-headed bus driver got out of his seat, stood in the middle of the aisle, pointed a long bony, crooked finger at the back of the bus, and screamed, "You!" 

           I looked around at all the other people. He was screaming at someone in the back. However, it wasn't clear who. 

           Then he screamed again, "You, little girl in the back!  You get up here to the front of the bus and sit with your brother right now." 

           He was pointing and screaming at me!  I must have felt brave because I told him I liked sitting back there.  However, my boldness made him yell louder, and his tone became meaner.

           "If you don't march yourself up here right now, I am going to put both you and your brother off this bus right here."

           From the tone of his voice, I could tell he was really angry.  So, I looked out the window and realized I didn't know where right here was.  Plus, if he had put us off the bus, we wouldn't have had any way to call our mom to tell her where we were. So, I got up, walked to the bus's front, and sat beside Danny.  That's all I remember.  I don't recall anything else about that ride, and I don't even remember if that nasty bus driver said anything else to me.  I only knew I was scared and didn't want to get into trouble because I was the cause of Danny and me getting kicked off the bus.

           It wasn't long after that bus ride that I realized why I wasn't supposed to sit in the back of the bus.  I soon learned that only 'colored' people were supposed to sit in the back.  Even if there were lots of empty seats up front on the driver's side of the middle door, they weren't allowed to sit in those empty seats.  Instead, the seats would remain empty the entire time while so many colored people, mostly older women, had to stand.  I used to look at the faces of some of those women.  I could tell that their feet hurt, and the start and stop of the bus made them lose their balance.  I remember this little, white-headed colored woman had a hard time standing.  I wanted to give her my seat, but I wasn't allowed to be kind to her.  I just knew whatever was going on was wrong.  It stunk like a skunk!

           Soon, I also realized that the bus wasn't the only place colored people were badly treated. 

          It happened everywhere! 

          Colored women and girls couldn't pee in the same public bathroom where I would pee.  That's because there were four bathrooms in all the department stores.  First, there was a "white men's bathroom" and a "white women's bathroom."  Then there was a "colored men’s bathroom" and a “colored women’s bathroom”.  I also recall my mom telling me that, like the bus, I wasn't allowed to pee in the colored women’s only bathrooms.  Not only that, but colored people couldn't even drink water from the same fountain from which I drank.  There were always two water fountains, one for whites and one for coloreds.  I used to think it was stupid to put up two water fountains when only one was needed.  I felt the same way about the four bathrooms.  I also couldn't help thinking about how stupid the stores were. After all, the dumb stores could have sold a lot more goodies if they didn't take up so much space with four bathrooms rather than two and two water fountains instead of just one. I just knew something terrible was going on in Pensacola. But, as my parents instructed my siblings and me, I kept my mouth shut. Instead, I was haunted by what I saw and felt the entire three years I lived in the South.  

           I learned to hate the South! 

          I may have been a little girl, but I knew in my heart that it was wrong to treat people like that.  If my grandma were still well instead of sick, she would have told the bus driver to go straight to hell.  In my mind, I knew she would have, then she and I could have sat in the back on our favorite seat.  But she was sick and didn't even know where she lived.  So, I had to do what the stupid bus driver told me to do because he was an adult, and I was always taught to do what adults told me to do, no matter what they said.  I hated the South and that stupid, mean bus driver with the ugly, crooked finger.

           I learned a lot living in that strange and cruel southern world! 

          I remember the story in the newspaper about a baby that fire ants killed.   Mom read us the story.

          The baby was asleep in her crib.  Then, the baby's mom went next door to a neighbor's house for a few minutes to borrow something.  When she returned home, her baby was covered with fire ants and wasn't crying because she was already dead.  It was one of the saddest stories I have ever heard.  What was even more painful was the reason the fire ants got in her crib. 

           The family's house had no floor.  Instead, the house, built on the dirt ground, had a huge fire ant hill discovered in the back of a closet.  That poor mother lost her baby girl because she couldn't afford to put a floor in her house.  They might as well have lived outside.  It was one of the saddest stories I have ever heard; that has stuck with me all my life.  To make things worse, I remember the day we drove past the house where the baby died. 

           As we drove by, I recognized the area.  The bus I nearly got Danny and me kicked off had stopped right across the street from the house where the lady lost her baby girl because she couldn't afford a wood floor.

           I think living in the South, and all its rotten lessons made me a kinder person.

           That first year at St. Michaels, I remember a little blonde-headed girl named Linda.  I don't know how I knew this, but I knew Linda was poor. One day, we were drawing, and I needed to erase a line I had drawn.  Linda was sitting next to me.  I looked everywhere for an eraser but couldn't find one. 


          Then, I looked over at Linda and saw that she had an eraser.  I remember her eraser.  She seemed so proud of that brown eraser as she treated it like her brand-new doll.  I now know it was because Linda was poor that she was so proud of her brand-new eraser.  She let me use it, and I guess I pressed down too hard ‘cuz I broke it in two.  Linda cried because I ruined her shiny, brand-new special eraser.  I also remember how bad I felt.

           We all wore uniforms to school.  I had two brand new blue jumpers and white blouses.  My brown shoes were also new.  Linda wore the same blue jumper and white blouse every day, but her's was old and worn.  Her white blouse wasn't white anymore.  It was more of a stained yellow color, and her shoes were old and had holes in the bottom so that, when it rained, her socks got wet.  It was this little girl's eraser that I broke, and my heart broke for her at the same time.  I felt so bad that I begged my mom to buy me an eraser, just like the one I broke so I could give it to Linda.  Mom did.  I remember how happy that new eraser made Linda.  I think we were friends for the rest of that school year. After all, Linda is the only classmate I remember.

                   At the same time, all of this was happening; I remember becoming very withdrawn.  I began to feel isolated in my house.  My grandma didn't know who I was and would call me by every name except Maribeth.  My parents had so many kids that they couldn't pay attention to all of us at once.  I counted on my grandma, but, when she got sick, I couldn't count on her anymore.  When she was well, I could talk about anything and everything with her, but now, I couldn't.  I wanted to talk to her and tell her about the bus driver and the baby that died.  I wanted to ask her about all the colored people.  I wanted to ask why white people treated them so meanly, but I didn't because I knew she would never understand what I was asking.  So, I became very lonely.  Maybe being alone made me think more about things.  Maybe watching what was going on in the South made me grow up while I was there.

           I think about those three years we lived in the South. I think watching how southern white people treated colored people got to me because, as I grew up, I knew in my heart to never, ever treat a colored person like that.  I was sad that I lost my grandma to her stroke, but I was even more unhappy about what colored people who lived in the South had to suffer.

           I often overheard Dad and Mom talking about living there.  I don't think Mom liked it very much.  When Dad wasn't around, she would sometimes say, "Two more years, and then we can get out of here."  I hoped Mom was right.  I just wanted to move away from there as soon as we could.   Then, maybe we could move back to Rhode Island.  Now that would've been great!  


My Grandma

The Bus Driver

(This is a true story.  I am the nine-year-old girl.  It became my introduction to racism.)

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