When I was 10 years old I was accepted by the Girls’ Latin School as a suitable candidate for admission to the sixth class, the level from which one progressed to the pinnacle of the first class. The average age of sixth class students was 12, which has a more impressive sound than 10. I was worried by that age gap which was compounded by the fact that I was small for my age, and maybe looked as young as nine, an absurd situation for a student who, I had been told, was addressed by her teachers as “Miss.”
I asked my mother if my classmates would make fun of me. In my lower school, attended by both boys and girls, the boys had made fun of me because I was colored. With them name-calling had been routine. In the Brahmin Boston of that day, boys of their simple background needed a scapegoat for their self-esteem.
My mother’s reassuring answer was that people of proper background never made fun of other people because of conditions over which they had no control, like being 10, like being small for 10, like being colored. I must never forget, she reminded me, as she frequently reminded me, that I was my father’s daughter. He had survived the condition of slavery. I would never face an endurance test more difficult than that.
So I went to the Latin School on opening day, holding my head erect, hearing myself formally addressed by my teachers, and not for a moment feeling that the title crowned my head unbecomingly. Then it was lunchtime and I made my way down the long hall to the lunchroom, never having even seen a school lunchroom before, or paid for a meal by myself before, but determined to treat it as an everyday occurrence, and not spill anything.
Two presumably first class young women, tall and perfection in appearance, saw me, stopped dead in their tracks, enchanted by my difference, their faces spread with smiles. They rushed toward me, pulling me back and forth between them, one of them saying, she’s my baby, the other one saying, no, she’s mine.
In that comic tug and pull the title my teachers had conferred on me in my passage from childhood lost all meaning. I was stunned and speechless. Then I wriggled, found my voice and said urgently, “Beg your pardon. I’m not a baby. I’m not really as little as I look. I’m 10 years old.”
At that, to my surprise, instead of sobering, they burst out laughing and walked away doubled over with mirth, the sound of which lingered with me for the rest of the day.
That encounter made me feel a great unease about another matter which I had never let surface, knowing my mother knew the truth of it, but not yet sure I was ready to surrender my chosen belief to her reality. Nevertheless I wanted to avoid a misstep and stand on firm ground in front of the 12-year-olds in my class. I could no longer put off facing the truth about Santa Claus.
If 10 seems too old not to know whether Santa Claus is real or not, that period in America’s history was called the age of innocence for the general population, at least for those who had never had to struggle with want. I was one of those so blessed.
When my mother said that my father was Santa Claus, I wasn’t demolished. I know I felt sad, but I think I felt relieved. Now I could talk to my classmates about Christmas without skirting around the edges. That I was shedding the last vestige of my childhood was not traumatic, considering that in return I saw my father in a special light.
Slavery ended when he was seven. His mother, who had been a cook, found hire in a boarding house, my father sharing her quarters, and shining shoes, running errands for the boarders, and putting his pennies and nickels and occasional dimes in a cigar box except for a small sum he paid an indigent townsman to teach him to read and write and figure sums. The latter became one of my father’s indispensable skills.
When he was eight or so, he went to the open market with the boarding house owner to carry her baskets when they were laden, and watched her pick and choose, heard her haggle over prices, listened to the market talk of the men. The Christmas that he was 10 he knew what he wanted. He wanted a business of his own. He got out his cigar box with his savings, and asked his mother how much she had in savings. He told her, this 10-year-old man-boy, that he wanted to go into business for himself, he wanted a boarding house of his own. If he could borrow her money and services, he promised that he would make her rich in return.
I am told that he did, that he had a boarding house and a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, that my grandmother learned to wear silk.
My father moved on, as men seeking wider opportunities do. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that his race and former condition of servitude might be handicaps. They were not. He came north to Springfield and apprenticed himself to a wholesale buyer of fruits and vegetables. When he had learned the art of trading, he opened two stores, one a retail fruit store, the other an ice cream parlor, catering to those who could afford to eat fruit every day, to whom an ice cream parlor was a pleasant place to dally.
My father’s dream was to be a wholesale merchant of fruits and vegetables in the venerable Boston Market. And so he was. His place of business was on South Market street just opposite Fanueil Hall, and I will cherish forever the sound of the great dray horses’ hooves on the cobblestones as I waited, with my hand in my mother’s, to cross the street to my father’s store, with its big banana rooms, and the big store cat that thought small children were varmints to attack.
My father was a generation older than my mother. Yet I cannot imagine either one married to anyone else. I cannot imagine belonging to anybody else. On the Christmas of my father’s tenth birthday he prepared my own coming of age in my tenth year on Christmas Day. Then I knew the gift he had given me was endurance and strength of will. The tangible gifts were just extras.
First published in the Gazette on Dec. 18, 1981.