I remember the day my mom sentenced me to kindergarten. It was a horrendous, frightening childhood experience and one that I will never forget.
I had been living a peaceful, carefree, blissful existence with my mom and dad, two brothers, Eddie and Raymond, and one cantankerous sister named Rosemary. We had a double house, and my Grandma Ida Schexnayder Metz and Grandpa, Papa Charles Benjamin Metz, lived next door. Being the baby of the Metz family, I enjoyed the heavy-handed spoiling from my parents and grandparent. I basked in the glow of being the apple of everyone’s eye, knowing that I could never do anything wrong.
We called my mother Viola, ‘Ma’ and my Grandma Ida, ‘Mama,’ a southern tradition of assigning nicknames to family members. We didn’t feel a need to call my daddy and Papa Metz anything else. We called my brother Raymond ‘Black’ because of the coal-black tone of his skin, which was the same as Papa’s and my daddy’s. My oldest brother Eddie was ‘Chief’ because of his features resembled that of a Native American, high, prominent cheekbones, strong nose and …
Rosemary, my sister, was ‘Wootsie.’ I never found out how she got that moniker and didn’t care to because she became my nemesis as soon as I could walk and talk. My dad gave me my nickname, and as far as me sharing it with you, I would tell you to hold your breath. It’s a cute nickname and one that I am not ashamed of, but it would be embarrassing for me to show it.
Delightfully, Ma and Mama were great cooks and bakers to boot. They prepared every meal from scratch. Meats were always from fresh stock. From the cakes they made to their savory Creole dishes, they filled me with the tastiest and best home-cooked meals anyone could imagine. I was simply blessed to have had access to all this wonderful, tasty Cajun food, deeply shrouded in warmth and love from these two nurturing matriarchs of the Metz family.
Both my brothers served in the Army. Eddie, Jr., the oldest, was stationed in Korea. Raymond served in Korea too but was later transferred to Fort Hood, Texas. I remember when he came home on leave. He was movie-star handsome in his freshly pressed khaki uniform and spit-shined shoes. At 6’2″, he towered over me like a shiny totem pole. My eyes weren’t big enough to see all that he was. He talked with me a bit about the Army and, as always, teased me about my big feet and long fingers. Nothing ever hurtful,l but he and Eddie always came up with corny jokes about my appendages. They repeatedly ribbed me with, “You’ll make a great piano player with those long fingers of yours or You might be able to beat Jesse Owens running in the Olympics with those big feet.” Then they’d start laughing like two tipsy hyenas. Yes, their jokes were funny and it was hard not to laugh along with them, even at my expense. One day before Raymond left, he came to our kitchen to say goodbye to me. Smartly dressed in his uniform, he put his hand on my shoulder and told me he loved me. Then he went into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He opened it and pulled out two crisp dollar bills and placed them in my hand. I was over the moon at how much candy, cookies and potato chips I could buy with this windfall. He kissed me on my head and I gave him a big hug and started to cry. He told me not to do that, dried my eyes and to be a big girl for him. Then he left, but the sadness of his leaving stayed with me for a long time. Brother Eddie was still in Korea. I knew I would see them both again. I cried when Raymond left in a taxi on his way to the airport, but otherwise, I was in a good place with hard-working parents and grandparents who loved me too. I had no worries, except for Rosemary, the bane of my existence.
My brothers were true gentlemen, always respectful to my parents and grandparents. I never, ever heard either one of them raise their voices in anger or even utter a curse word. I loved them both and always looked up to them as my Black knights in shining armor. But my sister Rosemary was a hard pill for me to swallow. I used to give her the side eye because she didn’t have any of the physical or character traits my brothers and I had. Seemingly, she was filled to the brim with piss and vinegar all the damn time. I believed she planned her days around how much trouble she could get into. From smoking to cussing to sassing my mom and dad, I just knew she had to be adopted. She was about 12 but looked 80 to me due to the angry expression permanently carved into her face, which resembled a contorted Carnival mask. By comparison, I had long, thick hair; hers was short and wiry with a nappy kitchen growing down the nape of her neck. Facial moles, considered beauty marks, ran in our family. Ma, Mama, and an aunt all had one. I had a small one near my hairline at the top of my face. Rose had a big raised one the size of a small green pea on her chin, just below her lip. Whenever she got irritated with me and started screaming at me like some juiced-up jungle animal, I swear I saw that mole pulsate to the beat of every word she spat at me. Forget horror movies; she was my fucking nightmare all through my childhood. Curious as to her lineage, I often asked my brother Eddie if she was adopted, or if someone left her in a basket on our front porch. He just laughed and shook his head, but never gave me a straight answer. He was too much of a gentleman and a good brother to confirm this probably well-kept secret about the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family. Despite lacking solid proof, I convinced myself that Rosemary sprang from a pack of savage wolves, who kicked her out of the woods because they couldn’t stand any more of her shit in their herd.
I spent my days playing hopscotch, marbles, reading, and playing with the dolls and toys Ma and Daddy bought for me. Thanks to my dad, I was the only kid on my block with a subscription to Children’s Digest, Reader’s Digest for kids. I was so proud of that. Every month, I waited for the mailman’s delivery of my treasured subscription. After it arrived, I read it voraciously and always completed the crossword puzzles and word games in a snap. I also enjoyed my Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head family and a game called Operation the most. Sometimes I’d play in our big backyard with a few kids from the neighborhood. Usually, when they came over and got tired of playing with my toys, we sought other means of having fun. Innocently, we gathered a pile of rocks and took turns hurling them over the wooden shed in our backyard. Picture this setup. On the other side of the shed was a wire fence that surrounded our property. On the other side of that fence was this big empty lot, always overgrown with weeds. The rocks we flung over the shed were quite big. Being naïve little waifs, we thought the rocks were landing in the empty lot. But I’m pretty damn sure somebody got hit. I can imagine an innocent person walking on the banquette (sidewalk) next to the lot, minding their own business, when all of a sudden out of nowhere, KLUNK! Now, I’ve been hit in the head with a rock before. It came with the territory of being a kid in my neighborhood. The knot it produced on my head lasted for about three days, and believe me, it was embarrassing, because nothing I tried could hide that big-assed bump. I stewed for days after getting hit with a rock, especially when I didn’t know who threw it. Where’s the justice in that when my payback’s been taken away? Actually, my friends and I didn’t think of intentionally injuring anyone. We spent our days having innocent fun like that, but if anyone got hit in the head walking along the banquette next to the lot and decided to investigate where that mysterious missile came from, I had a perfect hiding place for all of us to make a clean getaway: slip into the shed or race up our back steps through our kitchen door and slam it shut. No worries except for Rosemary, who always threatened to turn us in. To whom, I don’t remember, but I knew that anything Rosemary was behind had to be sinister.
I also enjoyed watching my mama cook, clean the house, and iron our clothes. Sometimes on Mondays, which was laundry day, I’d help her load the laundry in our washing machine on our back porch. We had one of those old ones with the round tub and a ringer. We had to slide the clothes in between the rollers and turn the handle to squeeze as much of the moisture out of the clothes as we could. Sometimes we had to do this twice. Always in awe of this mechanical contraption, I often wondered, “How can they ever top this?”
One day, my niece Puny came to visit. Her name was Deborah, but the family nicknamed her Puny because she was so skinny that she easily resembled a Hangman stick figure. No matter how much she ate, she never ever gained any weight. That day, Puny and I helped Ma put the clothes in the washer. Ma put some Tide soap powder and bleach in the water and then started the machine, which howled like a low-grade buzz saw. During the wash cycle, it always shook our back porch silly. But boy did it ever wash clothes clean! When the wash cycle was over, we let the water drain out through the hose attached to the bottom of the tub. Then Ma filled the tub with clean water to rinse the clothes. After the rinse cycle, we fed the clothes through the ringers before we hung them on the clotheslines in the backyard to dry. Right after Ma drained the rinse water out, Puny and I started feeding the soggy clothes through the wringer. For some reason, which escapes me even to this day, Puny started aggressively pushing the wet clothes through the wringer. Somehow, her pencil-thin fingers got caught in the rollers, which started to suck in her arm. I thought, ‘Oh, Shit!’ I was speechless, which was rare for me. I just stood there silently in shock with my mouth wide open as this mechanical monster tried to eat the rest of my niece’s bony arm. Puny released an ear-splitting shriek, which scattered all the birds from our big fig tree in the backyard. I covered my ears and hopped off the porch to protect my hearing and keep myself from going deaf. Actually, I thought the machine was trying to eat her alive, so I closed my eyes to avoid being permanently scarred by the bloody, bone-crushing carnage I expected. When Ma heard Puny’s screams, she came rushing from the kitchen. She quickly flipped a latch which popped the rollers open so she could get Puny’s little arm out. I was looking for her arm to come out flat as a pancake like the shit that happens in cartoons. Though her arm was a bit red, it looked OK to me. I didn’t think any of her bones were broken or that she was in much pain, but Ma got a white cloth to fashion an arm sling for her. Ma told us both to go sit in the kitchen. She gave Puny half of an aspirin with some water and told us that she’d finish doing the laundry. Good thing she did that, though. No way in hell I wanted to be the machine’s next victim. From then on, laundry day was my day to either play out in the front yard or to take a nap on my own.
I remember the day Ma introduced me to my first horror movie: kindergarten. Granted, I thoroughly enjoyed spending precious time with Ma, watching her cook, clean the house, and helping her load laundry in our washing machine and other household stuff. But one day, I remember Ma dressing me in one of my favorite frocks. White cotton socks and saddle oxfords completed my outfit. She carefully greased, combed and braided my hair, adorning it with ribbons to match my dress. I was elated, thinking that she was getting me ready to go out with her as she usually would do. My first clue that something was up should have been the fact that she didn’t get dressed up too. She even kept her cooking apron on, which I thought was strange. I wondered why she was getting me dressed when she didn’t get herself ready. I didn’t give it a second thought. Like I said, I had no worries, and didn’t question anything except the family ties to Rosemary.
Shortly after Ma completed dressing me, I heard a knock on our front screen door. I stayed in our second room near the bed and let Ma answer the door. After Ma greeted the person through the screen door, she opened it to let this stranger in. I was amazed at the size of this humongous Black lady entering our living room. She looked bigger than the Hindenburg Airship. On the spot where she stood on our linoleum rug, I faintly heard our floorboards underneath the rug moaning and groaning. I wondered how could she let herself get that big. Again, I didn’t give this encounter any more thoughts. At age five, I had a sharp, active mind but was severely naive to a dangerous fault.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t hear the full conversation between Ma and this blimp standing in our front room. Seconds later, Ma came to me and took my hand, walking me towards the ’blimp.’ That’s when I assumed the worst: Ma was giving me away to this big beefy bimbo. I started one of those “oh-hell-no’ fits and fell out on the floor to intensify my drama and disbelief. This act didn’t get me very far but quickly wore my little ass out. I continued to scream and cry and fight and hold on to anything within my grasp as Ma pulled me towards this big stranger. When the burly broad saw the resistance I was putting up, she waddled towards me and grabbed my other hand to help Ma drag me towards the front door. Mannn, I was fighting for my life, screaming and crying like it was the end of the world as I knew it. I thought that this fat bitch was taking me away from my Ma, my daddy, my grandparents and my blissful existence. She wasn’t rough with me and I suffered no bruises, but I resented being pulled from the comfort of my home without any explanation, forewarning or preparation. Tired from my futile attempts to resist, I finally relented after this obese woman overpowered me and took me outside to her car. Ironically, it matched her perfectly: black, dismal, and massive. Adding to this awful picture, the white-wall tires and silver fenders made the car resemble the Munster family’s hearse. Silently, I prayed “Oh, Lord, I’m too young to die,” as I thought this woman was gonna eventually kill me.”
She opened the back door and led me on to the huge tufted seats, which were comfortable but almost swallowed my thin little body in its folds. There were no seatbelts though. Back then no one worried about whip-lash or kids in the back seat slamming face first into the back of the front seats on sudden stops. Safety was never first. Through teary eyes, I looked at my mom as she waved goodbye to me. I didn’t wave back because I thought she had given me away to this thick troll who could barely fit behind the steering wheel. I thought I would never, ever see my mom again.
After a short drive, the fat lady drove to the Calliope Projects and stopped in the parking space designated for her hearse. ‘WTF is this? A kindergarten in the Calliope Projects?’ I had never been to the projects. I only heard a few unflattering tidbits about it and knew that it was a place where I didn’t want to ever be. After she parked, she unhinged herself from behind the steering wheel and opened the back door to let me out. Taking me by the hand, she led me up some concrete steps to a concrete porch. I just knew this was a prison for children. She headed towards a large screen door, painted a shiny green. Opening the door, she led me up a flight of stairs to the second floor. Sizing up this joint, I thought the second floor would be a challenge should I have to jump from it in any attempt to escape. She then opened another door which revealed a large room with a dark-tiled floor and not much furniture.
I saw other kids about my age sitting on the floor. Boys and girls, various shades of skin color, different modes of outfits, but they all looked like little idiots to me. I became depressed at the thought of being locked up in this huge cell with these obvious morons. I went over to a corner and sat down on the floor by myself to pout. I thought it would be best to keep to myself and avoid any contact with those dorks. The fat lady disappeared into another room but came back shortly to give us some simple instructions, which I immediately ignored. Then she and two of her accomplices placed some pallets on the tiled floor for each one of us. To them, it was nap time for us. To me, it was time for me to plan my escape. I was beside myself with hurt and despair. Given the peaceful atmosphere in which I was raised, Ma never forced me to take a nap. I was so active and full of energy, that I just wore myself out and took a nap on my own. Nothing and no one forced me to do anything. I was a little Black princess, spoiled rotten, and I just loved that happy existence. But here I was in this dismal prison cell with a bunch of nitwits, sitting on a funky pallet on a hard floor, and they expected me to take a nap. Bullshit, I thought. I lay there wide awake, planning a ruse for my chance to bolt from this miserable place. After a few hours, the crew came in to wake us up for lunch. Ha! Some meal! From the strange smell in the air, this chow came nowhere near the tempting, spicy, tempting aromas from my Ma’s and Grandma’s kitchens. This mess reeked worse than our garbage can on Monday mornings. Adamant, I vowed not to eat any of it. Granted, I was hungry from all that useless fighting when this fat broad wrestled me from my mom’s loving arms. But I have to admit that I was famished. My little stomach was growling nonstop as if it would eat me alive. So I was at a point to welcome even stale garbage. The fat lady and her cohorts handed out plastic spoons and small paper plates, which contained rice with brown gravy, a vegetable I can’t recall and some mystery meat. I mixed the gravy and rice and took a tiny spoonful. It grossed me out so much that I started to gag. The rice was mushy, like grits, and the gravy tasted like mashed brown turds boiled in water. When the fat lady and her guards weren’t looking, I spat it all back in the plate since I couldn’t get it down my throat. Then there was this lump of alien-looking meat that I assumed was chicken. I thought that no one could ever mess up chicken. I was wrong. I picked it up from my plate and took a tiny bite out of it. Mannn, that shit tasted like spoiled Spam and like no chicken I ever ate. I left the rest of that crap on the plate. I was angry beyond any consolation and vowed to resist in any way possible. Little did I know at the time, that I was a young Black Panther in the making.
Just when I wondered what was next on the agenda for me and the idiots, the fat lady and her assistants brought out some toys to teach us some silly game. Don’t these morons know that I can play chess? I hated being around all these weird kids, who could hardly talk or wipe the green, slimy snot running from their noses. Yuck! I feigned participation in that silly game, agonizing over the lost time that I would never get back. Finally, the fat lady and her staff collected the toys and then handed out coloring books and a box of Crayolas to each one of us. I knew these kids were a disturbed bunch of blockheads. I validated that when I observed them coloring like the nitwits that they were. When I colored in my books, I always stayed within the lines. That’s why they draw the figures so you can color within the lines! Anyone with half a brain knows that. I was disgusted watching these little morons just scratching zigzag lines across each page. Colors all over the place. Ignoring the lines. How could they expose me, a genius in the rough, to this bizarre gang? What I didn’t realize at the time was that Ma needed a break from me. Looking back, I know I was a handful. I was a daddy’s girl; spoiled rotten to the core. Suffering through my regimented days at kindergarten, I later figured out that time away from me was like a day at the spa for Ma. She needed the rest.
With all the angst and stress of being away from Ma on a daily basis, somehow I survived kindergarten and thankfully avoided any mental or physical scarring. The next September, Ma registered me for first grade at St. Monica Catholic School, which was three blocks away from our house. It was a welcome challenge for me, which I took on without any fuss. I was thankful to finally be among children with functioning brains. I tackled the advanced curriculum with ease, sailing to the top of my class. The nuns went so far as to contact my parents to authorize skipping me from fifth grade to sixth grade because I made straight A’s in everything. However, no one asked me how I felt about being skipped or how I felt about leaving my friends behind and trying to get accustomed to a new group of nerds. But that’s another chapter in my childhood. Nevertheless, everyone in the family was so proud of me. Surprising to me, I was finally growing up.