While I’m on maternity leave with Baby Milo, a few dear friends have written pieces just for you all. I know you’ll enjoy them, and I hope you’ll find some new writers to follow and add to your community. Today’s post is from the spectacular Sharon Morgan.
This picture is eight year old me in 1959. As you can see, I am ensconced in a cushy chair with a big book on my lap. I loved reading!
The location is the living room of my family home on the Southside of Chicago. The cherished chair was a possession of my maternal grandparents with whom I lived with my divorced and (at that time) publicly-shamed mother. It was deep pink in color. It’s nubby texture scratched my skin when I curled into its embrace to read my precious books. I don’t know what book I was holding. Maybe The Wizard of Oz, which remains an all-time favorite.
I think I inherited my love of books from my mother. She was an avid reader with an ironic lack of ability to spell. Then again, it might have come from my grandmother, whose gold embossed set of Shakespeare’s writings had pride of place in the family bookcase, along with a book of America’s best loved poems.
The louvered doors at my back opened onto a solarium. The French windows beyond provided a perch from which my mother could watch as I walked less than one block twice a day to and from Corpus Christi Elementary School. Feeling imprisoned like Rapunzel, I often sat on the window ledge longing for “real life” on the street below.
The baby grand piano on my right was a family treasure. It was one of three player pianos commissioned for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, which convened in Chicago in 1893. At the time of this picture, the glory of this relic was unknown to me. It had been reduced in status to become a practice tool for music lessons mandated by Sister Mary Luke. The tall, white, taciturn representative of God on earth loomed ominously over the third grade black girl that was me. As she viciously pressed my fingers into the keys whenever I made a mistake, she reminded me that I was one lucky girl to have a piano at home! Chastened by her admonitions, I religiously (pun intended) did what I was told, relentlessly practicing scales and simple things like “Heart and Soul.”
My agony was relieved on the rare occasions when my beloved grandfather took to the piano to play “boogie woogie.” In my mind’s eye, I see him dressed in an impeccably-tailored suit, crisply-starched white shirt, and evocably-colored tie. An unlit El Producto cigar is anchored in his left cheek. Little me was enthralled as his honey brown hands flew effortlessly over the keys.
Know that when I smiled in this picture, I was absorbed in my own thoughts. My real passion was not music but writing. I cannot remember a time when I did not write. It proferred magic that transported me beyond barriers of shyness and approbation to a sacred space. Words written in perfect Catholic trained handwriting on a sheaf of “officially approved” lined paper enabled me to think through things and say what was really on my mind. It is through these devices that I found solace from the swirling influences that consumed my small world. Who was I? Where did I belong? WTF was going on in my life?!! I wrote when I was happy. I wrote when I was sad. I wrote when I didn’t know what else to do.
When I was 13, my mother gifted me with a diary. Its white leather cover was emblazoned with gold lettering that read “My Diary.” She gave me a tiny golden key with which to unlock it and encouraged me to write whatever I pleased. She said she would never violate my privacy to look.
Taking her at her word, I wrote almost daily, sharing my innermost thoughts with no one else but me. I truly believed she would never read my words and so expressed my thoughts with abandon. I wrote about challenges at school — travails with Sisters Luke, Giralda, and Theodore… my fear of growing up… the boy who tried to kiss me… Father Capistran groping my burgeoning breasts… my stepfather’s request to draw “dirty pictures” of naked girls. Interwoven into the angst of my burgeoning maturity, I described my mother with evil names and expressed rue over the day I was born.
Then came the day when my mother violated her promise. Upon reading my private thoughts, she exploded into a tirade. Brandishing “My Diary” as evidence of eternal damnation, she called me everything but a child of God. It became crystal clear that my diary was never meant to be secret. Its true intent was to provide a window into the private thoughts of her shy and secretive child. Most important was my christening of her as “Old Evil Ass.” Never mind the awful things I described about the behavior of others.
Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.