Brown and White World

Dear Nena:

I remember the first, and only, time I came to your house. It was wintertime, and the cold Detroit wind made me grateful that mom had buttoned up my coat. It was rough and wooly, but the collar was velvet. The steps were high; I must have been about 6.

Late that afternoon 1961 I stood fidgeting on your porch, watching my breath become steam and waited for you to answer the door. My mother was tense . She held my hand too tightly and whispered to me: “Nena’s husband’s name is Ivory, and you will not make fun, do you understand?”  I nodded, clutching my favorite toy, a small stuffed dinosaur.

You and I used to watch Bowery Boys movies together. You would be ironing the white shirts, in your white uniform. We’d set up the ironing board  in front of the tiny television, and laugh and laugh. The Lakeview Street house was the first home I remember. It had white woodwork, two stained glass windows high up on either side of the white brick fireplace. In the afternoon the glass would throw color on the pale walls.

Your house was small, like ours. But inside it was all warm colors of brown, like you. It smelled like vegetable soup. Brown brick fireplace, brown carpet, golden brown sofa. An afghan with many colors draped over an old comfy chair. In that chair was the blackest man I had ever seen. He seemed incredibly old to me. I was scared of him.

I let go my mothers hand and ran to you, hugging you. You squeezed me back, and I snuggled in your skirts while you spoke with my mother. Dad and Ivory exchanged a few words, and then my father handed you a gift. When I saw that present, I realized it was Christmastime, and was suddenly aware I hadn’t brought anything for you.

stieffdinoYou thanked them politely and set the package on the coffee table. I stood up and looked at Ivory, who smiled very gently, eyes crinkling at me.

“Merry Christmas, Nena. I brought you this.” I reached up with my much-loved dinosaur. You bent down and received it graciously, your beautiful brown eyes shining.

“Thank you so much, Patty, that is surely the finest present I have ever received.”

I beamed.

My mother stiffened. She addressed Nena.

“Of course you should give that back to her.”

You ignored her, and placed the toy on the mantlepiece, making a place of honor for it next to the creche. You thanked me again, and stepped  towards the door thanking my parents again for the gift.

Feeling a little braver I waved bye-bye to Ivory, and he smiled, big this time, flashing big white teeth. I think one of them was gold. My mother hustled me out the door and down the slippery walk and into the back of the car.

“She shouldn’t have accepted that!” she muttered angrily, lighting a cigarette.

My father made mollifying noises. I wondered what she was angry about. I decided I better not ask any questions.

As  I looked out the window at the gray slush and early dusk falling on the city, I smiled thinking about the next time you would come to do the washing, and we could watch the Bowery Boys together.

8 thoughts on “Brown and White World

  1. Lovely and touching. How innocent and loving we are until the world beats us for it.


  2. Patrise, what a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it. I’m wondering how many of your friends have “The Help” moments tucked away in their heads. I have plenty, and why are they always either so sad or so wonderful?

  3. Very wonderful story! I love that she totally understood your love, and you hers.

  4. Josephine Withers August 28, 2013 — 5:38 pm

    This is the most beautiful writing I’ve experienced from your “pen,” Patrise. Truly Mistressfull! I was reminded of a childhood friend I had who lived across the street from me, Priscilla. We were probably around 5 years old. We shared adventures and secrets, like comparing our privates (don’t think we had a name for them). At some point both my parents told me I was not to play with her anymore. No explanation, beyond “she’s not suitable,” or some such. It was only years later that I came to understand it must have been a class thing. Priscilla’s dad was a letter carrier, served in the Navy in WWII. This willful segregation did not stop my parents from accepting their hospitality the night our house burned down and they graciously took us in.

  5. Now THAT’S the ticket!!! Beautifully written—just enough exposition to feel complete, like a child might have viewed the experience, enough hints of detail–adult reaction, motivation of at least two characters—but not too much so as to over-write it. Thanks for sharing that.

  6. Patrise, I left a message for you on this writing, but once again I got led astray. Let me know if you got it. I dislike that you can’t leave a simple comment without getting into a lot of rigamarole with leaving your name and password, etc. etc. Guess I just still haven’t figured out how this *&^%$#@ WordPress works!! XXXX

    1. I got both your comments, dear. thank you for reading!   at your service,


      Patrise Henkel Clearwell Consulting P.O. Box 882 Accokeek, MD 20607


      “Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.”

      -Gloria Steinem


  7. loved this…….you’re good, woman….

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