Don't Drink The Koolaid
Linda A. Dougherty
Copyright 2020 by Linda A. Dougherty
Photo courtesy of the author.
is both a catharsis for me and an invitation to my daughters to
understand my world which was so different than their own childhood.
It is a story of hope too, that we do not have to remain stuck in the
past but reconciliation is always within reach if we dare to make the
was September 1968. While integration roiled throughout the US, it
seemed only Catholics were the minority in my high school. Those of
us in that minority would whisper, “I’m a Catholic are
you?” We blended in, a secret subset.
that count I was somewhat a mongrel with a non-practicing Protestant
father and a first generation Italian Catholic mother. Back in the
Fifties, that was another kind of crossing a line. My father had to
promise to allow me to be raised Catholic and so he did. My
grandmother, Dad’s mom, sang her beloved Gilbert and Sullivan
songs to me.
called Little Buttercup — dear Little Buttercup,
could never tell why,
But still I'm called Buttercup — poor
Sweet Little Buttercup I ”
favorites were her old Sunday School songs that she crooned as she
wrapped me up in her pillowy arms whenever she would visit.
Loves the Little Children…all the children of the world….red
and yellow, black and white….they are precious in His
sight….Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
believed my grandmother, every word she said or sang. But that world
of color was not my world in our then-rural township outside of
Philadelphia. My world was as easy as the gentle summer breeze that
brushed the gold-tasseled corn fields crowding behind our yard’s
back edge and it was vanilla like the soft serve ice cream we savored
as a summer treat.
fact that I didn’t see a single “red” or “yellow”
or black face in elementary school did not seem unusual to me. I
didn’t understand that I was living a segregated life. It was
the only life I knew until one day in high school.
dad was busy during the sixties, giving a running commentary about
the nightly news on TV. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. The
Cold War, Vietnam, Presidential elections, Civil Rights Movement- he
interpreted it all for mom and me.
his estimation, President Kennedy was bad for the United States,
though I didn’t understand why. Like most kids, I was caught in
the net of hope cast upon troubled waters by a young president. My
father pointed out a domed building at the nearby Johnsville Naval
Air Base and told me proudly that it was where the fledgling American
space program trained its astronauts to withstand pressures in space.
He called it a centrifuge and my imagination spun a picture of the
future that included the flying cars the Jetsons drove across our TV
on our pitted dirt road was quiet and slow. Long rows of tomatoes
rumored as grown for Campbell some years and soy beans other years
stretched the length of the road with only the antique plastered
stone farm house and a spring-fed pond breaking the flow of rolling
fields. On our side of the street, dark green swathes of woods stood
between unimposing ranch homes or small cottages on acre lots dotted
along the dusty road’s edge, hemmed in by long cornfields
pushing from behind . There were no children my age to keep me
nose burrowed into the pages of one Bobbsey Twins book after another.
I became enamored of the Childhood of Famous Americans books, then
the Little Maid series, and passed then on to Nancy Drew and all of
Baum’s tales of Oz. Tinkerbell flitted in on Sunday evenings
to bring me The Wonderful World of Color, though Disney’s
impish fairy stayed black and white for a couple of years beyond the
introduction of the marvels of technicolor on TV. A color TV came
later into our house than in other houses.
was a different kind of sameness. I loved climbing on jovial Mr.
Diamond’s bus. “Good morning, Puddle Jumper,” he’d
smile in the mornings. On rainy days, he’d conspiratorially
encourage my propensity to stamp my red boots into every puddle along
the dirt road between my house and the bus stop at the end of the
road to the dismay of my cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness mother. Dad’s
nightly commentary was the only snag in a tapestry of
smoothly woven threads in my daily life.
November 22, 1963, my fourth grade teacher came back from lunch,
crying, and told us between tears that President Kennedy was dead.
She‘d played a record about Kennedy and his little boy, John
John, right before lunch with the promise that she would finish
playing it afterwards. We never heard the rest of the recording. Now
that little boy and his sister would not have his daddy and we
would not have a young president who wanted to change the world. We
fourth graders sat silently at our desks, lost.
bought a commemorative Life magazine and clipped newspaper articles
to paste into his scrapbook. Not that he rejoiced in anyone being
robbed of their life, but he hated all Kennedys as the worse kind of
liberals…. phonies in his eyes. But, he was solemn the day
Camelot died and we watched the funeral procession with the rest of
the First Lady became an icon of courage, he curled his lip with
disdain saying, “Jackie wasn’t trying to help the Secret
Service man get onto the car to help the president after he was shot,
she was trying to get away to save herself.” I just kept
grandparents, Maria and Guiseppe, like all good Italians, had a
picture of JFK in a place of reverence right next to Pope John on
their kitchen wall next to the wall of cabinets. The Sacred Heart of
Jesus was in the living room. I was proud that JFK had been the
first Catholic president because I knew it was important to half of
my family. My father kept quiet in the home of my grandparents out of
respect for his in-laws.
believed firmly that people should “stick to their own kind.” He talked
with an edge in his voice about Sammy Davis Jr. who
“married a white woman”. I wondered at his anger, but
knew better than to ask questions which would be seen as a challenge.
remember musing as I grew what “their own kind” meant. The only people
of color who I saw regularly came through the TV
screen when dad watched the evening news. Sometimes, we saw black
people walking along the sidewalks when we visited my Italian
grandparents in South West Philly. I quietly watched them from the
back seat of the car as if that sliding glimpse would help me
Dr. King was assassinated that April of my eighth grade year, I knew
our world was wrong if a man who said he had a dream could be killed
simply for the color of his skin. But I kept silent. After all, my
father made it very clear that he was the king of his castle.
would inevitably growl at the TV, talking disdainfully about black
leaders on TV who were “wearing his ‘Ralph Abernathies’”
in reference to overalls. But, it was Dr. King who’d asked
protestors in 1963 to join him in wearing overalls until Easter not
Ralph Abernathy. I didn’t know that then, but the overalls
didn’t offend me anyway the way it seemed to irritate my father
and I still kept quiet.
got a lot wrong. He got a lot right too. Important things. He was a
good father. He taught me so much that was good. Be polite. When
someone gives you a gift, write them a thank you note whether you
like the gift or not- it’s the thought that counts. “If
you do anything, do it well.” Save your money. Always tell the
truth. Of course there was the “close the door, do you live in
a barn?” He didn’t make much, but he worked hard and was
an honest man. He was a faithful father and husband. He read to me
almost daily when I was little and gave me a love for books that
hasn’t stopped. He wasn’t afraid of showing
affection…..or what he considered righteous anger. My memory
is full of fond memories and love my parents gave me. Good things I
built my life upon.
I met Elzada. We somehow found each other, early in September of
1968. I don’t remember how we crossed paths, too many years
passed between then and now. But, she was there, smiling quietly.
Friendly. Different only in the tones of our skin and curl of our
hair- but I knew in that meeting that we were the same in all the
the fall of my freshman year, Elzada and I were heady with prospects
of all we would do- friends. We laughed and talked at lunch. We
made plans. I went home and talked about my new friend. Could I
invite her over to our house? When it became clear my new best
friend, my only real friend was black, my father sat me down to
explain the way of life in America in 1968- or at least, the way he
message was unmistakably clear- I could not invite Elzada to our
house. I could not use his phone that he paid for to call her. This
man who I’d adored as a young child looked concerned and
earnest. “ Don’t be her friend in school, “ he
said, “ other kids will look at you differently.” He was
convinced he was right and I was equally certain he was wrong. I just
clamped my mouth shut tightly and internally combusted.
Monday morning, I stood, ashamed to tell her the truth. “My
dad said you can’t come over because you are black, and my
parents won’t let me use the phone to call you and I have to
obey them because it is their phone that they pay for and their
house,” I blurted, “but they can’t make me not
talk to you in school!” I was embarrassed and angry.
what seemed like weeks after my confession, she told me that she
received a scholarship to attend a nearby private Quaker school. I
felt glad for her to have the opportunity, but sad I would not see
her. I moved on, adopting the same survival tactic as I employed in
middle school: find a few friends, work hard, and keep a low profile.
Nobody ever felt like Elzada- truly the right kind, but I managed. I
believe people today would remember me as a “nice” girl,
if they remember me at all.
later, I matured enough to imagine how my well-meant words probably
wounded my friend even more. Then, at almost fourteen, I fancied our
fledgling friendship was the victim of parental blind prejudice. I
felt cheated. Later, I realized I had unwittingly set her up for
hurt. I should have known it was going to end that way. My father
had been telling me that message for years; I just didn’t want
to believe it.
didn’t understand something she probably knew about me- I was
an almost fourteen- year old coward despite my bravado. I didn’t
need to have courage, but she was born to it by necessity of the
color of her skin. Her innate dignity was partly of what drew me to
six or seven years ago, I looked her up on her school’s alumni
website. I saw she confirmed intentions to attend her class reunion
that year. I guess high school meant more to her than it did to me;
I have never once attended a reunion. Elzada didn’t wander far
from home it seems. I have lived in North Africa and now live in New
England, three hundred miles from home. I pushed away the thought of
Elzada with maybes- “maybe she doesn’t remember me…”
it will be too weird.”
sometimes you are surprised with a second chance, an opportunity of
grace. I decided recently to once more try to find a the flesh and
blood woman Elzada rather than continue to keep company with the
ghostly girl of 1968 who was tall with thin legs and a big smile.
computer search of her name turned up the barest of traces that led
to dead ends. I found a blurred black and white photo that showed
two African American girls in a Class of 1972 group graduation photo
on Facebook. The group is closed to alumni. This time, I didn’t
give up. I emailed the director of alumni at the school and told her
my story. She forwarded my email to Elzada who was in their files
and I got a short email, in fact two, today. She remembered the name
of the town where I lived at almost fourteen and told me to forget
the past and remember the good.
fifty-two years later on a Friday night in June 2020, at 7:00 pm,
our voices tentatively reached out to one another. Since then, we’ve
emailed each other photographic snippets of our lives. Two adults
trying to retie a broken cord.
spiked cup of Koolaid my world handed me spilled on the ground
between my father and I the day I told Elzada she was the wrong color
to be my friend.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Linda's story list and biography
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