When I was a kid, my brother and I used to call each other horrible names. Our parents forbade us saying “nigger,” so we substituted “jigaboo,” “colored,” “creole,” and “high yellow,” though not in their presence.
Still, words have ways of slipping out, just like if someone tells you never to laugh during a church service, and of course, just as soon as Dr. Winefordner begins preaching, you can’t hold back. So one day while playing puppets with my brother, my puppet, a silver donkey wearing a green hat, called his puppet, a brown horse wearing a red ribbon, a “nigger.” Our mother was in another part of the house and so didn’t hear my puppet, Frances. That was good.
What wasn’t good, however, was that our maid, Dissie, was dusting our room at the moment of the offense. I can still see her, bending behind our clothes dresser, making sure that all offending dust particles would never clog our sinuses. My brother’s mouth dropped open at the utterance, and we both looked at each other for long seconds. And then we continued our game. Dissie said not a word to us then or ever. At the nature of our offense, she didn’t even flinch.…
Parrots mate for life, I’m told. I don’t know how parrots show love, whether they crowd and peck, or groom and chatter with adoration. My parents pecked at each other in a partnership of endurance for most of their forty-five years together. My mother craved order, but my father loved a soiled nest, cluttering the house with newspapers, bus transfers, receipts, notes on napkins, Torah passages, and pamphlets from Jews for Jesus and Mary Baker Eddy. My mother forced him to take it all to a closet in the basement.
When we children had fledged and flown away, my parents sought new shelter. Their overheated one-bedroom in a subsidized high-rise, where the odors of curries and sofritos wafted through the hallways, offered no basement and no room for his clutter. Like a bird gathering twigs and leaves to construct its nest, my father gathered magazines, newspapers and letters along the walls and piled beside the couch. Dust-balls hovered like cumulus clouds around the litter, a noxious environment for two weary birds. My mother, beside herself, screeched, “I can’t keep up. “Why can’t you clean up after yourself?” Order had never been his priority. She exhausted herself tidying their shared space and grooming his toes and finger-nails, those hard sharp pointed claws.…