My mother’s parents ran an antique store not far from their home at Fourth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia. In the summer months, they operated a bath house on the boardwalk in the seaside resort of Wildwood, New Jersey. In addition, eighteen years separated my mother from her oldest sibling. Needless to say, “family time” was a rare event. While the three older brothers were out doing “adult things”, my mother and her older sister were left in the very capable hands of Minnie Ellis, or as my mother affectionately called her “My Minnie”. Minnie was technically “the housekeeper”, but she was much, much more. She was cook, baby-sitter, playmate, disciplinarian, teacher and friend. With my grandparents’ overwhelming responsibilities of running one business (and five months out of the year, two businesses), Minnie was the perfect parental supplement. She earned the love and respect of my mother and her family, so much so, that she was viewed as part of the family herself.
One day, my mother at around eight or nine years old, arrived home after school. She found Minnie in the kitchen preparing that evening’s meal. My mother spoke right up and caught Minnie by surprise.
“You’re black.”, my mother said.
“Am I?”, answered Minnie, not at all flustered by my young mother’s assertion, “Who told you that?”
“A boy at school. He said that you’re black and I’m white.”, my mother continued.
Minnie produced a bleached white, cotton dishcloth and draped it across my mother’s arm. “Hmmm”, she began and stroked her chin, ” this rag is white and you don’t look white. You look pink to me.” Then Minnie took off one of her shoes and aligned it with her own arm. She continued, “I sure don’t look like the color of this black shoe. I look brown.”
My mother observed the demonstration and understood Minnie’s message of how ridiculous the statement was. She momentarily felt ashamed, but then hugged and kissed Minnie and went on her way.
Years later, when my parents were dating, my mother met her future in-laws. My paternal grandparents were two textbook bigots, pure and simple in their ignorance and disdain for all people who they saw as “different”. After my parents’ wedding and brief honeymoon, they visited my father’s parents for the first time as husband and wife. Over dinner, they talked about the wedding and the guests. Then, my grandfather – my mother’s new father-in-law – said to my mother, “How could you bring yourself to kiss that…” and he used a horrible word, one that was at one time excised from copies of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer but features prominently in the lyrics of many current rap songs. A word that is euphemistically known as “The N Word”. A word that made my mother cringe and nearly throw up. She looked at her father-in-law, staring at him with eyes like twin lasers, and through clenched teeth, slowly and deliberately said, “Don’t you ever speak about ‘My Minnie’ that way. Ever!” She pronounced each syllable as though each one was its own word. My grandfather, that ignorant man, got the point loud and clear. My mother had little to say to him (but plenty to say about him) for the remaining fifteen years of his life.
In 1959, two years before I was born, my parents and my brother drove to Miami, Florida for a vacation. They loaded their packed suitcases and traveling provisons into my father’s brand new orange and white, tail-finned sedan and made their way South on Route 1. (For years, my mother joked that my brother stood up in the back seat for the entire trip.) The journey predated the sleek concrete highways of Interstate I-95. Route 1 snaked though tiny, quaint burgs along the eastern seaboard. The pre-Josh Pincus Family eagerly sampled the simple offerings of a culture that moved at a slower pace from the big-city bustle of Philadelphia. One afternoon, they pulled the car into Jessup, Georgia, as my mother was intrigued by the promise of authentic Southern cooking advertised on a sign several miles back. Since the area of commerce was fairly small, locating the eatery was easy and the Pincuses went in and prepared for a Dixie feast. According to my mother’s recollections, the “authentic” Southern cuisine consisted of small, dried-out pieces of chicken, canned vegetables and Pillsbury biscuits (recognized by Mom since she had made them countless times herself). During the meal, a large spider descended from the ceiling on a single strand of web and wiggled its many legs just inches from my mother’s nose.
Her appetite ruined, my mom sought salvation in the fresh air. My father unhappily paid the tab and followed my mother and brother to a gas station across the street. Figuring he’d fill the tank, he parked the car adjacent to one of the pumps and asked the attendant to “fill ‘er up”. My mother spotted a water fountain by the station’s office and felt a cleansing drink would wash away the remnants of the awful lunch. She pressed the button on the spout and leaned down, bringing her lips closer to the stream of water. Suddenly, a scream pierced the air.
“What are you doing???” A windburned man in overalls was rushing out of the office and yelling at my mother in a dry Southern accent.
“What am I doing?”, she asked, bewildered, “I’m getting a drink.”
The man pointed to the base of the fountain, specifically to two lines of words stenciled on the front. “That’s for colored only”, he said.
My mother stepped back and – sure enough – in large white letters, the words “Colored Only” were painted on the tank, reinforcing the same angry, hateful directive that the gas station man initiated. My mother was horrified. Horrified that this situation existed in her world. She said nothing as the man watched her back away from the fountain. She joined her family in the car and sat silently in the passenger’s seat for a good portion of the drive.
These incidents stayed with my mother her entire life and she related these stories quite often as lessons to my brother and me. The most important lesson my mother taught me was not to waste time giving an audience to stupidity.
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Sometimes your posts kind of say it all and there’s nothing left to add. My grandmother was a “Minnie” for some households with children for much of her adult life and I can only hope that she was treated as respectfully. For obvious reasons, she didn’t talk about it very much. I really enjoyed this story.
If you haven’t read “The Help” yet, you should get it. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m told it’s good too. Good for your mom. The world will be a better place when people see others as people instead of stopping at their skin color.
What a powerful story and wonderful illustration. My life was briefly touched by this remarkable woman. Her life was far too short although filled with many, many experiences. I wish that she were still with us, guiding, teaching, and sharing our lives. We miss you Mama Pincus.
What wonderful episodes to pass on to today’s “youth.” It is easy for any of us to forget the bad old days. Your story makes me grateful that I lived in wild, progressive California where that sort of thing had pretty much been eradicated by “my time” in the 1950’s.
I loved this Mr. Pincus! I wish there were more Minnie’s around, they could help with the monsters so many of us created know as teens!!! 🙂 Fabulous work…heavy sigh, you’re my idol now! Lol!
That’s quite some history your parents have passed on to you. Thank God for good people back then, black “and” white, and that good people will continue to exist in our country. I think we’d all be in trouble if the bigots outnumbered the “good people.”
For a few reasons, I’m glad you all had Minnie in your lives and I’m sure she was glad she had your family. I always wonder though, if these nurturing black women had children at home and if they were able to get the same attention and care.
Thanks for letting me know about the post. It’s very heartwarming.