If you haven’t already, I suggest you go back and read Part I of Innocence Lost and Found, in which I began describing the third-grade year I spent in an idyllic New Jersey town. Only, it wasn’t so idyllic…
There was math. And politics.
My mom wanted me to be friends with Nancy, the rich girl with a dress-up closet the size of my bedroom. But getting to know Nancy when our friend Melinda was around was like trying to make a drive to the basket in the NBA. Meanwhile, my boyfriend Walter had a black friend Earl who introduced me to his sister Cassandra. Cassandra and I just clicked, like BFFs sometimes do. But my Mom put a stop to that, pronto.
Life continued apace. And then Nancy had a birthday party.
What eight-year-old wouldn’t look forward to a party in a mansion with an indoor swimming pool? Mom helped me pick out a present. I arrived in high spirits, and a maid led me to the greenhouse-like spa. And then I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw…
All the girls in the deep end of the pool. Except one. Dark-skinned Cassandra, standing alone in the shallow end. Some of the girls in the deep end were frolicking . Some were hanging onto the side. They were hanging onto the side farthest from Cassandra.
It took a minute for it all to sink in. Then I did the only thing I could do. I got into the shallow end.
I wish I could say that it was because I had decided to single-handedly fight racism. But the truth is, I couldn’t swim. And I wish I could say that, one by one, the others came to the shallow end to join us. But they didn’t. They continued to splash and dunk and hang far away. Cassandra and I stood alone and carefully dipped our shoulders and talked and giggled.
And if my social climbing mom heard about it later, she never said a word.
Not long after, I received an invitation to visit Nancy – without Melinda. As I headed for the curving staircase leading to her magnificent room, she beckoned me outside. French doors led to an opulently landscaped patio and garden. Nancy kept walking. Soon we entered a deep wood. The trees were so tall that they blocked out the sky. As my eyes adjusted to the dim, I began to notice that the ground was covered in moss and fern and violets. Lush forest green and brilliant purple and quiet.
As we walked further, the moss turned loamy, so wet that our sneakers sank a little as we stepped. The trees were covered in hanging vines. And then the mulch turned to swamp, slow and quiet as a snake, so covered in algae that only rivulets of water warned us not to step there. A fallen tree led to the other side. Nancy urged me to balance my way across behind her.
We moved carefully through dense undergrowth. A faraway sound grew louder. Suddenly, it became a roar, as we reached the bank of a rushing river. Perhaps it was only a creek, but it seemed like a river to me, as blue and white water splashed and crashed over any boulders in its way. A rope bridge across it led to a meadow, and beyond that, the fence that marked the end of Nancy’s property. We gazed in silence. And then it was time to head back.
(In Licking the Spoon, my book in progress about food, sex and relationship, I discuss the ways in which we humans – and how we eat, make love and form connections with each other – are all a part of nature’s spectacular design.)
I walked home slowly. I had a lot to think about. And there was still more to come…
(To be continued.)