As soon as we settled into our apartment complex in Meridian, we found out that the black maid who cleaned the public areas of the buildings had been forbidden by the management to use the ladies room in the office and had been told to go out into the woods to do her business. The Navy wives who lived there had told her no way that was going to happen, she could come into any of our apartments whenever she wanted and use our bathrooms. Rob and I were immediately onboard with that and had the first indication about what we were going to face in Meridian.
While Rob immersed himself in ground school to prepare to learn how to fly jets, I was content to continue being the supportive, helpful wife my mother had always envisioned me becoming. But then one day, shortly after we had moved in, I had to face down the “Welcome Wagon” lady.
This bubbly, friendly, middle-aged southern lady breezed in through my door as soon as I opened it.
“Hi! Welcome to the neighborhood!” She carried a huge basket, full of “goodies” – cleaning supplies, coupons, packaged food and potholders, and held it up for me to see.
“I think you’re going to enjoy all the things I’ve brought you.”
I invited her to sit on the couch and she piled her treasures on my coffee table all the while keeping up a steady stream of one-way conversation in her Mississippi accent. I found her utterly charming and knew we would become the best of friends. Then she began to fill me in on everything a newcomer to Meridian needs to know, just as bright and chirpy as a friendly Blue Jay.
“Well, first I have to tell ya’ll a few things to get you acquainted with this town. I’m sure it won’t take you long to get the hang of everything and feel like you’ve lived here all your life.”
After hearing about the maid, I wasn’t convinced of that but she continued on.
“The closest church is the Community Methodist, just about a mile up the road. You don’t want to confuse it with the other church a few blocks up. That’s where all the nigras go.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly.
“They’d die if a white person ever showed up there, except for those nosy civil rights workers buttin’ in our lives where they got no business being. And the noise those nigras make -- clappin’, stompin’ and carryin’ on like they’re wild animals or somethin’.”
I had never thought much about racism in my teens. I was the typical self-involved teenager and was aware that black kids were being bused into my high school from another part of town but nobody thought it was much of a big deal. I was friendly with all the kids from different countries and ethnic backgrounds that went to my school but my world was pretty much limited to singing, cheerleading, and Dave. Listening to this woman talk, I was, for the first time in my life, being slapped in the face with the reality of deep-seated bigotry and as much as I detested what she was saying, I was strangely fascinated by the complete lack of awareness that she, as a “God-fearin’” woman, accepted her hate-filled existence as being completely normal. I stared at her as she continued on.
“Now the shopping center is almost across the street from here as you probably saw. But the market closest to you is the one you’ll want to go to. The market on the other side is for the nigras. And be sure you notice which drinking fountains and restrooms are for white people. God forbid you use the ones the nigras use.”
I was almost spellbound by the filth spilling out of her mouth and her obliviousness to her own degenerate self. I had to ask.
“Why? What happens if I go there?”
She laughed nervously.
“Well that’s the craziest thing I ever heard! Nigras can work for us and cut our grass and all that but the rest of the time they go their way and we go ours. It’s worked out fine for a hundred years.”
She looked at me suspiciously.
“Why would you ask a question like that?”
“Oh, it just sounds a little strange to me.”
“What do you mean strange?”
“Uh-huh,” she said as her mouth puckered up and her eyes became slits.
“Where you from anyway?”
“Seattle.” She had to think about that.
“Seattle? Isn’t that way up in the corner of the country somewhere near Canada? Are you Canadian? I didn’t think you could be in the Navy if you’re not a real American.”
I couldn’t take anymore. I stood up and walked to the door.
“I’m sorry but it’s time for you to leave. I have some important things I need to do right away like… organize my husband’s underwear.”
She was aghast.
“Well, you’re just about the rudest Navy wife I ever met.” She began piling her goodies back in the basket.
“You sure are ungrateful. And I was showing you all kinds of hospitality. Try to be nice to a Yankee.”
“Actually, I’m Norwegian.”
She gasped. “I don’t know what that is but there’s no need to forget your manners!”
As she hustled herself out the door, I couldn’t resist one last shot.
“Where was that church again? The one I’m not supposed to go to? I’m feeling in need of some loud singing, stomping and praising the Lord!”
I smiled at her as I firmly shut the door on her horrified expression.
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