Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lye

The little me with big sister
Yesterday, I made a reference to vicious words being like caustic lye.  What would prompt me to use those words?  To even think of lye being thrown at someone?  To even know the severe damage, even death, that can result from a bucketful of lye thrown in someone's face?

Because it happened.  A long time ago. When I was a very young child.  To someone I knew.  Whose children I played with.  In a faraway time.  In a faraway land.  In a culture that no longer exists.

It happened in the mid-'50's in an apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia.  The post-war baby boom was in full swing.  Americans were jubilant.  We'd won WWII.  We were victorious.  President Eisenhower was in the White House.  America had gone from the depression, through the war years and had entered an unprecedented time of prosperity.  Americans were upwardly mobile.  Moms (for the most part) stayed at home with their children.  Dads went to work every day.  We lived in an apartment complex that was full of people like us, families, working their way upward to achieve that prize of their own home.  There was camaraderie.  The stay-at-home moms gathered their chairs together in a not-so-straight line every afternoon on good days to watch over the children playing in the courtyard - and gossip.  They not only watched over their own children, but everyone else's as well.  There was a measure of safety in that oversight.  Also a measure of fear as these women knew who you were and, more importantly, who your parents were.  One never knew what misdeeds might get passed on to unsuspecting parents.

In that era, in that time, in that place only whites lived in the apartment units.  Only African Americans were janitors. Still ... they were like family to us.  Father figures.  Kind.  Helpful.  All but one of them.

In the courtyard of the complex
We kids loved the fall of the year, when the leaves fell from the trees and were raked up into huge piles by the janitors.  We loved to run and jump into these glorious piles of leaves.  Feel the dryness, the crispness as they scattered under our jumps, our flailing arms and legs.  It never entered into our childish minds that we were creating more work for these men.  Most of them didn't seem to mind.  Maybe they enjoyed watching us enjoying the fall offering as much as we enjoyed jumping into the abundance.

Except one man.  He was young.  He was new on the staff.  We were warned by other children who had been jumping before we arrived not to jump in his pile.  He was "mean".  I didn't believe it.  Mean?  Our janitors were never mean.  I trusted in humanity.  So myself and some others jumped into his pile to face the wrath of one very snarly man.  He was indeed, as we had been warned, "mean".  Us children avoided this man.  We never went near him again.

My playmates had used their words to warn me about this man.  We children knew he was "mean" and to avoid him.  But no one warned our parents.

The place where the women gathered
The story didn't end there.  It didn't end with children and leaves.  It ended one tragic day when this man quit his job.  He spent the morning before he left in his unit, cooking up a lye-based concoction on his stove.  He then went to the unit directly above the one we were living in, a unit with a family of five:  stay-at-home mom, working dad, three young children:  two of whom were close in age to my older sister and myself.  We knew them well.  We played with the kids.

Midday, he knocked on her door.  She opened the door.  He threw the bucket of lye in her face, then left.  She ran around her floor knocking, pounding on doors in her pain and fright trying to get someone to help her.  Eventually someone must have.  She was taken to the hospital.  Prognosis:  survival impossible.

The back of the complex
Her "crime"?  She had walked on this janitor's freshly mopped floors to access the laundry room.  Later, my mom said that she had watched this janitor sit on the stairs watching, muttering to himself. What was he telling himself on those days?  What negative words did he tell himself that eventually turned into this action?  Was he simply angry that his work was being messed up by thoughtless people?  Why did he choose this particular woman?  Why did he single her out above the others in the building, including in my own mom?  I'll never know.

My mom often recounted how she had once walked on his wet floor to go to the laundry room.  Followed by the words:  "It could have been me."

 Fear followed us now.  Life, as we children knew it, was changed forever.  Trust was broken.

Words.  Words spoken to others can warn.  Words not spoken to warn can hurt others.  Words spoken to ourselves define who we are, how we think of ourselves eventually controlling our actions.  Words.

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