A VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

 

An VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

The Rosebud Landscape with Horses

While raising my children, I found time to write. No longer working OUTSIDE my home, I would get up early, write before my beauties had arisen. During that time, I started a memoir of my own life. Though my age did not require that decision, my mother was a treasure of memory, information. I needed to mine that knowledge sooner than later. Below is an excerpt from 10055 Wood Street, my memoir. It emphasizes how isolated we were from diversity, from people of color. How singular life was. Thank God for my mother’s open heart, for books, and for travel to the crowded streets of downtown Chicago where the real and true world was growing.

NOTE: In the memoir, SHE is my mother, who became a widow with three children in her early 30’s.

*   *   *

She needs help and so weeks after my father dies, there are borders. Our first is Jenny Mae, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, who we first meet when she comes out of my bedroom wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. My brothers and I are in the upstairs hallway, the oldest, John, who at his young age knows a little about much, reveals right away that he is disappointed. He was expecting Jenny Mae to appear in feathers and he tells her so. She smiles, a beautiful quiet smile. He explains that he reads, that he has seen Indians on television, and doesn’t she at least have a headdress?

Jenny will live with us for about four years, her major duty being to help take care of the youngest, Bill. He is only three months. 

It was not uncommon in our neighborhood for families to have young Indian women from the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud Reservations working for them. I only learn much later that it’s a mixed blessing for these women, because in that time period, they are paid very little. Sadly, even rather “enlightened” families are eager to take advantage. As she becomes more comfortable with us, Jenny tells my mother that the family she previously worked for had her doing laundry, cooking and cleaning their entire home. And for this she was paid only fifteen dollars a month. Deciding she was done, Jenny packed her things, boarded a train to Ohio to visit her brother, a doctor with a wife and eight children.

But when my father dies, a good friend of our family, Jay Adler, arranges for Jenny to come back to Chicago and work for us. Jay has promised better wages. Yes, my mother will pay Jenny $15.00 a week.

Jenny folds Bill’s laundry, changes him, gives him a bottle, walks him in his buggy. Bill is as blonde as a shot of sunshine, Jenny as dusky as twilight. When people stop, admire her baby, they can’t help but remark that the baby’s father must be blonde. Jenny only smiles and says yes, he is.

But still angry at losing my father, and still very shy—it takes me a while. But when I am more comfortable, I let her hold me, and she talks to me about my dreams. We imagine. We build towers, castles and rose gardens. We make the princes come riding on their horses. Jenny is in her early twenties. Later, I will learn more about Indian reservations, her large family, their poverty, her eagerness to help herself, help her family.

The castles Jenny creates are real to me. The sound of her quivering voice forces these towers to break through piles of clouds. And though I am child and would not know—Jenny’s own dreams are rocky, like the hills of South Dakota.

Lovely and kind Jenny Mae is also intelligent and capable. Later she will leave us, use her long, graceful fingers to become a skilled dental hygienist. She will move to San Diego where she believes her dusky skin will be more accepted. There she will marry a man, Ken from Kentucky. They will have two children, a boy and a girl. But he will drink, call her names, leave her. Jenny will work hard to support her two children, take a bus and a train to come back and visit us, later die in her early fifties.

Back in Chicago, we will get this news, and my mother, always considerate and loving, will try to hold on to the threads of Jenny’s life, keeping in touch with her son and her daughter.

Post Script: We lived in a small community south of Chicago. It was through an acquaintance of my mother’s, a restaurant owner who had lots of “business dealings” going on, that we were able to invite Jenny into our home. Looking back, I smile. The restaurant business can be a tough one. His restaurant was bombed in the 60’s. But during all of this questionable stuff, this man had a large heart. He did much to help Native Americans.

Background Information from the Internet: About the Sicangu Sioux. Rosebud Reservation is home to Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. The Lakota were traditionally the ultimate representative of the Plains Indian culture, with organized bands, dependence on the buffalo for food, clothing, etc. and emphasis on warring and raiding.

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers make up the Siouan language family, which inhabited over 100 million acres of what is now Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century…The Lakota acquired horses around 1740 and shortly thereafter crossed the Missouri River. They arrived in the Black Hills area around 1775, and at about the same time they divided into seven tribes, one of which was the Sicangu. 

History of the Reservation. Under terms of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Lakota were placed on one large reservation that encompassed parts of North and South Dakota and four other states. After defeating the Indian tribes in the Plains Wars of the 1870s, the United States confiscated 7.7 million acres of the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills and created several smaller reservations. The Sicangu were assigned to live on the Rosebud Reservation.

For the rest of her life, my mother did what she could to fund organizations that supported our Native American Communities.

 

14 thoughts on “A VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

  1. …and I am Bill, Beth’s youngest brother, who Jenny Mae cared for. I only remember her as I grew to a level of maturity where I could associate her with living in our home. Later on I have images of Mom talking about her, and the brief visits we had with Jenny Mae. But what I did learn about having Jenny Mae in our lives, was the kindness and care my Mom exhibited towards everyone she touched. That put a light in my soul that will forever burn. And whatever success I have had in my life it is because of the example my Mom set. I honestly think that Jenny Mae, had much to do with that.

  2. Jenny Mae sounded like an amazing, kind soul. So sorry her life turned out to be difficult and troubled. So cool to hear from your brother Bill, above. Jenny Mae sounded like she had an impact on many lives.

    • Thanks so much, Laurie. She did. She allowed me to enter a story telling and imagination phase in my life, which my busy mother might not have had time for. I remember it so clearly. That early dreaming helps us as writers.

  3. What an amazing mother you had! I can’t think of anything more important to teach a child than kindness and respect! I would have loved to meet her. And how wonderful to have your Jenny! How precious to have someone live in your home and BE the example of an entire civilization!
    My own parents brought immigrants over from Germany after WW2. Couples and several young women. They would work on the ranch to repay the cost of their flight, then move on to marriage and/or education. Several were still in touch with my parents throughout their lives. Such lovely, lovely people!

    • I see negative and positive in my story. Positive that my mother and our family welcomed Jenny. Positive that she went on to become a dental hygienist, but negative that people even in our neighborhood singled her out because of the COLOR OF HER SKIN. When will we learn.

  4. This was a beautiful story, even with Jenny’s relatively early death. That was a great gift your Mom gave you and your brother – and Jenny, the gift of understanding.

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