Norman Rockwell and Me*
Not white, my first school day dress had been
Dark plaid cotton, Mother’s genuflection
To season and weather—September’s green
Humid soup forever. And my shoes, a brown
Sturdy leather with laces, had to last ‘til June.
Still, Rockwell’s girl could have been my twin.
White schoolhouse doors, my steppingstone
With Mother, not government men.
A navy blue wool jumper, on second thought,
Was my first school day outfit. Mother bought
A white blouse, too, then marched me where nuns taught.
“It’s January. She just turned six and can count.”
Mother never blinked; so that was that.
The portrait girl walked with much more debate.
From my white school days, she was ten years late.
In grownup twists and turns both of us caught.
Caught. From winter to spring one child’s face
And name yet blooms in that first-grade class.
Theresa Z. A bump in her nose,
Brown hair cut short, to keep out of her eyes,
Barrette on the side—how sharp my eye still is!
Some days I might wait for her fancy rowhouse
Door to open and we’d stroll together in grace
Talking ribbons and dolls and Christmas.
Could I visit and play? Her mom asked mine.
OK. But did Mother propose in kind?
Our crisscross curtains equally refined?
In hindsight, probably not. But why decline
Sliding boards, monkey bars, and swings—all behind
A high watchdog fence? The drift in the wind
I can only guess, though Mother could defend
My friend. Did the projects offend? Even then?
So, how did I meet Cookie? The project playground?
Where else? Her mom, “straight out the Great Depression,”
Mother guessed. “Stringy hair, crooked teeth, sunken
And raw-bone.” She let Cookie and her brother come
Over for TV because they didn’t have one
Yet. Willie the Worm, Krazy Kat, Kukla, Fran
And Ollie, Farmer Alfalfa. Any cartoon
Wilder than Hickok, Lone Ranger, Kit Carson? None.
The projects. Deep in the city my everyday
Was filled with shady trees between school and play
Because Mother never broke her rule: “Never stay
Two nights under a colored only sign.” Did free
Clouds shower, free sun spin—equally
On our three yellow rooms in the projects? Maybe.
How else—without hoopla, without one dot of stray
Spit—I thrived sixteen years before Rockwell’s hooray?
*The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell, an illustration in “Look,” January 14, 1964, commemorates the day Ruby Bridges integrated an elementary school in New Orleans by court order. Rockwell’s New Kids in the Neighborhood is an illustration for article on integration in the suburbs for “Look,” May 16, 1967.