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.

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