Jewish World Review
May 25, 2009
/ 2 Sivan 5769
The Old Lady in Black
The most vivid memories aren't those carved in stone but the ones etched into the mind. Memory deepens with the years, the way a river carves through rock, slowly revealing new layers, creating canyons. Sometimes the current runs deep, and memory overflows. Maybe on an anniversary, or when you hear a certain song, or for no discernible reason at all. And it all comes back.
On this Memorial Day, I think of the old lady in black. She was a fixture of my childhood in Shreveport, never speaking, but always there in one of the little shops up the street just a few doors from our own.
Texas Avenue was lined with such shops, each with living quarters above. Every family had its own history, customs, story to tell whether Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Syrian (now known as Lebanese) or Other.
The thriving black downtown was a couple of long blocks west, complete with its own stores, restaurants and cafés, newspaper office, movie theater, and night life.
In short, mine was an all-American neighborhood.
We kids spent a lot of time underfoot in other families' homes, mainly in the kitchen. Long before I learned it was called baklava when bought in a bakery, I watched Aunt Lillie up the street roll out and stretch the philo dough, again and again, for baklewi, till it covered the whole kitchen table and drooped over the edge to be filled with nuts and fruit before being baked to a flaky brown. The first taste was served fresh out of the oven, dripping honeyed goodness. There's nothing like food as a preservative of memory.
Years later, I would learn Texas Avenue was considered a tough neighborhood, which came as a surprise. To a little boy, it was just the way life was. I would have been surprised to learn that my world was anything but warm and homey. I scarcely remember when the war came the Second World one. In my child's mind, it had always been there. Complete with bond drives and posters that said Remember Pearl Harbor and ration books and voices on the radio reporting from far-off places in a clear, neutral, standard American pronunciation. Nobody we knew actually spoke like that.
The war suffused all of life. There were the uniforms on the street, and the little cards that kids prized with their black silhouettes of different warplanes. The aircraft themselves might be spotted heading in and out of Barksdale Air Base across the river, and we competed with one another calling out B-17! B-24 Liberator! P-51! P-47! P-38 Lightning! …
Texas Avenue teemed with black tenant farmers and their families Saturdays, and with uniforms Saturday nights there was a bar up the street that regularly attracted the MPs. And a few storefronts up, in the back of a dry goods store, there was the old lady in black.
As a child I seldom saw her, but knew what had happened. Her boy Bill had been killed in the war, one of the early American casualties of so, so many in the Pacific. No one mentioned his name except maybe the grown-ups in hushed tones. I always stepped toward the outside of the sidewalk when passing her store. To a little boy there was something ominous in her silent vigil. Mourning is foreign to a child.
Years later, I brought my own kids back to visit the old neighborhood just to point out where this store or that one had been, and where this family or that one had lived, and where we'd gone to get RC Colas, or how you could hide in the alleys to ambush the other kids when you played soldiers or cowboys-and-Indians….
And there she was, still in black. Only she was sitting at the front of her store that day, and motioned me to bring the kids in. She wanted to know their names and how old they were, and insisted on getting them Cokes, and spoke of people who used to live in the neighborhood. It was only then that I realized she could smile.
The river of time had revealed a new layer. I no longer saw as a child or spied her through a glass darkly. The grief still hung on in her visage and bearing, as grief must, but the veil had been lifted. She seemed recalled to life. Maybe it was the presence of the children that had done it.
One more memory had deepened and broadened, one more connection made, one more soul had reached out hers? Mine? The children's? Maybe Bill's? The forever young, cut down in their youth, reappear in our thoughts as they were, unchanged. Even as those who treasure their memory grow older. The quick and the dead, the young and old, we all seemed of a piece that brief hour, sitting there, sipping Cokes, having our own Memorial Day.
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