Changing My Mind About Pig’s Feet and Cornrows

Dara Lurie reflects on what she discovered about her own racism while living at a state-run home for disadvantaged children.

Dara Lurie | Longreads | January 2018 | 12 minutes (3,011 words)

This essay is published in collaboration with TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering transformative memoir workshops and performances that invite storytellers and audience members to explore new perspectives. By bravely and candidly sharing their personal stories, storytellers become agents of change for social justice movement building. Dara told an abbreviated version of this story onstage at TMI Project’s inaugural Black Stories Matter show in March 2017.

Peggi’s voice comes muffled through the closed door to her office. Her words come in rapid bursts with long silences in between. In the dance studio, my 6-year-old brother races his tiny Hot Wheels car across the floor. On Peggi’s daybed, I curl over the open pages of a worn fairy tale book kept on a shelf just for me. I keep my eyes fixed on the pages of the book, even when Peggi comes in the room. I am trying to forget the last two days of my life; the guttural terror of Mommy’s screams, my grandmother’s pitiful moaning and my Uncle Stanley’s grim-faced silence as he drove us back to New York. Now, Peggi is standing over me, speaking.

“Your mother had a cerebral aneurysm,” she says. “A blood vessel exploded in her head. She might not survive the operation.”

Peggi speaks in the flat tone of naked truth. One day, I will understand Peggi’s courage; her rare ability to look life straight in the eye. But at this moment, I hate her truthfulness, and I wish she would go away. I look back to my book to signal my lack of interest, but Peggi continues.

“Even if she does survive, the doctor says she might be a vegetable for the rest of her life.”

“When can I get my Halloween costume?” I ask when Peggi stops talking.

The slap comes as quick as lightning, scorching the side of my face.

“I hate you!” I shout, hurling my book into a corner.

One evening, a couple of weeks later, Peggi sits down on the edge of the daybed where, as usual, my 10-year-old face is buried in a book. “It’s impossible,” she begins, “for me to run this school and take care of you both.” I look up from my story. “I’ve found a place where you and your brother will stay for the time being.” Her voice is soft, asking me to understand. “It’ll only be for a little while,” she says. I look back down at my book. “Until your mother gets better…” she continues, but I let her words dissolve into the background rumble of distant traffic.

***

Greer School is a place for children with nowhere else to go. I see this on the faces of the kids who stand around the edge of the driveway, staring as Peggi hugs and kisses me and my brother goodbye, then climbs back into the car she hired for the trip. I see it on their faces and in the drab, ugly clothing that no one has carefully picked for them. Many years later, a friend will ask me why none of our relatives took us in at the time. The question gives me pause. I have no answer, and I’m startled by the anger that rears its head when I consider asking either of my two surviving, now elderly, uncles. Better to leave it alone.

On my first morning at Greer, a state-run home for children, a girl named Trina smacks my face, knocking my glasses onto the grass. I’m following my new housemates along a path that leads to the schoolhouse when Trina turns to confront me.

“Why’d you take my book,” she demands. “It wasn’t your book,” I say. I’m determined not to show my fear. We’ve already had this exchange three or four times since my arrival yesterday.

“I told you it was my book,” Trina insists. “I found it under the couch,” I say, refusing to turn and look at Trina, whose face is about six inches from mine.

That’s when she smacks me with her open palm and my glasses fly off my face and onto the grass alongside the path.

I bend down to retrieve them, feeling my face get hot and my eyes start to water. But I clamp down the tears because I am not going to show my feelings.

“See that’s what you get,” Trina taunts. I stay silent and continue walking.

’Your mother had a cerebral aneurysm,’ my aunt says. ‘A blood vessel exploded in her head. She might not survive the operation.’

Later, sitting on my bed, a girl named Shelly laughs her big-bodied laugh that helps warm my chilled insides.

“Don’t pay Trina no mind, okay?” Shelly lowers her voice. “Trina think she bad,” she says, smiling, “but she ain’t.”

Her voice is dismissive, implying Trina might not be a person to be feared after all.

There’s also Missy, the joker, who makes me laugh with her sly disrespect of Trina’s alpha attitudes and Jackie, a large silent girl who one day attacks me for no reason I can understand at the time.

None of us want to be at Greer. We’ve all been washed up here by different family shipwrecks. But I know my situation is different. My situation is temporary. That’s what aunt Peggi promised us the day she brought me and my brother to this place. “As soon as your mother is better,” Peggi said, and I hold onto that promise as the rock-solid truth of my life.

It’s not that I’ve never seen black girls darker than me, from poor families, before. My neighborhood at the north end of Central Park is very mixed — racially and economically. One block over from our pre-war, doorman building on Central Park West, the Frederick Douglass housing project stretches across an entire avenue and four blocks from 100th to 104th street.

Those projects are occupied by low-income black and Puerto Rican families. I learn very early on that those blocks and those people are to be avoided.

Those people.

Everything about my upbringing teaches me that I’m a kind person who lives in a culturally inclusive world.

Yet.

I’d see these loud, gum-snapping girls, wiry or overweight and poorly dressed on the streets and supermarkets we share, and I’d feel an immediate judgment of their English filled with “dats” and “dose” in place of crisp t and th sounds spoken in my home, or the grinding down the two syllabic “asked” to a smooth, monosyllabic “axed.” I feel an immediate judgment of their speech, their bargain basement clothes, and their behavior and I know for sure that we have nothing in common.

But now I’m living with those girls (those people) sporting my own bundle of bargain basement hand-me-downs, drab clothes made from poor materials. All recognizable markers of my former identity are gone. The places, the people, even the food — all gone.

On my first night at Greer, they serve pickled pig’s feet in the dining hall where the whole school gathers for dinner. I’m thoroughly disgusted. A couple months earlier, I was ordering my dinner from the menu at our family’s restaurant in the Poconos. Pork chops and mashed potatoes smothered in gravy and South African lobster tails broiled in butter were my favorites. One week, I ate lobster tails for five days straight until the cook told on me and I was banned from ordering the dish again.

I’d heard about pig’s feet but never ever expected to confront one on my plate. “It’s good,” Shelly insists, so I try it and am disgusted. The slick greasy meat compounds the feeling that we are all throw-away children eating throw away food.

***

I spend ten months swimming in this sea of not belonging, claimed only by the state and its employees. Ten months is a long time when you’re 10 years old; it’s nearly one-tenth of your whole life.

Gradually, my ideas about the differences separating me from the girls in my house dissolve into an awareness of the sameness of our daily routines, breakfast at the round white table in our kitchen, getting dressed for school, walking the path to school each morning, returning home in the afternoon to homework, dinner and at the end of the evening, everyone gathered around the tv.

Everyone except for me. I’m alone in the single room the House Mother had assigned me, hidden inside my books.

Greer School is a place for children with nowhere else to go. I see this on the faces of the Kids who stand around the edge of the driveway, staring as Aunt Peggi hugs and kisses me and my brother goodbye.

Until one night, one of the girls sticks her head in my room and asks if she can do my hair.

At the start of fourth grade, I convinced my mother to let me grow my hair long. She began a daily regimen of hard brushstrokes back from the hairline, training my curls to lie down. The daily brushing combined with generous amounts of a white crème called Vitapointe worked and my curls grew into long, flyaway strands of hair that were provisionally well-behaved.


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It’s been a couple of months since my hair has been properly brushed or combed. I have a bad habit of only brushing the topmost layer, ignoring the thick mass of hair beneath. One morning, trying to comb out a tangled section of my hair, the comb gets completely stuck. I try yanking it out but it won’t budge. It’s trapped inside the bird’s nest that is my hair. I fly into a rage, ripping my hair to free the comb. The girl standing next to me at the bathroom mirror tells me to calm down, she will help me get the comb out. And she does, easing it through the tangled plaits of my hair with a patience I don’t possess.

That night, when Phyllis sticks her head in my doorway and asks if she can do my hair, I am beyond grateful.

I join the other girls in my house in front of the tv for the first time, sitting at Phyllis’s feet as she untangles the knots and clumps of matted hair working in grease and smoothing it into soft strands that she weaves into a neat latticework of cornrow braids. It’s a masterwork that everyone crowds around to admire.

The next morning, I ask Phyllis to take the braids out because they’re giving me a headache.

She looks at me for a moment saying nothing. I can see she isn’t happy about undoing her creation but she agrees. That night I’m back at Phyllis’ feet as she carefully unweaves the cornrows and combs out my hair which now lies in soft, obedient strands that she wraps around several large curlers that I have to keep on overnight.

The next morning, Phyllis arranges my hair in Shirley Temple ringlets that I now have to wear to school. I know better than to complain a second time but I feel pretty stupid. Still, it’s nice to feel my hair all soft and bouncy.

The styling of my hair becomes a regular event. There are arguments, sometimes, about whose turn it is, but they work themselves out, and each night, in the dark living room illuminated by the blue light of the TV, I lean against Missy or Shelly or Trina or Phyllis’ knees, giving myself over to the soothing, repetitive rhythms of the combing, oiling, and styling of my hair.

I’m grateful for all the expert attention to my hair. I don’t admit it to myself at the time, I’m grateful for having a simple way of being connected to the girls in my house.

***

My mother spends almost ten months in the intensive care unit of Bellevue hospital re-learning how to walk and talk. Peggi promised we’d only be at Greer long enough for her to recover, and I believe Peggi without question. I never consider the alternative; that I could lose my mother too. My father had promised me so much, but those promises vanished with him into thin air two years earlier, when he died of a heart attack (which he might have prevented if he’d stopped drinking). My mother had promised me nothing, but I feel sure she’ll come back. I know that she’s too angry and stubborn to let go of her whole life in the careless way my father had. Of course, I know nothing of the risks and intricacies of brain surgery. I don’t think in probabilities. That my mother will fully recover is a fixed certainty in my mind, the North Star of my belief.

None of us want to be at Greer. We’ve all been washed up here by different family shipwrecks. But I know my situation is different. My situation is temporary. That’s what aunt Peggi promised us.

Actually, it’s not true that my mother promised me nothing. She had promised me something. It was a generations-old promise, embedded in the belligerent pride, stubbornness and unexamined anger passed on in varying measure to each child of Stanley and Ida Facey. This unspoken information, transmitted in the silent language of mothers and daughters, assures me that my mother will fight for her survival and mine with every ounce of her strength.

Most of the kids who come to Greer will stay until they turn 18. Trina, who is 11, I learn from Shelly, has been there since she was 6. Over the years her mother has been in and out of drug rehabs and hasn’t visited Trina once in all that time. Missy doesn’t even know where her mother or father are. All anyone knows about Jackie is that both her parents are dead and her grandmother is too sick to keep her. There are some, like Shelly and Phyllis, who have relatives trying to get custody, but most of the kids have no one, or at least no one able to care for them any better than Greer.

I live at Greer like someone waiting at a bus station, expecting at any time to pick up and go. True to her word, Peggi comes to get us. It’s a warm summer afternoon and I’m playing Jacks with Missy and Phyllis in front of our house. I look up and Peggi is standing there with the same official-looking white lady who’d met us on the first day. In her crisp summer slacks and sleeveless blouse, Peggi looks like my mother, only thinner and sterner. When she smiles, the same radiant smile as my mother’s, I feel the whole ten months at Greer slip away like a dream.

“Is that your mother?” Missy whispers loudly in my ear.

“No, that’s my aunt.”

“She gonna take you home?”

“Yeah.”

One by one each of the girls comes to my doorway and stands watching me pack up my books and drawings. I’ve suddenly become an object of curiosity.

“Who you gonna live wit?” Shelly wants to know.

“How come they put you here?” Trina demands.

“Your mama got a husband?” Missy inquires.

I see my good fortune reflected in each hungry gaze and feel embarrassed to be leaving. It isn’t fair, like so many other things that aren’t fair. I haven’t even been there long enough to understand how lucky I am. Whenever I told someone that I’d be going home as soon as my mother got better they’d suck their teeth, cut their eyes, or look at me like I was stupid. Believing that I would go home was the part of me that refused to stay at Greer; it roamed in books and dreams and just plain wishing. It was the part of me that stubbornly clung to the belief that I wasn’t disposable and that sooner or later somebody would come back to get me.

Our house mother, Mrs. Leone, lines everyone up in front of the house. We barely look at each other as we mumble our goodbyes. Shelly is the only one who wishes me good luck and says maybe we’ll see each other back in New York since we’ve found out that one of her aunts lives in the building next door to mine.

I join the other girls in my house in front of the tv for the first time, sitting at Phyllis’s feet as she untangles the knots and clumps of matted hair working in grease and smoothing it into soft strands that she weaves into a neat latticework of cornrow braids.

Many years later, I meet someone in the neighborhood who’d known Shelly and her younger sister Stephanie. He tells me that Shelly had been shot in the Bronx while visiting a friend or cousin. The person who did it had been somebody’s friend. He doesn’t know if Shelly lived or not. I have no idea what happened to Trina, Missy, Phyllis or Jackie, who once beat me up in an unprovoked frenzy. Or maybe I had provoked her. Maybe my unflappable belief that I would return to my family, something Jackie no longer had, was enough to provoke her. Maybe it was my hair or my light, near-white complexion that made her mad. There were plenty of reasons for Jackie to be mad at me even though we’d never said two words to each other. She’d challenged me to a play fight one afternoon. I said no because I didn’t want to fight and because, at 10 years old, Jackie already weighed at least a hundred pounds. But she kept wheedling, saying “come on, come on” until I finally agreed. We locked hands, leaning into each other, until she threw her whole weight against me, knocking me to the ground. Then she dropped down on top of me, crushing me with her weight, smothering me with her hands over my mouth, and choking my neck. I was screaming for her to get off and she was screaming something too, not words, just unintelligible rage, until someone pulled her off me. It took more than one person; she was still fighting and screaming as they pulled her up.

For a few moments I lay still, feeling the rough concrete beneath me, breathing hard. I remember feeling more confused than angry — confused and terrified anyone could behave that way. Traveling inside myself to a hidden place where all things would one day be explained, I curled up and closed my eyes.

***

When I tell people about my experience at Greer they say “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” But I’m not sorry. I’m profoundly grateful for the year I spent as an orphan living in a state-run home, with black girls I never would never have known or been able to imagine in my previous life as a well-loved, well-fed and well-dressed child, riding in a private school bus to a private school with other kids like me. Before this, my own racism had been invisible to me. This was the first time I really saw my othering of people.

I will always feel profoundly grateful for Trina, Missy, Phyllis and especially Shelly. They showed me something important about the world and about myself that I needed to know.

* * *

Dara Lurie is an author, book-coach and workshop facilitator. She received her BA in Film & Theater from Vassar College and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hunter College. She works with ambitious dreamers to help them discover their passionate & original voice in writing. Dara’s first book, Great Space of Desire: Writing for Personal Evolution, is a memoir and creative guide for writers.

Editor: Sari Botton