Brown Girl with Bubblegum

As a mixed-race kid with free-form hair, Lisa Rosenberg believed learning to blow bubblegum bubbles would be her ticket to an idealized (white) American girlhood.

Lisa W. Rosenberg | Longreads | August 2018 | 11 minutes (2,676 words)

My fifth birthday was approaching, and I had one goal: to blow big, beautiful, pink bubbles out of real Bazooka bubble gum. I’d seen it done many times in person as well as captured in storybooks and on television. Bubble-blowing, I understood, was a critical marker of American girlhood — alongside hopscotch, Barbie dolls, and long hair with bangs you could flick out of your eyes with a toss of your head. I remember one image from a magazine: two girls riding bicycles up a tree-lined suburban street, their long, blond hair streaming out behind them in the wind, heads thrown back to relish the dappled sunlight. From the lips of each girl floated a pale pink bubble-gum bubble, half the size of her head. The girls were white, of course. In the ’70s, magazines didn’t show many little brown girls like me — with wild, free-form, biracial hair. I remember gazing and gazing at the picture, admiring those perfect girls with their flawless, pink bubbles. Somehow, someday, that would be me.

Julie Meyers — a girl in my class who was tall, with older siblings, and therefore worldly — could blow bubbles. She had long, straight hair that she was forever sweeping out of her eyes. We weren’t allowed gum at school, but a sister or brother had slipped Julie some Bazooka one day and she was showing off. The bubble she blew was so big, Julie didn’t notice Peter Rothman sneaking up on her — or when he raised his hand to pop it. Bits of bubble gum got stuck in Julie’s hair, which made her cry, but this did nothing to detract from my adulation.

Every day my mother would brush out my curls — like you’re not supposed to do with hair like mine. But Mom was white with short, straight hair and I didn’t have any black female relatives she could ask for advice. Dad was black, but all he knew hair-wise was his own shallow ’fro, which he tended with a pick. Fearing I’d get a headache if she braided my hair too tightly, Mom would work my woolly tresses into two low, loose pigtails. These would hang nicely past my shoulders until about 10 a.m., at which point they’d rise like yeast-laden sourdough, puffing past the bounds of their elastics into misshapen clouds of brown frizz. Maybe I’d never know the delight of my hair streaming out behind me in the wind, but one day, I promised myself, I’d blow bubbles so big and pale pink that I couldn’t see past them. As passersby exalted in their beauty and my skill, I’d suck the gum back into my mouth with a loud crack, and begin again.

***

I had a babysitter, a college student named Claudia, who tried to teach me the art of bubble-blowing. It was a secret, because she wasn’t supposed to bring me sweets. Claudia didn’t ask my mother if it was OK, which made our secret that much more delicious.

Claudia instructed me on how to chew up the gum till it was nice and gooey and soft, then make it into a pancake and stretch it over the end of my tongue like a hat. And when it was stretched thin and smooth, but not too thin and smooth, she taught me to pull my tongue away, grip the edges between my lips and gums, and blow. My babysitter would demonstrate, inflating the gum just as easy as you please, a lovely, pink balloon emerging. It grew lighter as it expanded and then, when she was ready, she’d either pop it with her finger, or deflate it by drawing the air out as the bubble retreated into her mouth. I was mesmerized.

Maybe I’d never know the delight of my hair streaming out behind me in the wind, but one day, I promised myself, I’d blow bubbles so big and pale pink that I couldn’t see past them.

When it was my turn, I’d chew, flatten, grip, and blow, only to discharge the pink mass across the room, or onto the floor. Other times, I’d make it too thin and my tongue would poke through. My eyes would well up in discouragement.

“It’s OK,” my babysitter would say. “It takes a lot of practice.”

My biggest obstacle was lack of resources. The only gum readily at my disposal was Trident. Mom kept a pack in her purse for times when she felt at risk of overeating. Dad kept one handy too, in case he found himself in a rare no-smoking zone. They didn’t mind giving me a piece here and there, but those tiny, grey sticks were useless for my purposes.

I rarely pushed back against my mother’s strict limits on sugary treats, but now I had no choice. I’d need to be strategic, to get both parents on board. They respected ambition and striving. “There’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it,” my mother often said, whether I was improving my flutter kick in the pool at the Y, or lasting the night without my beloved pacifier. “Don’t let it lick you” is what my father would urge any time he caught me struggling to sound out a word or master a jigsaw puzzle. So I declared my bubble-blowing aspirations and confessed how desperate I was to succeed, persuading my parents that only Bazooka could provide fulfillment.

About a week before my birthday, my mother brought me to the stationery store across the street for a few precious pieces of Bazooka to practice with. They were a thing to behold, those pink slabs — powdery and rock-hard until you got them going. Each came wrapped in a folded-up comic involving Bazooka Joe and his cronies. These were completely incomprehensible to me, but so cool nevertheless, part of the ritual. With each piece I uttered a silent prayer. This time, let me do it.

I didn’t. Not yet. Nor was I licked.

***

My June birthday heralds the summer. If I am a year older, it means there are heat waves on the horizon, sunburns — even for someone of my complexion — mosquito bites, and hopefully a trip to the beach. Several weeks after my fifth birthday, my parents and I went to stay with another family at their summer home in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard. This family had a daughter, Rachel, a year and a half my senior, whose companion I was to be for the week.

In a house nearby lived a 7-year-old girl named Jessie, who, Rachel explained, was her “summertime best friend.” Jessie had long, dark bangs which she had to toss out of her eyes every few minutes. She was shorter and thicker than Rachel but being six months older made her the clear leader of our trio. My status was least: I was younger, smaller, and a guest who had never been to the Vineyard before. Nevertheless, when you’re an only child, the company of peers is a welcome gift. I was eager to follow and learn from the other two.

During the early part of the day we’d play outside around Rachel’s house, waiting for breakfast, then waiting for the grown-ups to pack us into a car and drive to the beach or a nearby pond. We’d swim, dig, hunt for shells, and then return home by sunset, when the shadows lengthened, and the grown-ups would gather on the deck for cocktails before dinner.


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Rachel’s house was on a big, grassy hill, good for running up and rolling down. At the bottom, the grass got thick and wild. There were birds and insects and other wildlife, as well as strange flowers thick with sea salt. Our parents were paces away, but it felt as if we were in another world — a green, moist one where the dirt mixed with sand, all coarse and salty. I was more tentative than the other two in my running and rolling, mindful of twigs that could scratch and bugs that could bite. I’d invariably fall behind, still rolling while Jessie and Rachel were racing uphill. One day, as I staggered to the top, I found them talking. Jessie had her back to me, hands on hips.

“How long will she be here?”

“I don’t know,” said Rachel.

“Will we have to play with her the whole time?”

Rachel saw me coming. “Shh,” she told Jessie, then suggested we all play a different game. It was one they’d been playing since they’d arrived at their summer houses a few weeks earlier, having to do with a movie or a TV show they’d seen involving the Australian outback — something I’d never heard of.

Jessie brightened at the suggestion. “Yeah, let’s.” Then she directed her attention to me, head tilted, appraising. “She can play,” Jessie told Rachel. “She can be the Aborigine.”

Now Rachel’s hands were on her hips, her mouth set, indignant. “Why should she be the Aborigine?”

I had no idea what an “Aborigine” was. Rachel’s defensive posture made me wary.

Jessie hedged a moment, put on the spot. “I think she would make a good one.”

Why would she make a good one?”

Jessie shrunk slightly. “I just think she would.”

I knew by this time what it was that qualified me to be the Aborigine, the thing that made me different from Jessie and Rachel. Aborigines, I extrapolated, were brown.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’ll be the Aborigine.”

Jessie looked relieved, Rachel perplexed. She’d stood up for me for nothing. But now I was wanted. I belonged. I wouldn’t be speaking, Jessie explained. The Aborigine didn’t talk. I didn’t mind. It was good enough. Jessie assigned characters for Rachel and herself — The Girl and The Boy, respectively — and we set off. We were escaping from something, trying to get somewhere. The stakes were high. Jessie and Rachel took my hands, and the three of us ran together, searching for a hiding place.

For the next several evenings, we played the outback game. The story never seemed to advance, but I liked being the Aborigine, appreciated having a role. It emboldened me to ask, one day on the way to the beach, the question that was never far from my mind at that time.

“Can you blow bubbles?”

Both girls responded in the affirmative. A few days later, on a trip to a candy store in Oak Bluffs, they proved it. Jessie’s bubble was extra round, extra pale pink, and buoyant. She stuck out her chin to let us admire it, then sucked it back with a triumphant smack. Rachel’s was more modest, lopsided and slack, but a bubble nevertheless. I tried next, making several attempts as the older girls coached me, offering pointers.

“Make it flatter before you blow!”

“Stick your tongue in it!”

“Go like this with your teeth!”

My heart sank lower with each failed attempt.

“Maybe,” Jessie posited at last, “it’s not working because your tongue is too small.”

I don’t think she meant to be unkind. Jessie had taken to me once I’d agreed to play the Aborigine. Her tone wasn’t hard or hurtful. But my eyes welled up and spilled over. My tongue was too small to blow bubbles. And how many years would it take before it grew? How long would I have to wait to fulfill this sacred rite?

“Don’t cry,” Rachel said. “It just takes practice.”

***

The following morning after breakfast my parents informed me that we would be spending the day with the family of my father’s colleague who had a house on Chappaquiddick, a nearby island. Their beach was quieter than the ones we’d been to with Rachel’s family. The sand was fine and white, and as I walked with my mother along the water’s edge, we found smooth, brightly colored sea glass, like little tropical fish stranded at the shoreline. The family had teenage daughters who took me out swimming when my mother wanted a break. They had a dog too, which was yellow and fluffy until it had swum in the shallow water, trotting out, looking matted and skinny. The dog would shake till its fur pointed every which way, splashing everyone and making me laugh.

The younger daughter, Susan, was about 13, which seemed very old to me, but not too old to ask about bubbles.

“Can you blow them?” I asked.

“Sure I can,” said Susan. We were walking on the beach just down the steps from her family’s deck.

“I can’t do it,” I confessed. “My tongue is too small.”

“Let’s see it,” she said. I stuck it out as far as I could. “Hmm. Looks fine to me. If you have any bubble gum, I’ll teach you how. I’m an expert.”

I had one piece left from the day before, and I ran to fetch it from my mother’s beach bag.

“Chew it up,” Susan commanded as we began walking again. I obeyed, following each step as she dictated them — all the steps I’d been guided through countless times before. But there was something about Susan’s voice, her confidence — in herself, in me — that made this occasion different. I could feel it in my bones.

I knew by this time what it was that qualified me to be the Aborigine, the thing that made me different from Jessie and Rachel. Aborigines, I extrapolated, were brown.

“Ready?” she said. “Now … slowly … blow.”

I stopped walking, closed my eyes, and slowly, ever so slowly, I blew. Suddenly, a gust of wind off the ocean ripped the precious blob from between my lips.

Oh!” I opened my eyes, face collapsing, ready for tears.

But Susan squeezed my hand. “Hah! You did it!”

She pointed at a small, pink sphere riding high on the breeze. My bubble. My bubble. When it landed on the sand about a hundred paces away, I ran to take a gander up close before the wind could take it again.

“There it is,” said Susan. “Your bubble.”

“My bubble.” I sank to my knees, scooping the thing into my cupped hands. “I did do it! I did!”

It was small and coated with sand, but it was mine. We raced back to the deck to show my parents, who were as impressed as I knew they’d be. Once I’d instructed my mother to place the bubble in a baggie, where it could be admired and preserved, I returned with Susan to the water’s edge.

I stood on the beach looking out at the sea, feeling the sun on my shoulders. The wind shook my puffy little braids just as it lifted Susan’s long, streaming tresses. Oh, weren’t we the picture of American girlhood?

Later on, in the car heading back to Rachel’s house, I held the baggie with my bubble, glowing. I couldn’t wait to tell Rachel and Jessie, to show them the proof. And possibly, to graduate to a speaking role in the outback game.

As we crossed the bridge from Chappaquiddick to the mainland, night was just beginning to fall. My eyes grew heavy and I drifted into a deep, accomplished sleep.

The next day, and for weeks afterward all I could talk about was my thrilling victory. I’d approach strangers, friends, and neighbors.

“Guess what happened at Chappaquiddick?” was how I launched my tale. I didn’t understand until years later why the adults looked askance at my mother and father.

You know what happened at Chappaquiddick?” The grown-ups would inquire back, horrified.

How could anyone expose a child to the tale of Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne’s fateful date? Shouldn’t a 5-year-old be shielded from such a catastrophe? Had my parents no judgment? Of course, I knew nothing of the accident on the bridge, nothing of the cover-up. All I knew of Chappaquiddick was my own hard-won success. Somewhere I still have a baggie with that crystallized piece of gum, coated with Chappaquiddick sand.

The Kennedy scandal had taken place two years before I stood on that beach. I didn’t see the recent film they made about it, but if one day I do, I’ll have my eye on the horizon, searching for someone who won’t be there: a little brown girl, her hair in two fat, unruly pigtails skipping by, elated, head in the fluffiest of white cotton-candy clouds.

* * *

Lisa W. Rosenberg is a former dancer, current writer and psychotherapist, specializing in multiracial families. She is also the author of the monthly “Ask Lisa Advice” column on Multiracialmedia.com. She lives in Montclair, NJ with her husband, two children and Goldendoodle.

Editor: Sari Botton