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Color Blind

February 16, 2006 By:
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As a young boy, I was fortunate in a number of ways. When life at my house became overwhelming and unbearable, I was permitted by a wonderful family two doors down to escape and find solace at their home. My two best friends, twin boys, lived there, but more important, I was always welcomed by their mother, father and sisters, and made to feel that this home was mine whenever I needed or wished it to be so.

The twins were particularly blessed because in that house there was a black woman who lived full-time with the boys high up on the third floor. There were two bedrooms up there and a bathroom, and it was like a special kingdom off to itself. The bedroom the boys shared was again mine whenever I needed it to be - though no official words were ever exchanged to that effect.

Back then, in the late 1950s, someone like Mary (I don't think I ever even knew her last name) was called a maid or, if people were watching their manners, a cleaning lady, but both terms seem so harsh and demeaning - so limiting - that it didn't even scratch the surface of her abilities, and what she accomplished or meant to us.

An extraordinary cook, she could whip up the most fabulous food in a matter of minutes without consulting a recipe or measuring the ingredients. She also had a green thumb, and could make flowers bloom indoors and out.

The most important thing of all, though, was that she was a second mother, to the boys especially, but to their sisters as well. And because I was an honorary member of the tribe, she ministered to me, too.

Again, the term "second mother" seems insufficient, and doesn't do justice to what she did and all the riches she imparted to us in the few years we had together (meaning from the time we boys were 8 or 9, until we were 11 or 12). She was our nurse and protector, our comforter and confidant. She wised us up about the world around us, and told us how to stay vigilant when we ventured into Center City on the bus or subway.

She was our friend as well, and in the world of small boys, there was nothing we could not tell her.

You did have to be careful, though, because she had a terrible temper if pushed too far - if we left any part of the house in disarray or were disobedient. But she was also a deep source of love; in fact, she was one of the few adults I knew back then who showed me how to express that emotion and to transmit it to others.

Mary had no family of her own, as far as I knew, though I think there may have been a male friend in the background who accompanied her on her days off. We never knew her age; she would never tell, no matter how we prodded. She had all of the energy of a young woman, though she must have been middle-aged, at least, when we first knew her.

Her presence loomed so large in our lives that when she died of a heart attack, I believe, dying early one morning cradled in the arms of one of the twins, it took a long time for all of us to get over it. There was no one who could replace her - no one ever tried - and in a sense when she passed, an era passed with her.

In Need of Telling

This elemental American story - of black women who helped to raise Jewish (or other types of white) children rather than their own - has been told rarely in American literature, although it was a fundamental fact of life for many over the age of 45 or so. I understand why it hasn't been told - the sensitivities of race being what they are in America - but it is an important piece of history, in need of telling in full. Not many northern whites or blacks have approached the subject. In the South, it's been different. Roy Hoffman wrote a wonderful novel called Almost Family, which tells of the relationship between a Jewish homemaker, Vivian Gold, and Nebraska Waters, the woman who cleans her house, over a 30-year period that witnessed great social unrest. And now another Southerner, Laurie Gunst, has told the story of her life with an extraordinary woman named Rhoda Lloyd in a memoir titled Off-White, published by Soho Press.

Gunst was the youngest child in a well-to-do Southern Jewish family in Richmond, Va., and, much like the twins and I with Mary, her major source of love was Rhoda, who would watch over three generations of the Gunst family. Rhoda was also childless (though she married twice), and her relationship with Laurie was special because she was with the child from infancy on. And like Mary, Rhoda may have been paid for the expert work she did, but what this woman imparted to the author could not be measured in dollars and cents.

Off-White - the title refers to the sense of "mixed" racial identity Gunst has always felt - seems to be destined, at least in its earliest pages, to be the definitive work on this complex subject, delineating the benefits white children received in the care of these special women, as well as the terrible sacrifices these women made to raise children not their own. Gunst's portrait of Rhoda is adoring without being hagiography; the woman readers meet is a full-blown individual, shown from all angles, who seems deserving of all the love showered upon her in the prose that fills the work.

The bond between these two women was unbreakable from the start; as Gunst writes, "I belonged to Rhoda before I belonged to myself. And from the moment when I came to know who I was, I believed that our two skins were only the thinnest of membranes, the casings for our bound-together hearts."

Rhoda was an immense presence in the family's life and, again and again, Gunst's language, without becoming artificial or forced, projects the majesty of this human being.

Rhoda's "power and authority had been felt by four generations of my family, and many of the ways in which she cared for and defended me were invisible to others, but I knew that without her protection, I would have been utterly lost. Rhoda was the only person I could count on. Mother and Daddy were physically present and I adored them, admired them, longed for their love. But I understood, without ever having to be told, that they were not to be bothered with my troubles - or my joys - and this I sensed almost from the first moment I can remember."

Gunst, who holds a doctorate in history from Harvard University and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, is also the author of Born Fi' Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld. She has taught courses in Southern race relations and New World history at the New School in Manhattan, where she now lives.

This brief book-jacket biography points to where Off-White goes off track. Once Rhoda withdraws from the scene - which happens after 100 pages or so when she announces her retirement - Gunst feels it necessary to then tell the rest of her - Gunst's - life story: what happened to her in graduate school; what happened during her research in Jamaica; what happened with all the men she knew - good, bad and indifferent; and how she abused drugs during her search for love and meaningful work. The problem is that none of this material holds a candle to Rhoda.

This extraordinary woman does returns near the close of the book, and it is her presence, and then her spirit, which propels Gunst to discover the truth about her Southern family. Much of what she learns is not pleasant. One of Gunst's great grandfathers was a confederate soldier, while another worked with the Ku Klux Klan to spark a race riot in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. Gunst's search for this information is compelling, and what she discovers is indelible and necessary.

But I could have done without a good deal of the material that comes between the two major appearances of the magesterial Rhoda Lloyd. I understand that Gunst believes these multilayered experiences made her the person she is, and that they reflect Rhoda's pervasive influence in her life. And I wish that Off-White had been a little shorter, less personally indulgent, and instead looked at all the implications of what it meant for a white child to have the benefit of the tutelage of a black woman in the formative years of life.Off-White would have then been not only compelling and well-written, but important in a far different and pervasive sense - important not just to Gunst and to others like her, but to the country as a whole.

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