I was six when I learned some words can never be taken back.
I had prodded my older retarded sister, Cassie, to say it—a word I didn't even know how to spell at the time. I would have spelled it with one "g".
It was near the end of the summer of 1966 in a quiet upper middle class neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina and I had launched my sister toward our maid, Magnolia, like a Soviet self-guided missile.
Looking back on this, I have no idea how I could have been so hateful. I loved Magnolia. She was the one person I counted on to hold me and soothe me. My mother and father were caring people, but rarely showed each other or Cassie and me any physical affection. Magnolia did. Some times Cassie or I would bump into her coming around a corner and she'd pick us up and smother us with kisses, telling us how pretty and smart we were.
Cassie hurled the word at Magnolia, pronouncing it just the way we'd coached her.
Nothing looked broken, but the instant after Cassie spoke I knew. My special connection with Magnolia shattered.
After Cassie spoke, Magnolia brushed past me into the house.
We had been in the driveway, the neighborhood boys standing in a pack behind me. I remember that it had felt good to be part of the group. Cassie stood between Magnolia and me. Then I did it. With all the hatred and power over someone weaker than me that had been directed at Cassie and me for years by the neighborhood bullies. I had grown so sick of it, so tired of the taunting and fighting and protecting that I had joined them. I pushed Cassie between the shoulder blades, knocking her forward towards Magnolia and hissed, "Say it".
When Cassie did, Magnolia's face became still. She didn't say a word, just moved her gaze from Cassie to me. Her large round dark brown eyes narrowed, her eyelids squenched up tight and her full lips turned down. Her face was the same as when I'd seen her smell bad milk. She shook her head one time, deeply inhaled and exhaled once, took off her apron, put down the broom she'd been using on the side porch steps next to the driveway and went into our house. I followed right behind her into the kitchen and watched her cross the back hallway to the basement door, open it, start down the stairs and close the door behind her.
I stared at the basement door. My stomach felt like it did in the back seat of our station wagon driving on the windy mountainous Saluda Grade up to Asheville to see our grandmothers, Gaga Heath and Gaga Ferguson.
I knew I had to open that door and go down to talk to her, but I couldn't move. Magnolia's look had withered me. She'd never looked at me with disgust. I didn't want to see her face with that look again. I couldn't take back what we'd done and I didn't know what to do to fix it.
I knew what Cassie'd said was bad. I knew it before she said it, but I was so tired of being good. I didn't think it would make Magnolia walk away. I began to realize that it was just as, if not more, horrible than the "RE-tard" the same boys I'd just stood shoulder to shoulder with called Cassie.
I opened the door and called down to her. "Magnolia." She did not respond. I tried again. "Magnolia?" Still there was no response.
Her silence and my memory of her face looking at me made me lose whatever had been keeping me from crying before. I still cried easily then. Magnolia was the one I always ran to who could stop the tears. Not now.
As I started going down the steps of the basement, with each step I grew more and more hysterical. By the last step I was blind, grasping the handrail unable to see through all my tears. "I'm sooooo" hiccup "soooooo" hiccup "soo-ry. Pluuueeeze don't leave."
I turned the corner of the stairs to the table near the washer and dryer where she kept her things. I ran my sleeveshirt across my eyes to clear my vision. She was throwing all of her things into a Belk's Department Store shopping bag.
It was always cool in the basement even in summer, but I was fiery hot, my face bright red. The only sounds in the basement were my hiccupping from crying so hard and the sound of her things as they landed in the crumpled white bag. She brushed by me and went up the stairs when her bag was full.
Magnolia and Mama stood facing each other in the front hallway. Cassie and I watched from a distance holding hands. Cassie was not crying. Mama was speaking to Magnolia in hushed, apologetic tones, "Won't you reconsider this? The girls didn't really know what they were doing or saying. We're all very sorry. I promise that this will never happen again." I could see that Magnolia was waiting for Mama to finish.
Cassandra and I watched out the living room window as Magnolia descended the front stairs of our house, her back erect, marching down the front walk way and turning right like a soldier I had seen in the movies, headed up the street to turn the corner to the bus stop.
Up to that time nothing I'd done had ever gotten such a response from an adult. I felt like Cassie and I were the two children in The Cat in the Hat staring out the window and seeing their mother coming home with their house completely wrecked by Thing 1 and Thing 2. There was no cat to help me clean up this mess. We just stared as Magnolia passed out of our line of vision up the street.
Magnolia had always worked at our house. I couldn't remember when she hadn't been there—arriving many days even before I woke up. Now that I was going to school, she stayed later, sometimes until Daddy came home from work at 5:30. She never walked in or out of the front door. She arrived by the side porch door and headed straight through the kitchen to the basement where she would emerge minutes later in her starched white cotton uniform, armed with a cleaning instrument or product.
I loved following her around. There were so many smells, colors and textures to Magnolia. Her uniform starched stiff and shining white with the clean smell of bleach hovering at the surface. Her skin so dark and shiny, smelling of almond oil. A hug revealed an enormous softness underneath the uniform's surface—her large yielding bosom and stomach contrasted with upper arms which were hard and strong from lifting and scrubbing. Hands whose palms were lightish pink and worn so much that they had become smooth like the inside of the shells I gathered in the summer at Pawleys Island and whose tops were black and shiny and soft looking like the chocolate melting in the top of Mama's double boiler when she made my favorite chocolate cupcakes with white butter cream frosting. When I held Magnolia's hand I held pinkroughblacksofthard all at once. Now I wasn't going to be able to reach out and hold her hand anymore because of what I had let happendone.
I hated Johnny Baron. This was his fault. He told Cassie to say it. But even as a first grader, I knew Johnny was a jerk and I shouldn't have let Cassie repeat it to Magnolia. Why had I? I must be as bad as Gaga Ferguson told Mama I was.
Cassie would do anything you asked her to do. The mean boys in the neighborhood, especially Johnny and Harry Reilly, thought that was funny and called her stupid and "RE-tard-O".
Once I had walked up to the parking strip in front of our house where Cassie stood inside a circle of boys from our street. Johnny was lifting up the skirt of her dress and I shouldered my way through two of the boys in the circle and knocked him as hard as I could on his left ear.
As he toppled over to his right and clutched his ear, he screamed at me, "We asked her to do it and she did it. We didn't make her do anything."
I reached out for her hand and ushered her through the dispersing group of boys.
"Wait till your mom hears about this Johnny," I called over my shoulder, "I bet your pants are down pretty soon."
Given my detestation for Johnny and his friends, I don't know why I let Cassie say it to Magnolia.
It didn't sound that different from the "Negro" that everybody was saying then. So when Johnny and his boys way-laid Cassie and me on our way home from school, I didn't think it could be that bad. Anyway, he punched me really hard and said he'd hit Cassie if she wouldn't do it. Told me they'd stop us every day unless we called Magnolia a nigger so they could all hear.
Still I didn't have to do it. I could have told Mama or Daddy. But I knew Johnny would think up some other torment. I'd heard someone on the TV or in a movie say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. That's what I had done. Even then, at my young age, I knew that joining them had cost me some one I loved.
Mama was quiet the rest of that day. She said we should go to our room and we wouldn't be allowed out until Daddy came home.
Mama never ever called Daddy at work.
We heard her pick up the phone that afternoon shortly after Magnolia left. (Our bedroom was above the dining room and part of the kitchen. Sometimes we could hear what was being said in the kitchen through the heating vent at the back of our room.) That day she didn't speak loudly enough for us to hear much, but I froze in my tracks and stopped what I was doing when I heard her say "Oh Clayton".
I moved closer to the vent and brought my finger up to my lips to let Cassie know to be quiet and we tiptoedran to other side of the room and picked up our dressing table chair and tiptoedran back and delicately placed it under the vent to stand on. With my ear pressed to the vent I still couldn't make out much of what she was saying, but I did hear snippets: "Oh, you should have seen Magnolia's face...Sarah pushed Cassie at her...Part of that gang of horrid boys."
After that Cassie and I didn't say a word to each other. We leafed through a few books but couldn't get ourselves up for a game of anything like Battleship. We were waiting for Daddy.
His nightly rituals were always the same. Arriving at 5:30 on the dot, he parked his car in the front (the station wagon was in the back) and came in through the front door. He took his jacket off, hung it on the bottom knob of the banister and walked up the stairs to empty his pockets of keys and coins, take off his tie, change into a sports shirt and put his wallet away.
He did none of that when he came in. He came up the stairs, opened the door to our room and said, "Come on, Sarah, let's go. We're going to Magnolia's house." I had expected for him to switch me, but instead I was surprised. He had never switched me before, but that is what I had expected. Not this.
He grabbed my hand and we went right down the stairs, out the front door and into his car. Daddy floored the car back out of the driveway.
I didn't even know my parents knew where she lived. To me, Magnolia was a part of our house and I couldn't picture her anywhere else even though I knew she had three children and no husband.
The drive to her house took longer than any other drive I'd taken in inside of Charlotte except for when we had gone to the airport to pick up Aunt Alice. We went down streets I'd never been on.
When we pulled up to the red brick apartment complex I didn't want to get out. I didn't want to face Magnolia and I didn't like where she lived. It didn't look clean. Most of the apartments' screen doors were ripped, rusty and hung askew. There were two older men leaning up against a car in the parking lot shouting at each other.
"Let's go, Sarah." Daddy said twice before I swung my legs out of the car door he had opened for me.
I looked up at him standing beside the car and started to cry, "Daddy, I don't know what to say. I already told her I was sorry. She left anyway."
"I don't care what you said before. What you said before was because you were scared and didn't want her to leave. Now stop crying this instant and think about why you told Cassie to call Magnolia that word. Now, come on, let's go," he pulled me out of the car and walked behind me nudging me forward toward the apartment door we had parked closest to.
I knocked on the door and when I did, Daddy stepped back, left me there waiting alone and went back to the car.
A little girl about my age opened the door half-way and looked at me. She had on one of Cassie's old sweaters.
After what felt like a long time, I asked "Is Magnolia here?"
The girl did not open the door wider, but called back into the house, "Mama, there's someone here wants to talk with you." I could see straight through to the kitchen at the back of the apartment and saw Magnolia turn toward me. I knew she could see me through the screen door.
Magnolia walked up behind the girl and told her to go back to the kitchen and keep fixing supper. She didn't invite me in and called over my shoulder, "Good evening, Mr. Heath."
Daddy said, "Good evening, Magnolia."
Magnolia looked down at me and I asked if I could come in. I felt weak-legged from making the effort not to cry and by her cold reception. She hadn't even opened her screen door. She did not respond.
I looked up at her through the screen and asked again, "Can I come in? I need to tell you why I made Cassie say that mean thing to you. I knew I shouldn't have and I did it anyway. I am so sorry."
"Alright Sarah," she said. "You walk over there to the path on the right and come around back. I'll let you in the kitchen door at the back and we can talk there."
Before I could respond, she closed the front door in my face.
I went round back as she instructed, sat down with her at her kitchen table and talked to her. Our one-sided conversation that evening remains one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life.
She listened silently as I tried to explain that I meant her no harm but was trying to fit in and get the boys to stop making fun of Cassie and me. My lame words were punctuated by the staccato beat she kept as she snapped the green beans for her family's supper. She let me finish and accepted my apologies as she turned away from me to put the beans on to boil.
I left by the back door and ran as fast as I could to the car.
Magnolia came back to work for my family the following week.
Some things you can mend, but most times they're not as strong as before they were broken. A person's heart is the same as a porcelain vase. The mending may bring the pieces together again, but the mark remains.