Delores Lowe Friedman
Filed under: Authors
Dichotomies—my childhood was a collage of contrasts—a hodge-podge of competing colors, textures, sounds, and sensations. I was not always permitted to give voice to how I felt. So, I saved up my feelings like fireflies in a jar. And when I am lucky, they stir, and they tap on the glass, reminding me to twist the lid and give them flight.
I was born in Bedford Stuyvesant, or Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. In 1950, it was a thriving community with affordable brownstones, where immigrant families from the West Indies, like mine, and African American migrants, rented and owned homes. My family first lived in a one-room apartment in a brownstone house on Hancock Street—my father, my mother, and me.
Then my father was no longer there. I looked at him with my face pressed against the cold wrought iron fencing at Kings County Hospital where he was quarantined, because of TB. Being two, I didn't understand what that meant. I just knew we couldn't be close, couldn't touch. I waved to him from afar.
My mother worked, went to the hospital, and left me with sitters. She said she had to send me away. I was precocious, and my mother recounted how I told complete strangers I was going to the West Indies to live with my grandparents. On the thirteen-hour flight to Barbados, the stewardess said, "Big girls don't cry." But I wasn't big. I was just three, and I was all by myself.
My grandfather was a respected chiropractor, so his home had an office, many bedrooms, a dining room, parlor, and a verandah. I sat there looking out to the sea each day, with the housekeeper. "Shh! Don't let you grandmother know I let you sit out here wit' me while she sleepin'," she said in a Bajan patois. Ma filled my days with reading lessons in my British primer and listening to Bible stories. She tried to entertain me with bounces on her knee and reciting nursery rhymes like "Ride a Cock horse...," or clicking her false teeth, which made me laugh. Despite her efforts, I cried and asked for my mother, until I stopped.
The woman I pined for wept when she hugged me at the airport a year later. "Stop that crying," I told my mother. "That's foolishness," I said, repeating what my grandmother had said to me.
The contrasts persisted. My mother passed the neighborhood school. "That's not a good school," she whispered, then she rehearsed me in a lie, reciting my grandmother's, her mother's, address. My 2nd-grade teacher caught me going the wrong way home, and my mother was called to the Superintendent's office. He was a tall man, my mother barely five foot two. She told the story of how she argued with him about the better school she had chosen. He finally looked through a file folder on his desk, and said, "Your daughter did well on our tests. Would you let her go further away to a school with a better program?"
At age eight, I took three busses to the predominantly white neighborhood of Park Slope to the SP Special Progress program for gifted kids. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, who had a twinkle in her eye, pointed to a library of books with beautiful bindings, from the Little House in the Big Woods series to The Last of the Mohicans. We wrote our reflections on the books' passages in journals, and she encouraged us to write our own fiction.
The foundations for my writing are the textures of my early life: loving closeness, distant loneliness; illness, worry and need, sterile abundance; surrounded by love, and separated from it—being young and playful, and becoming an old woman in a child's body. The contrasting, and sometimes discordant changes in my life, have given me the settings that emerge in my writing, and the colors and music I hear, when my characters speak to me.
The serendipitous happenstance of Head Start in 1965, the year I began college at sixteen, shaped the through-line of my profession as a teacher and professor. My summer job as a teaching assistant crystallized my desire to become an early childhood education teacher. A confluence of factors, Head Start's parent policy, and my mother's courage and support, made it clear to me that parents needed to advocate for their children. I wrote an article for Essence Magazine entitled "Making the System Work for You." My goal was to give parents information and resources they could use to get the best education for their child. Essence liked it and gave me a monthly column, ultimately titled "Education by Degrees." I then authored the book, Education Handbook for Black Families, published by Doubleday. The book provided information, beginning with how to intellectually stimulate an infant, going all the way up to where to get money for graduate school. It was written for parents and the professionals who support students and their families.
My husband and I began a family, and I stayed home with our son the first three years and began writing children's stories. My new job took me to Albany, writing a parent policy paper and monitoring pre-kindergarten programs. Traveling separated me from my family, so I pursued a college teaching job to prepare young teachers, and in order to be at home with my husband and son. While teaching college, I earned my doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. My twenty-year career as a professor offered me much more than time with my family. My work allowed me to influence equity in science education for girls and children of color, and early childhood education through my grants and scholarly writings. I wrote children's books that shared the cultures of children of color with a broader readership. Many of my children's books for readers in kindergarten through 5th grade were published by Houghton Mifflin, including Ian's Pet, Trevor from Trinidad, The Math Bee, and Journey to a Free Town among others.
Now retired, I have returned to my first love: writing fiction for adults. I dreamed of writing a novel since my college days. Through the years, I worked on Wildflowers, writing character notes, scenes, and developing the plot. Wildflowers, my debut novel, is a coming-of-age story about the power and perils of friendship. It follows three women—Camille, Jewel, and Saundra—across several decades as they confront issues of family, love, betrayal, ambition, and race. Kirkus Review placed Wildflowers on its list of "Indie Books Worth Discovering" in 2019. Kirkus called Wildflowers "A solid historical novel with engaging characters."
I am currently putting finishing touches on my second novel, Tangled Dreams. It is the story of Prof. Jocelyn Kendall, who flees a stultifying job, love's betrayal, and suffocating family secrets to her ancestral home, Bequia, in the Caribbean. Jocelyn is driven to unearth secrets about her grandmother's death. She dreams that she has inhabited the life of her great-great-grandmother and is married to a whaler sea captain. In her dreams of the past, she becomes ensnared in a star-crossed love triangle she cannot escape. What's more, this tainted affair is now unfolding again in the present, placing a new love at stake, unless she can stop it.
In 2021, I lost my husband of forty-eight years. He has been my muse and best friend for fifty-one years. He pushed me to send my first article to Essence Magazine. He never let me put Wildflowers aside for too long without saying, "You should be working on your novel." My writing is my joy, along with painting, the theater (albeit streamed now), and listening to music. My husband and I made our home in Queens, New York, where I still live, and we have a wonderful son, who is my rock, and an accomplished software engineer.
Winning Entry: Wildflowers
Contest Won: North Street Book Prize 2021, First Prize