Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King Day, Barack Obama and MRS. LIEUTENANT

In honor of Martin Luther King Day and the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, I'm sharing with the readers of this blog the children's picture book story I wrote after the Presidential elections in November. This is a "continuation" of the story of Wendy, the African-American character in my novel MRS. LIEUTENANT that takes place in 1970:

Rosemary woke early on the morning of November 5th. Today she turned seven years old. But her mother and father hadn’t yet come into her room to wake her and sing happy birthday. She knew they had stayed up late the night before, celebrating that an African-American man had been elected President of the United States.

Rosemary slid her feet into her bunny slippers and skipped down the hall to her parents’ bedroom. Pushing open the door, she saw they were still asleep.

Rosemary took a flying leap and landed on the bed between her parents.

“Wake up! It’s my birthday!” she said.

Her mother woke up first. She smiled and kissed Rosemary. “So it is. You’re seven years old today.”

Her father pulled on the loose end of one of Rosemary’s pigtails. “You got an early special birthday present yesterday when Barack Obama won,” he said.

At breakfast Rosemary and her parents read the newspapers announcing the Presidential win. “He’s not there on his own,” her father said. “He has a lot of people who went before him to thank.”

“I know,” Rosemary said. “Martin Luther King Jr. led the fight for our rights.”

“There were others too,” her father said. “You know the story about Rosa Parks in 1955 starting the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.”

“Were you there?” Rosemary asked her parents, who laughed at her question.

“No, honey, we’re not that old,” her mother said. “But your grandmother was just your age in 1955.”

“Did she boycott the buses too?” Rosemary asked.

“No, she lived in a different Southern state. But her parents protected her from racial prejudice.”

Rosemary frowned for a moment, trying to understand what her mother meant.

“How did they do that?”

Her mother took Rosemary’s hand. “When your grandmother comes to dinner tonight for your birthday, ask her.”

That evening Rosemary put on her favorite dress and waited near the front door for her grandmother to arrive. When her grandmother entered the house, Rosemary jumped up and down in front of her.

“Grandmama, tell me about growing up in the South. Did you have to sit at the back of the bus like Rosa Parks?”

Her grandmother shook her head, then sat down on the sofa and motioned for Rosemary to sit in her grandmother’s lap.

“Oh, Rosemary, I had a very unusual life growing up in the South. But today I’d rather tell you another story. Because next week is Veterans Day, when we honor the men and women who have served in our military forces. And you know that your grandfather was in the army during the Vietnam War.”

Rosemary nodded, although she had never known this grandfather. “What story do you want to tell me about?”

“The story when your grandfather first went on active duty in May of 1970. He was an officer and he had to attend armor school at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.”

Rosemary tugged on her grandmother’s hand. “What’s armor school?”

“Armor is tanks. An armor officer trains on leading tanks into battle.”

Her grandmother paused for a moment, brushing her hand across her eyes. Then she continued. “We had to live in a trailer because people wouldn’t rent to us. I thought I would have to spend all nine weeks alone by myself. But something funny happened.”

“What, Grandmama? What happened?”

“There was a training program for the wives too. And I got to be on the entertainment committee. There was a white woman from Chicago – she was the chair of the entertainment committee. She wrote a little play for the wives’ graduation luncheon and we got together and practiced the play.”

“Was it a good play?”

Her grandmother laughed. “Lord, I don’t know. But we had fun practicing. And it made those of us on the committee into friends.”

“Were the other women on the committee also white?”

Her grandmother nodded. “Yes, there was a Southern who didn’t much like blacks – that’s the polite word we were called in those days. And there was a Puerto Rican.”

Her grandmother looked at Rosemary. “Do you know where Puerto Rico is?”

“Yes, Grandmama. It’s in the Caribbean near Cuba.”

From the kitchen Rosemary could hear the sounds of her parents preparing her birthday dinner. She hoped they would take more time, because she wanted to hear more of her grandmother’s story.

“What happened to the other women?”

Her grandmother shook her head. “I don’t know. At the end of the nine weeks we all went to our husbands’ next duty station. But for me those nine weeks had been an amazing experience. It was the first time I had been friends with white folks. It gave me confidence that I would be okay in the white world.”

At that moment Rosemary’s mother walked into the living room. “Good evening, Mother,” Rosemary’s mother said to Rosemary’s grandmother. “I just heard what you were talking to Rosemary about.”

Rosemary’s mother stopped in front of Rosemary’s grandmother and held out a book. “I have a surprise for you even though it is Rosemary’s birthday. I’ve just read a new book that I think is about you.”

Rosemary watched her grandmother take the book and look at the cover photos of four women – one of them an African-American. “Mrs. Lieutenant: A Sharon Gold Novel by Phyllis Zimbler Miller” her grandmother read aloud. Then she turned over the book and read from the back cover:

“In the spring of 1970 four newly married young women come together at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, when their husbands go on active duty as officers in the U.S. Army.

“Different as these four women are, they have one thing in common: Their overwhelming fear that, right after these nine weeks of training, their husbands could be shipped out to Vietnam – and they could become war widows.

“Sharon is a Northern Jewish anti-war protester who fell in love with an ROTC cadet; Kim is a Southern Baptist whose husband is intensely jealous: Donna is a Puerto Rican who grew up in an enlisted man’s family; and Wendy is a Southern black whose parents have sheltered her from the brutal reality of racism in America.”

As Rosemary’s grandmother read those last words, Rosemary’s grandmother gasped. “Oh my heavens, you’re right. Someone has written our story.”

Rosemary saw the tears gathering in the corners of her grandmother’s eyes. Rosemary took her grandmother’s hand and said, “It’s okay, Grandmama. We’ve come a long way since then.”

Her grandmother smiled at her. “Yes we have.” She paused for a moment and squeezed Rosemary’s hand. “And your grandfather would be so proud of America today.”


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story to share as we prepare to celebrate another milestone in America's history. It is quite amazing the strides we've made, yet humbling to see how far we still have left to travel. Thanks for the uplifting and very heartfelt story.

Moira Keith

Dorothy Thompson said...

Wow, I got goosebumps. Phyllis, you're a good woman, that's all I have to say. And one more thing...go Obama tomorrow!