Sunday, July 17, 2011

White Bread

Mom remembers the day Thomas was asked to draw her portrait. He was in the first grade at Emmanuel Presbyterian, and the teacher told the children to sketch a picture of their mother for Mother’s Day.

“I looked mulatto in that picture,” Mom says.

We’re eating dinner at the dining room table. Mom has made rice, collard greens, and lemon chicken. The collard greens have too much bacon in them, and every time someone asks what we were having for dinner she yells, “CALL-ard greens!” with a southern accent.

“All the other pictures of all the other moms were just white bread, white bread, white bread,” Mom says, pointing at invisible women with her spatula, “but I was brown.” She laughs. “I thought it was great.”

Thomas is poking at the parmesean rice on his plate. Dad is at the head of the table, “What kind of rice is this?” he asks.

“It has cheese in it,” I say.

“Well I don’t like it.”

Thomas swallows. “I just remember thinking that nobody’s white. Like nobody’s totally white like paper. That’s all.”

“Well I thought it was so great,” Mom says, still laughing. “I looked different.”

“What kind of cheese did you say?” Thomas asks.

“Parmesean,” I respond.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “Sorry, Mom. I just don’t.”

“It’s okay, Thomas. Neither do I,” Dad says. “I don’t like the rice either.”

Mom shrugs.

She goes on to tell us about the day Thomas came home with the drawing. How he was sitting in the back seat of the car when she drove up to Nellie’s house, and Nellie’s daughter Robin, who was then in her twenties, came running out to say hello. “Show Robin the picture,” Mom had said. “Thomas drew a picture of me in school,” Mom explained out the window.

Thomas stuck the paper through to Robin, and she looked at it and tried to stifle a laugh.

"You’re black, Sigrid! Did you know? You’re black in this picture!”

Dad stops putting food in his mouth and looks up. “What, you thought Nellie was your mom or something?”

Thomas rolls his eyes.

“Well that’s what Robin said,” Mom interjects. “She was laughing because it looked like me, but also like Nellie.” She pauses. “I wish I still had that picture.”

Thomas puts his fork down and shakes his head. “I know, I know, I feel bad about that every time I think about it.”

“Feel bad about what?” Dad asks.

“I tore up that picture, and I feel horrible about it.”

“Oh you were little, Thomas,” Mom says. “It’s okay. You didn’t know.”

“No, I was a bad person.” Thomas is still shaking his head.

“You tore up the picture?” Dad asks. His fork is poised in the air, inches in front of his face. “You really tore it up? Why would you do something like that?”

“Because he was little and mad and didn’t know,” I say. “Stop asking stupid questions.”

(Painting "White Bread" by Wayne Thiebaud.)

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