Thank you, Lionel

Lionel and I first met through the links of a chain link fence one sunny afternoon in Baltimore. His smiling face was the color of black coffee, and he was first brown-skinned person I had ever seen up close. I wrote about our encounter in my book “Jumping with Mixed Feelings”*:

“Comin’ from school!”

 My heart jumped. I let go of the buttercup I had squatted to pick by the chain link fence and looked up into a pair of wide eyes centered in a face the color of coffee. “Comin’ from school, ain’t ya?” the voice said again, softly. Almost a whisper. I slowly rose. Our faces were a foot apart, separated by the fence.

“Y-yeah, I guess.” I found my voice, cleared my throat, startling myself. It sounded just like the sound my father makes. The dark face widened into a smile as both sets of eyes looked down at the pile of my books on the ground.

“Don’ you know?”  Then they both started to laugh. A chuckle at first, then it grew until they both were giggling until they were shaking.

 “‘What’s your name?” The black face was asking all the questions.

 “Raleigh. What’s your name?”

  “Lionel.”

  “Like the trains?” Lionel looked confused. “You know, the trains at Christmas. That run around the tree. Lionel trains. Do you have trains?” Lionel shook his head slowly. I thought I’d better change the subject.

 “You live in there?” pointing through the trees to the big brick house behind Lionel.

 “Yeah.” Lionel’s voice grew soft again. He looked at his feet. We studied each other silently.

 “I live over there, on Cator,” I said, finally. “It’s not far. Can we . . .” I took a breath and bent down to pick up my books. “Can I be your friend?”

Instantly Lionel’s face relaxed, softening from a mask of caution to a shy smile. “Okay.” Lionel thought some more. “I can’t come out. Ain’t allowed.” He looked at the fence.

“That’s okay. We can just see each other this way. I’ll see ya here tomorrow.”  I started to walk. Stopped. Came back. “Here.” I reached down for the buttercup lying on the ground. “If ya hold it under your chin, if ya like butter, it’ll shine yella.” I pushed the limp blossom through the fence. Lionel took it solemnly, then he looked up and grinned. “I like butter.”

“Bye! I’ll come by tomorrow,” I called as I turned and started skipping toward Argonne Drive and home. I looked both ways then crossed the street and had slowed to a walk down Wilsby Avenue when I remembered. Tomorrow is Saturday.

My mind was galloping. I had never been that close to a person of another color, much less talk with one. Lionel was real dark, shiny like a chestnut colored horse, and his eyes seemed extra big with really white eyeballs. His teeth shone white against his thin face, especially when he smiled. He had two arms and hands and two legs and feet, and his striped polo shirt and corduroy pants and brown shoes were like mine. I laughed out loud. “He’s like me,” I said aloud. It felt good, like solving a mystery.

Not quite. I knew that I’d better not tell my father about Lionel, or that would the end of the new friendship. I had never seen or met anyone from inside that big brick house, either. All I knew is that it is an orphanage, and it’s called St. Elizabeth’s, and it is run by Catholics. Is Lionel Catholic? Are there black Catholics?

Black. Catholic. New friend. I climbed the steps to my back door. I had plenty to think about.

This took place in the early 1940s, many years before civil rights became part of our national vocabulary. Today, as we approach the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., my thoughts return to that first childhood encounter with a person of color and to the many friendships with others that have enriched my life since.

Do you wonder as I do about the friends you knew only in your childhood, how they have spent their lives, where they are now, whether they are still alive?

Lionel and I met again several times after that first encounter, always on opposite sides of the fence. How I would love to see him again, share our life stories and laugh together.

Thank you, Dr. King. Thank you, Lionel, wherever you are.

*[“Jumping with Mixed Feelings: a Family Memoir” is available on Amazon.com in paperback and on Kindle.]

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