Sitting on the cool, green linoleum tiles beside Barney, my family’s beloved Irish Setter, I could almost disappear into his fur. He was sleeping, snoring quietly, saliva dripping onto the floor. I ran my fingers down his back and along his tail, releasing a fine layer of hair. It was a lazy afternoon in Centerville, Ohio, 1951. Barney and I were both six years old.
“You gonna pull that dog’s hair out, Precious, just you wait and see,” said my babysitter. Ruby had a way of scolding that made me laugh. She was never mean, she just knew who I was. When she laughed I felt warmth in my heart. “I know you love that dog,” she added, and she was right. Barney was my best friend, and Ruby seemed to accept the naturalness of my attachment.
Although I hadn’t known her long, Ruby felt like family. I loved coming home from school and finding her there. Two afternoons each week, she stayed with me while my mother volunteered at my older sister’s Girl Scout troop. My brother was in the sixth grade and, in my mind, practically a grown-up.
Ruby had begun doing housework for us months earlier, shortly after we moved to Ohio. A shy child, I was slow to make friends. My shyness had increased the year before, at my old school, when I learned that I was a gentile, one of two students in the class who was not Jewish. No one played with us, and I felt there was a badness about me that kept them away. And now, in this new school, I was afraid it might happen again. I didn’t like feeling different. I was lonely.
I watched Ruby slide the iron along the sleeve of my father’s shirt, gliding back and forth like a swan on a crystal lake. She was dressed in her usual black dress with starched white apron and collar, beautifully ironed, and emitting the aroma of flowers. My mother had taught me that every woman needed to know how to iron, although I wasn’t allowed to do it until I was older. I couldn’t wait to try, and I hoped Mom would let Ruby teach me.
Ruby hummed as she ironed the collar one last time. “Your daddy needs a nice pressed shirt for work,” she said, shaking it out and placing it on a hanger. I can still see her elegant hands buttoning the top two buttons. As she completed the task, she sang:
Wade in the water, wade in the water
Children wade in the water.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Who’s that young girl dressed in red,
Must be the children Moses led,
And God’s gonna trouble the water.
I felt as if I were being rocked in her arms, and imagined myself wading in the water, dressed in red, with God’s sunny face in the sky, blowing gently at first, and then with a force that parted the water so I could walk safely to the other side. Ruby told me that God made miracles happen. “Ruby,” I asked, “what makes you so happy?”
“I’m talking to God, baby, just talking to God,” she murmured. “Now let’s get us some ice tea. I’m like to burning up.” Then she whipped another shirt off the board and snapped it onto the hanger.
She unplugged the iron, wrapped the cord around the handle and from the refrigerator took the sweet tea we’d made earlier. Ruby had taught me how to open the metal ice tray with a strong jerk, removing the divider, and dropping the ice cubes one at a time into the glasses. We laughed as we sampled the slivers of ice that broke off in the tray.
“Let’s make some lunch to go with our tea,” she said. “Would you like to help me make grilled cheese sandwiches?” Ruby never forgot what I liked.
“Yes, please,” I said.
Ruby took the loaf from the bread box and removed four slices. “Let’s make three sandwiches in case a friend comes over,” she said, pulling out two more slices. Ruby always planned for extra people, which my mother never did since we moved away from our relatives in St. Louis. I think she missed them; I know I did. So when Ruby made that extra sandwich, it made me believe that things could change, and that I could have friends.
She handed me the mustard jar and a knife. “Spread the mustard just so, all the way to the edges, like you always do.” I felt as if I had an important job, and this made me feel smart.. My brother and sister were really smart, impressing Mom with their grades, and I always felt that I needed to catch up.
I dipped my knife into the creamy mustard, plopped it onto the bread, and spread it in swirls. I took the Velveeta out of the cardboard box, opened the foil wrapping, and put the huge rectangular chunk of orange cheese onto the cutting board. Ruby let me use the cheese slicer, a silver cord with a roller held in place by two arms and a handle where the two arms met.
“Not too thick now,” Ruby warned as I placed the magic slicer at the top of the wedge, executed a slight flick of my wrist, and a slice of cheese fell off, the perfect match for the yellow-swathed bread on the plate. Whenever Ruby gave me a chance at something, I excelled. “What a beautiful sandwich “ she would exclaim, and I would glow at her enthusiasm and her confidence in me. I wasn’t sure my mother thought I could do this. But I could. I made two more sandwiches while Ruby melted the butter in a pan, and then popped in the sandwiches. She pressed them down with a spatula until they were a warm brown on the outside, with a gooey orange inside. Ruby put each sandwich on a plate and cut it in half, producing two perfect triangles with cheese oozing out the sides. My mouth watered; I couldn’t wait to enjoy this work of art, made even more special because it was created by my own hands.
As I was about to take a bite, the doorbell rang. I ran to answer it and found my next door neighbor Johnny, whom I’d met the day before, when Mom and I had delivered cookies to his family.
“Can you come out and play?” he asked, looking at his feet.
I ran into the kitchen to ask Ruby, who was standing with her back to me, humming as she washed the pan and spatula. “My friend Johnny’s here,” I told her. “Can he stay for lunch?” I was so thrilled to think that a friend had dropped in.
“That’s who the extra sandwich is for,” she said, continuing her job at the sink. “It has his name on it. Go invite him in.”
I ran out and took his hand. “Come on in, we’re having grilled cheese sandwiches,” I said, pulling him into the kitchen, smiling at Ruby, who smiled back.
Johnny froze when he saw Ruby. “I can’t eat a sandwich made by a nigger,” he stammered. “Mommy says they’re dirty,” and he ran out the door, slamming it behind him.
I didn’t understand what had just happened. What was a nigger? Who was dirty? Did he mean me or Ruby? I looked at Ruby with tears in my eyes, so disappointed that my friend had left, and for reasons that made no sense to me. She put her arms around me.
‘”What’s a nigger, Ruby?”
“It’s what people call other people that are different than them,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact.
“You mean because I’m a girl? He thinks I’m dirty because I’m a girl?” I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so unfair.
“No, baby, it’s because I’m different,” she said.
“Because you’re brown, is that it?” I asked, astonished.
“Yes, Precious, people are always afraid of what is different. You pay no mind. Johnny doesn’t know any better. We’ll eat our sandwiches and then you can go play with him. And don’t you fret, because now we’ll each get an extra half,” she said with a wink.
“But Ruby, God is brown. I saw him up in the sky, when he parted the waters, and he looks like you.” I was certain of this. I saw it in my mind and I knew it in my heart.
“God is many colors, baby, and God loves everybody the same.” She handed me a plate with three crispy grilled triangles and placed an identical one in front of her. We bowed our heads as Ruby prayed: Holy Spirit, please bless us all. Bless baby girl’s family, bless Johnny’s family, and bless my husband and children at home.
After a moment of silence, Ruby opened her eyes and nodded, picking up her sandwich. Together, we took our first bite. I found myself wishing I knew how to talk to God like Ruby did.
I have always remembered that day and the seed that Ruby planted. It was a seed that took many years to bloom, but in time I learned the profound lesson: the idea that one human being is inferior to others is a distorted perception based on fear and ignorance. Ruby respected herself, and knew that she was loved, and watching her that day made it clear that self-respect and love cannot be easily shattered by ignorance.
As I got older, I also came to understand that those damaged by a sense of separation from their humanity are often driven by fear and hatred which can result in their committing horrendous deeds. Yet Ruby, like many others before and after her, seemed to embrace a deeper truth, something eternal, which spoke to the core of her being and refreshed her spirit. This allowed her to walk in this world with love and respect for herself and others, and by living these truths to be a model of non-violence in the face of hatred.
Years later, when I demonstrated for civil and women’s rights, and spoke out against hatred, I often imagined Ruby’s face in the sky, shining brilliantly, lighting the way for others.
* * *
I approached the weathered barn. I was disappointed to find it empty, with no sign of my eleven-year old friend Emma, whom I was meeting at three o’clock. We had planned a secret ceremony.
I leaned against the sliding door and pushed against its heavy weight, the familiar creaking announcing my entry. As the door slowly opened, the dim interior came into view in frames, like negatives from a roll of film. It was the summer of 1956, and I was near Morse Pike, a country road outside the city limits of Bloomington, Indiana.
The barn was unused by the Larson family, on whose acreage it sat. The Larson twins, Brendan and Barton, were seventeen, like my brother, and their parents had suggested that we house our new horses in the barn, since we lived only a half-mile up the road. I entered and whistled the welcome call Daddy had taught me, a two-note repetition that sent my horse, Fleetfoot, to the edge of his stall, whinnying and hanging his head out to greet me.
I was also greeted by the tangy smell of manure, blended with the sweetness of hay, the dust it created tickling my throat. Fleet snorted, his nostrils quivering and shiny with snot, ears moving in excitement. He raised his right rear foot, resting briefly on three legs, then lowered it, the stomp reverberating through the stall. I began to stroke his snout. He threw his head back, mane flipping in response, then dropped it to be touched again. Frosty, Daddy’s horse had her back turned, as if asking to be left alone.
“Good boy,” I murmured as I scratched Fleet’s chin. Yellow teeth gleamed behind black lips, as he softly nipped my hand, hoping for an apple. “Later, Fleet,” I told him. I ran my fingers through his damp and slippery mane and cooed my affection, echoing the doves in the rafters.
“El, are you here?” I heard Emma shout. I could see her in my mind, dressed in dirty jeans from gardening, her long blonde hair in loose braids. She always seemed comfortable with herself, not shy like me.
“I’m here with Fleet,” I called back. “Come on over.”
My thoughts turned to the first time I met Emma, when I was ten. Daddy and I were out riding and stopped to introduce ourselves. Emma and her mother were weeding the garden at their new house, up the hill from the barn. Her mom told us that when she saw the horses she’d thought we were those rednecks from the Ku Klux Klan. Daddy frowned and said “Let’s hope we never see those evil murderers in these parts.” A lawyer, he was passionate about right and wrong, but, unlike Emma’s parents, his politics were conservative. My brother once said the Klan wouldn’t come near our liberal university town, even though their headquarters were in South Bend, two hours north of Bloomington. I didn’t know who the Klan had killed or why they were on the loose, but I thought maybe they had escaped from jail in South Bend.
Emma had stood back from the horses. She seemed frightened, but carried on a conversation with my dad, asking questions. It was odd to me that she could be afraid of horses but be comfortable talking with my dad, and playing with her cat, who jumped on her shoulder, hissing and clawing. That cat scared me. I figured it must depend on what you were used to.
“I’ve got the grapevines,” Emma now called to me, referring to our plan to smoke them ceremonially as part of the secret ritual she had planned. She smiled, walked past me and began climbing the ladder to the hayloft. “Bren and Bart were pruning their parents’ grapevines last week and they gave me two branches. I cut the vines into six inch sticks, left them in the sun, and now they are dry as a bone.” We had agreed earlier that if the boys were old enough to smoke cigarettes, we were old enough to create our own version.
A lot of things had led up to this day. Bren and Bart lived across the field, south of the barn, in a nineteenth century white clapboard house. It had served as a way station for the Underground Railroad. Emma had explained that there wasn’t really a train under the ground but a safe house for slaves escaping from their owners who bought and sold slaves like cattle, whipping them to exhaustion in the cotton fields. I’d never heard that kind of talk in my home.
The twins loved history and seemed proud of their old farmhouse. Their father, like Emma’s, was a professor at Indiana University. The first time I saw the house, I noticed descending stone steps at the back, overhung by a thick lilac and leading to a basement door. I wondered if this was where the slaves had entered to sleep during the day so they could continue their travels at night.
In Girl Scouts, Emma and I sang “Follow The Drinkin’ Gourd” and learned about how Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave herself, had led groups north in secrecy, guided by the North Star in the Big Dipper. Emma said Harriet carried a gun that she never used. It was a reminder to any fugitive who became too frightened to keep running that slavery was death, and freedom the only life worth living.
I thought Harriet was as brave as any man. I imagined her with beams of starlight surrounding her as she traveled through Indiana, risking her life for the freedom of others. Emma and I decided to form a club and call ourselves the Freedom Sisters in honor of Harriet. Our theme song was “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.” We had regular meetings, where we talked about our dream of being courageous and helping others to be free.
My history book mentioned Harriet Tubman but I don’t remember any discussion of the Ku Klux Klan. Once, when I was walking home from the barn, I had come upon Bren reading in the field of Queen Ann’s Lace behind his house. He had shown me a picture of Klansmen on their horses, carrying torches, and wearing white robes, pointed hats and ghost-like face coverings with circular eye-holes. He said the Klan hanged black men from trees and burned down their houses. It was then that I realized the Klan lived among us.
As I listened to Bren, an image appeared in my mind of the only black person I had ever known. It was Ruby, our beloved housekeeper when I was six and living in Ohio. She had a grown son, Charles, and I wondered if Charles had been one of the Klan’s victims.
I couldn’t get Ruby’s face out of my mind. I imagined her lying at the base of a tree, sobbing, her house behind her in smoldering ashes, the feet of her son dangling above her.
I felt shattered by this image, and began to wonder how it must feel to live in constant fear. I wished I could ask a friend, but there were no black children at my school. I began to grasp that freedom from slavery did not mean that black people were free. I felt sick at my stomach, the helpless nausea of a young girl on whom the awareness of racial hatred was dawning. It was as if I had one piece to a terrifying puzzle and no way to make sense of the scramble of shapes that lay before me. Since no one at home was talking about the Klan’s awful deeds, I didn’t ask. When I told Emma what I felt, she suggested that we perform a secret ritual at our upcoming meeting of the Freedom Sisters, and I agreed, even though I didn’t know what to expect.
I was about to find out what Emma had in mind. I followed her with anticipation to the empty hayloft and sat cross-legged on the floor. She sat across from me and placed a tin box between us, opened the lid and went through the contents for me to see. She said nothing, but I knew she would explain soon enough. There was a book of matches, a safety pin, six grapevine sticks, two cotton balls, a pencil and a piece of paper, all of which she put back in the box.
“Here’s the plan,” Emma began. “First we become blood sisters. As the Freedom Sisters, our motto is Crush the Ku Klux Klan. This is our secret and not even the twins can know about it.”
This was not the first time we discussed what our motto would be. The Klan were monsters who needed to be disempowered in our young minds, especially if we were to sustain the hope of helping others. We wanted to be brave and strong and fight heroic battles.
My mother’s life revolved around our family and our home, and though I was expected to be like her, I wasn’t. For one thing, I wanted to change the world beyond my family. I imagined riding Fleet all the way to the Pacific Ocean without fear of being stopped. I wanted to find a way for everyone to be free and unafraid. Crushing the Ku Klux Klan seemed like the place to start, even if only in my fantasies. At eleven I believed that anything was possible.
I nodded, closing my eyes to show my solemnity.
“At the end,” she continued, “we smoke the grapevines to celebrate our bond. So let’s get started.” She opened the safety pin, lit a match, and placed it at the end of the pin. “That’s to sterilize it,” she said, as she blew out the match and touched it to her tongue. “Do you want me to go first?”
“Yes,” I whispered in the hush of hayloft, thrilled by the importance of what we were about to do.
She opened her left hand, and with her thumb, pushed the flesh of her middle finger to the tip, then pricked it with the safety pin. Blood spotted her finger.
“Your turn,” she said, and I followed her lead, drawing blood as quickly as she did.
She took my hand and pressed our two fingers together. “Now the Freedom Sisters are blood sisters.” We locked eyes in agreement. She pulled the paper out of the box and pushed her finger against it, making a mark in blood. I did the same.
“Blood sisters for life,” she wrote, and we signed our names and the date: June 15, 1956. As we pressed the cotton on our fingers, I felt relieved, sensing that our ritual had power, though not knowing how or why.
“Now for the grapevines,” Emma announced. She took one of the sticks, struck a match, and held it under the tip of the twig until it was a glowing ember. “Be careful with the ash,” she warned, “and keep it over the tin box.” I again repeated her actions, confident that she knew what she was doing. We brought the other end of the grapevines to our lips and sucked. Looking at each other, we collapsed into giggles. The grapevines went out almost immediately, which we hardly noticed.
As our laughter dissipated and we sat in silence, I began to wonder about how people became evil. I remembered Ruby telling me that hatred came from fear. I thought about how Emma was afraid of horses and I was afraid of cats, mostly because we had never been around them. I didn’t know any black people besides Ruby, but I had no reason to hate them. Why were the Ku Klux Klan so afraid of dark skin? How could they believe they had the right to kill someone? Did they think they were better than other people? These questions stayed with me.
I heard Fleet whinny.
“Someone’s coming,” I said. I stood up, preparing to leave. We tossed everything into the tin box and climbed down the ladder, Emma clutching the box under her shirt. As we slipped out the door, I thought about the freedom I felt when I rode through the fields on Fleet, imagining that we were part of a wild herd. I pictured us stampeding the Ku Klux Klan, crushing them until they were dust, and freeing their horses for a better life.
Though Emma and I eventually moved apart, the image of the tin box, holding the document of our intention, was carried in my heart as I grew up. It was my reminder that I was on the side of justice and change.
As I look back, more than five decades later, having spent much of my adult life as a feminist and a social worker, I know that change is born when untenable circumstances are ignited by faith. I’ve seen the transformation that occurs when a leader offers guidance and when the seeds of discontent have blossomed in those who are ready to move on at any cost.
There is still much to be done in the name of freedom. Sometimes when I’m tired and afraid, I imagine Harriet Tubman riding her wild steed through the sparkling night sky, resting for a moment in the vessel of the big dipper, then charging forward again. Ivory pistol at her side, she reminds us on earth not to stray from the path of freedom or retreat when fear overwhelms us. I can almost hear her singing:
Follow the drinkin’ gourd, we gonna
Follow the drinkin’ gourd,
Keep on travelin’ that muddy road to freedom
Follow the drinkin’ gourd.
Ellen Woods is a sixty-eight-year-old writer and retired county social worker. Her work appears in the Fall 2013 issues of Blood & Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine and Skive Magazine: Farewell Issue as well as recent issues of Inquiring Mind, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bygone Bureau, Looseleaf Tea, and Noyo River Review, among others. Her piece “Becoming” will be anthologized in “Stepping Up” to be published in Spring 2015, edited by Samantha Waltz. Ellen left Indiana in 1966 to live in Berkeley, CA, and has been there ever since, pursuing spiritual practices and fighting for justice. Her memoir Warriors in Transition will be published in 2014.