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Friday, 11 May 2012

Butchie

By Dan Vitale who blogs at A Different Tack

That was the winter I was dropped off at my cousin's house in the city. My cousin Marilyn lived in a four-room apartment with her husband and four children. Somehow they made room for me in a butler pantry off the kitchen.

I was always being dropped somewhere back in those days and this was my third stop that year. I think it was 1958.

The school year was starting and this was my second stint in fourth grade. I had flunked second grade too so I was too old and too big for fourth grade. But if I kept my head down and didn't make eye contact, maybe I'd be all right.

When I did raise my head to look around, the first face I saw was Butchie's. Butchie was bigger than me. He had been held back last year too. He sat in the next aisle two seats ahead and every time I looked up, his big round face broke into a huge white smile.

He had the biggest brown eyes and the whitest smile and the blackest skin I had ever seen.

His name was Obadiah but everyone called him Butchie. We fell in together and would work the empty lots looking for empty bottles and other unmentionable treasures.

Butchie lived in the first of the city high-rise projects. His apartment was always full of people - his mom, his sister and her friends, his aunt and neighbors. Music was always playing on the record player.

It was there I heard music that I never heard before, ate different food I never heard of, sat and listened to the chatter and banter of a people I had never known before.

I came to love those afternoons at Butchie's house listening to Big Mama Thornton and Ivory Joe Hunter and Butchie's sister calling me Crisco and giggling until she fell off the couch.

I ate things like shrimp and grits and corn bread and deep fried ribs and Butchie's mom would feed me until I couldn't move. After moving around so much in my life, I really felt at home with these folks and I secretly adopted Butchie as my little brother, even though he was so big.

One day after school, I brought Butchie home with me. Marilyn was washing dishes at the sink and when she turned around and saw Butchie, I thought she was going to give birth. I had never seen prejudice before but I somehow recognized it right away.

Marilyn's face paled and her eyes grew wide and she stared at Butchie a long time before offering a weak hello. I'm not sure if Butchie noticed the look on Marilyn; I hoped he didn't. We retreated to the outdoors and played on like we always did.

That night, Marilyn and her husband sat me down at the kitchen table and explained to me that even though we all lived in the same neighborhood and even though they were sure that Butchie was a very nice boy, it was best if everyone stayed in their own backyard, and please don't bring him here anymore.

I agreed. I never brought Butchie home again. After all, it wasn’t my home; I was just a guest there myself. Even so, I felt like I had betrayed Butchie. That was my first life's lesson in prejudice.

Over the next few weeks, I continued visiting Butchie’s house. His sister kept on teasing me. And his mother fed me chicken with grits and when I tried to leave the greens, she admonished me and made me clean my plate.

She had that same big white smile as her son. All the while those scratchy old blues records played on and on. People would come and go and the shouting and joking and bantering were endless. It was a fun place for me. I was the only white face around but no one ever mentioned it. Except Butchie’s sister would call me Crisco and roll back and forth on the couch giggling.

I felt at home at Butchie’s house - those were good days for me. Then, a few weeks later, my mother came and gathered me up to live in a new foster home. I never saw Butchie again.


[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. PLEASE read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

A wonderful story, so sensitively told. And a true example of how just getting to know and care for someone who is different (in whatever way) can erase prejudice toward an entire group of people.

Lovely story Dan, too bad you didn't ever see your friend Butchie again. Lots of us grew up with that kind of nasty racism. I guess we will never overcome the tribalism that keeps us at each others' throats, but if we stopped teaching children to hate it would be a start. As Rodgers and Hammerstein said in "South Pacific" in 1949,

"You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

It must have been difficult to move around, from home to home, but at least your wonderful memories of Butchie are intact. That's something to cherish.

Something really good must have been going on all along, to produce such a fine writer and sensitive person. Congratulations Dan!!

I am so glad you were fortunate to have found kindness in the home of a true friend. Whatever happened to that young man?

Dan,

What a story! And what a writer. You took me right into Butchie's house and I could hear his Mother telling you to eat your greens while Bessie Smith sang in the background.

It was a real letdown to read that you were moved to another foster home and never got to see Butchie again.

Hope to read more of your stories in the future,Dan.

Thank you all for your kind words. This my first story published so it's a thrill. Wearmanyhats, I am sorry you asked that, but I now I feel compelled to share that I read in the news that Butchie was shot to death sometime in the early seventies. I remember sadness, but moreover I remember being struck by the contrast in the outcomes of our respective lives. And I wondered what series of events could turn that big smiling face to such a tragic end.

Squee! I'm so proud of you! You inspire me, you know that, and this story is such a wonderful example of why.

Hi Dan,

I’m Maggie’s mom. After waiting all week to read your contribution, I was disappointed when I couldn’t find you on Friday. Maggie had given me another name. When she told me you had written Butchie my immediate response was to tell her I'd read it and it was a wonderful story. It was especially touching you knew what you were seeing at such a young age. Congratulations on your first published work. Hopefully, you will be back soon and often.

Congrats! Great story Dan. It is my favorite, thus far :)Looking forward to reading more of your work.
Pippa

Great Story! Very touching, and very well told. I was right there with you in the room... knots in my stomach. Good job! Congrats on getting published!

Loved every word..the 50s and race relations or lack thereof, a whole chapter on its own..you are a great writer; I will hunt up my 30s/40s records pronto and think of Butchie and his family....

Another great story Dan . I moved around in my childhood much like you did, apparently. I applaud you for writing this with such beauty and courage. It's not easy and the stories aren't always sweet. You inspire me Dan and I thank you for that.

Hey, Dan : Maggie's mom here again. When do we get another story? It's been months.

Best regards,
Lynn

Waldo,
Good piece. Sad too. Ah lieben. It's nice to know you aren't always a wise ass.

I hope you don't mind I tracked you down. Miss you at the blog. --Ann

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