The Little Black “Dress” Secret

12 Aug

Don’t ask me how it came to be that my paternal grandfather married a woman who was half-black, but after several inquiries I found out the truth an hour before leaving her door.


My grandmother was a polished gal in spite of the meager wages she earned as a seamstress, later working in Hell’s Kitchen in the twenties and thirties, she arrived in Ellis Island at twenty-one as a freshly married couple to grandpa. They both spoke “broken English” when the newly-wedded, Viola and Vincente Battaglia arrived, savings in hand of $290.15 in 1910 would be roughly $6,400 dollars by today’s standards. Not a bad start, not a whole lot of money, but a start. And they both had a trade: she worked with fabric, sewing clothing, a hemline so perfect, she was appointed head seamstress when they found her work so right in every way; grandpa worked with leather, cutting shoes, gloves, briefcases, sewn together, stitched right and right in a row, and right in a row came two boys: one in 1914, my uncle Frank, and the other, in 1915, my father, Victor.

By now you know the story about the immigrants. They brought their trades. The Irish, German, the Jews, Italians, Poles and so many others, brought their cultural jewels to America, where they worked with their crafts to help build rails, tunnels, bridges – New York’s subways – the factories that pumped smoke to build steel and textiles, and the Erie Canal built to transport goods along the Hudson artery, and so forth. You know the story, it was taught to us at an early age. This is a part of our culture and history. But there’s another part of history that wasn’t taught in grade school: that is Sicily, being geographically close to Tunisia in northern Africa where the Atlantic slave trade in the 1800′s was alive and well, where slaves were shipped through the island of Sicily through the port cities of Agrigento, Marsala and Trapani – this last one being where my great-grandmother was born – were Italian girls who were cohabitating with the guys who were a little darker than them – a little miscegenation, brought my great-grandmother into a bit of a dilemma, pregnant now at 16 with her first child, would turn out to be Viola, my grandmother who was born in 1894.

The official end of slavery came in 1863, but like our current law-breaking, running drugs, for example, my suspicion leads me to think that despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Atlantic slave trade was still going on several years later.


I was always closer to my father’s mother. She taught me how to write a letter, how to hold a fork, “switch hands when cutting your food,” how to set a table, “use the good linen for company,” how to hail a cab. “if you’re going uptown you wait on the uptown side,”  and when I was young,  showing off my piss and vinegar telling her, “fuck, grandma, leave me alone,” that came out expectantly, she put me right back in line, by getting up and throwing off her apron, taking me by the ear and into the bathroom where she washed out her dainties, pushing a large bar of soap – washing soap – the kind that you used a scrub-board on, shoving it down my mouth until bubbles starting forming.  I never cursed at her again and, in some way, every time I curse now, I think of grandma, always afraid she’s going to come out of the kitchen, stampeding my way.

She died in 1983 in between the death of my parents (1981 and 1984) and I went to see her at the nursing home.

“Grandma, I got a question for you.”

“Are you studying in school? I want you to stay in school,” she waved her fan; it was a hot July afternoon. “Where’s my ginger ale?”

I hand her her soda, “Do you want some ice?”

“That would be nice.”

I step into the hall, green like a mint sprig, I see white gowns, stretchers, the smell of urine sickens me and makes me tighten my lips, “Excuse me,” I say to a white dress, she’s pertinent, as if she knows the question will have to lead her always to a knowledgeable answer, “Yes?” she snaps and puts me at attention.

“Uhm,” I stagger, not expecting such a quick response, “do …do you know where I can find some ice?”

“I’ll get you some. Who are you seeing?”

“Oh, thank you. My grandmother.”

“Ah, you must be ….you’re Viola’s granddaughter?”

“Yes, yes, I am.”

Her glasses sit at the bridge of her nose, and I notice her white stockings match her white shoes, and I could tell she polishes her shoes. She says, “Very nice. You look like her. I’ll bring some in, hold tight.”

“Thanks, yes,” I say, “it’s a little warm. Her ginger ale is warm.”

Back in the room, “Theresa, put the fan over there and come over here, I want to talk to you.”

In my family they don’t talk with you, they talk to you – and there is a big difference.

“Sit down next to me,” she pats the bed, I obediently sit next to her, in my twenty-seventh year, I’m at the height of my annoying and bombastic self.  ”You miss your father?” she strokes my hair, “I know you do. And your mother is sick, and you know I’m dying-”

“Grandma. Come on, please…you can’t die. They don’t want you in heaven anyway,” I tell her this with a smirk.

“I sure am, you little stinker – you’re just like your father – they’ll make way for me. You’re the one who should be worried.”

“Here’s your ice!” The nurse marches in with precise steps, “Viola! How are you doing today, sweetheart?” She notices grandma’s pillow, “Sit up and let me fluff this for you.”

“Thank you for the ice,” I say, grateful for her timely interruption.

“Oh, it’s no problem. It’s hot out!” She goes to the only window in the room and adjusts the blinds, she sends back a look to grandma, “Is that better?” gauging the level of light so it doesn’t get in the way of grandma’s sensitive eyes.

“Yes, yes, thank you, Rose,” she says to the nurse; they’re on a first-name basis, ‘Hmmn, grandma’s been here only four months, but look how fast you can become familiar.’

“Rose! Take a look at my granddaughter!”

“We met outside,” Rose says.

“Isn’t she a beauty?”

“She looks like you, Viola.” And with this Rose says, “You want the door opened or closed?”

“Leave it open,” says grandma, “They can’t hear in here anyway.”

“Grandma, I have to be going soon, I’m in downstairs metered parking.”

She gets the urgency, “I want to tell you something before I leave and before you go, you ready?”

I crane my cocky head, “What?”

“You’re such a snotty bitch, but I love you. That’s gonna’ get you far -”

“Is that what you want to tell me? What are you talking about, grandma – gawwwwd.” I drone on.

“Theresa, you don’t understand something – but you need to know. Your father is dead – my son, I buried. Your mother is sick. I won’t be there for you… You’re going to have to be strong.”

I roll my eyes, no one has to tell me the pain I’m in, or maybe they do, or maybe I just hide from the pain, but I know she can see it and it angers me. “I got a question for you, something I’ve always been dying to know. Can I ask you a question?”

“What is it?” She looks to me with full, brown eyes, her eyes are soft and soulful, her wide mouth full, she still has all her own teeth, her hair and abundance of white curl. “Ask! What is it?”

“There was some rumor, a long time ago, grandma, and me, I always wanted to know.”

“Theresa, just ask. If I can’t answer I’ll let you know. I didn’t bring you up to be afraid of anything. If you want a favor there’s a 50/50 chance I can do it. If it’s money I don’t have any to give.”

“Grandma, it’s not money. I make my own money.”

“Are you in school? Did you drop out? All right. Never mind, what was it?”

I let out a sigh, and then bleed all over, “Grandma, are you half-black? Are you? Because mommy used to talk about it with daddy and all the aunts on mommy’s side wondered and I used to stick up for you. And then my brothers – all of them – Sal, Victor and even Thomas, they said you were, but I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it because that would make me black, too.”

She knitted her eyebrows and looked at me curiously, “Come here,” and she opened up her arms, where I went immediately to rest my head on her bosom, she smelled so good. As she rocked me, she said, “I am half-black, but it was a relation my young mother had so long ago. And I was ridiculed for years for it. But I endured the looks and the rumors and the talk….for so, so long. Now I don’t care. I haven’t cared…must be, well, right around 50 years old. I didn’t give a damn what they had to say.”

I wiped my eyes, and blew into a tissue; I bit my bottom lip and asked, “Did you ever tell anyone?”

She grabbed me again, this time grabbing only my cheek, taking the tissue out of my hand, she wiped my eyes, and brushed back my hair, “I would tell anyone if they asked, but they never asked!”

“Then why did you tell me?”

She didn’t hesitate, “Because you asked! You’re a little snotty bitch, and that’s gonna’ take you far.”

“I don’t know what you mean, grandma. I really don’t.”

It was time to go, I kissed grandma softly on the head and put her ginger ale near her nightstand, she said, “it wasn’t a secret, it was just never spoken about it. But you…you….I knew one day you were going to ask me.”

I smiled at her, “I have to go, grandma. I love you.”

She kissed me on the cheek, “I love you. And remember -”  I was standing in between the hallway and her room, when she called out the last words she ever spoke to me,  as if my brother Thomas the hairdresser could hear,“when I die, remember! I want Thomas to do my hair!”

I rolled my eyes at her and ran down the hall, not waiting for the elevator, I took the steps, taking them two at a time, I ran out the building and looked up to my grandma’s window, seeing the flowers I had given her were moved to the window ledge.

© of Terry Rachel, 2011

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