Yesterday's Magazette

12 – Sticks and Stones and Words


By Sue Blue

Sticks and stones can break my bones
But words can never hurt me.

Remember that childhood chant? You used it when someone taunted you or made fun of you. That was supposed to settle the score. But it didn’t.

I began to think about this when my sister and I were living in our grandparents’ house after our parents had separated. Grandmother usually took care of us but she’d had an operation and was confined to her bed. My aunt found a caretaker-nurse-housemaid in the body and soul of one person, a young black woman named Laura.

Laura cared for our grandmother and watched over us conscientiously. Whenever there was a lightning-thunder episode (and there were many in summer), Laura would stuff us under the bed in the front room, hiding us away from the dangerous streaks of light and terrifying booms. Laura swept and washed and scrubbed; she kept the house sparkling. Then at the end of the day, she simply disappeared. I was young and never thought about where she’d gone or how she got there.

One morning I could hardly wait for her to come through the door. I’d been to a movie that weekend. Laura loved to hear me talk about the movies I’d seen and this was going to be a really good story-telling one. I had just seen a Shirley Temple movie. Shirley was absolutely my favorite. I had dreams of being another Shirley. I knew I could be a movie star. After all, I could sing and dance and I certainly could tell a good story because I acted out each character in the movie.

Laura prepared the soapy dishwater in the pan and then lifted me up to sit on the kitchen table beside the sink so she could watch my face as I told her about the movie. I announced, “The Littlest Rebel!” Today I don’t recall much of the story line. But I remember a lot of beautiful costumes; ruffled pantaloons and hoop skirts swaying as Shirley tapped and twirled. It was Hollywood’s version of the pre-Civil War era.

Huge columns graced the front entrances of the plantation mansions. Shirley’s grandfather was the “massa”. With the aid of his cane he strode around in his sparkling white suit sporting a full head of white hair and a bristling mustache. He shouted and glowered. Everyone, except Shirley, was afraid of the grumpy grandfather.

Well, Laura was really enjoying my take on this movie as she continued to wash the dishes, smiling and nodding her head. The best part was next; the big party. I described the scene: the music, the dancing, and the shy little girls watching from the doorway as the grown-ups and Shirley waltzed around the ballroom floor.

Then I said the grandfather entered, waving his cane. He shouted (and I shouted) “Get those pickaninnies out of here!” The little dark faces that had been so enthralled with the sights and sounds of the party disappeared through the kitchen door. I laughed after yelling the Grandfather’s line and expected Laura to laugh too. I mean the audience in the movie theater had laughed.

Laura continued to smile, but something sad stayed for a moment in her eyes. Suddenly I felt that I had said something terribly wrong. I was confused and ashamed. Had my words hurt my friend?

When I fell quiet, Laura said, “Well, go ahead. What happened next?”

“Oh,” I mumbled, “everybody enjoyed the party … and then they all went home … and that was it.”

Laura dried her hands and lifted me from the table to the floor and I skipped outside to play, but with a very heavy heart.

After that, I don’t recall ever telling another movie-story to Laura.

Sticks and stones can break your bones
But words can break your heart.
*Suzette Jennings (Sue Blue) grew up in Sarasota, FL; a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, appeared in many productions in New York and St. Louis, MO. She taught theatre in a St. Louis private school for over 30 years. Upon retirement, she came home to Sarasota where she works as an administrative assistant for an Episcopal Church, edits the Historical Society newsletter, and writes memory essays.

1 Comment »

  1. Keep up the good work, Sue! Is Laura still alive?

    Comment by Larry Kelleher — January 9, 2008 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

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