An old woman's casually tossed-off words about race continue to rattle ZZ Packer's imagination.
Whenever we went to look at a house, my mother and father talked with the real estate agent or rapped the walls to check for soundness or discussed termite reports while I—5 years old at the time—was bored out of my mind. My parents had moved my 7-month-old sister and me from Chicago to Atlanta, and usually when we went house hunting, the owner had moved long before, leaving nothing behind but Comet cleaning powder in the tub and dusty cans of soup in the cupboards.
One house was different. Its owner was an elderly white woman, and apparently she was too old, too frail, too settled in her stuffed brocaded armchair in the center of the living room to clear out when any prospective buyers came around. She sat there, stroking what seemed at first to be luxurious black fur cuffs but turned out to be a poodle so sedentary it could have been dead and stuffed for all I knew.
Her place was the best by far. It was spacious, with young dogwood trees blooming all over the yard, the wraparound porch sporting a swing just outside the front window boxes, which were full of geraniums. Inside, Oriental rugs lay under every constellation of furniture in the living room, and the old white woman sat in the center of the furniture galaxy, breathing her shallow, steady breaths with a look of annoyed patience, as if she'd been forced to sit in her chair while some portraitist finished up the final brushstrokes of his painting.
Strangely enough, I liked this about her, and when my parents wanted to tour the upstairs, I said I wanted to pet the dog, and stayed downstairs with the woman.
"Where are your kids?" I asked when we were alone.
"Grown," she said, the first in a series of single-word sentences, spoken as if she were aware her remaining words were finite, as though she didn't want to waste them on strangers.
"Do you have any grandkids?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"How many?" I asked.
She looked as if she were about to shrug but then seemed as if she'd decided that shrugging might be more physically taxing than just answering the question.
"Nine," she finally said, but said it as if she'd been asked to pick a number between one and ten.
"If my mama and daddy get this place, can I play with them?" I asked.
"What?" she asked.
Perhaps she was deaf. So I yelled, sparing neither my lungs nor her ears, "CAN I PLAY WITH THEM?!"
A moment passed, as if she'd had to translate this, then, with startling finality, she said, "No." She didn't shake her head, but something in her eyes looked as if she had.
"Why not?" I said.
She looked annoyed, as if she'd explained this all to me before.
"Well," she said, "you're a colored girl."
Next: Understanding racism for the first time
"Colored?" I said. I didn't know what that meant. It wasn't until later, when I would live close to my grandparents, that I'd hear the word colored again. I was black, and I told her so.
"Yes," the woman said, then corrected me, "you're colored."
I wasn't offended, because I didn't know enough to be offended, but I was perplexed, and I knew when adults didn't want you around. I went upstairs to find my parents.
Only on the car ride back—my father driving and my mother holding my sister—did I say anything. I told them about how the old woman barely answered any of my questions, how she had nine grandkids but that I couldn't play with them.
I could feel my parents' silence in the car. I hadn't considered that if the old woman indeed moved out of her house, her grandkids wouldn't be nearby to play with anyway, and though my mother surely knew this, she appeared to be concerned with a larger issue.
"Why can't you play with them?" my mother asked, forcefully.
"Because she said I'm a colored girl," I said. "That's why."
I wanted to ask what it meant to be colored, but just then my mother and father began talking about white people in general and the old lady in particular, their voices reaching such a feverish pitch that my sister began crying. But on they went—"racist" this and "discrimination" that. I thought they were arguing with each other rather than with the world itself.
Finally, my mother turned to me and said, "Some folks will hate you just because you're black. You should learn that."
I'd known this from comments my parents had made and from what I'd seen on TV—a thousand little cues—but this was the first time anyone had said it outright. I thought back to how the old woman seemed to love her black poodle but couldn't bring herself to like a black girl.
My mother continued: "You just do what you need to do. Don't pay them no mind."
"No!" my father argued, "you give them a piece of your mind!"
They started their debate again. Finally, I piped up and said, "Maybe you could do both."
My mother turned around and, after much thought, said, "Yes," then said it again, "Yes. Sometimes you should give them a piece of your mind, and other times you don't pay them any mind. Each case is different. The problem is learning when to do which one." She smiled and said, "Out of the mouths of babes..."
I didn't know what "out of the mouths of babes" meant, but I decided that now wasn't the time to ask.
What I did know was that as far as the old woman's house was concerned, I was sure my parents had crossed it off their list.