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The Old Lady in Black

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The most vivid memories aren't those carved in stone but the ones etched in the mind. Memory deepens with the years, the way a river carves through rock, slowly creating canyons, revealing old layers, unveiling pain you'd kept decently covered before, bringing it all back. Sometimes the river cannot be contained and will overflow its banks. You feel the emotions swelling. Maybe on an anniversary, or when you hear a certain song, or for no discernible reason at all. And it all comes back, the joy and anguish of the past cresting in your mind.


On this Memorial Day weekend, I think of the old lady in black. She was a fixture of my childhood, never speaking, but always there in one of the little shops up the street just a few doors from ours in Shreveport. Texas Avenue was lined with such shops, many with living quarters above. Every family had its own history, customs, story to tell -- whether Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Syrian (as we called them then rather than Lebanese), or just Other.

The thriving black downtown was a couple of long blocks away, complete with its own stores, restaurants and cafés, newspaper office, movie theater and night life. A different, off-limits world that smelled different, sounded different, looked different, not in any way you could put your finger on, but that was palpable. For white folks, there might as well have been a sign up where that stretch of the avenue began: Not For You.

In short, mine was a typical, all-American neighborhood. We kids spent a lot of time underfoot in other families' kitchens. Long before I learned it was called baklava when bought at a bakery, I watched Aunt Lillie up the street -- Aunt Lillie Beiruti because she was from Beirut -- roll out and stretch the philo dough again and again for baklewi, she called it in Arabic. It covered the whole kitchen table and drooped over the edge -- to be filled with nuts and fruit before being baked to a flaky brown. The first taste was served fresh out of the oven, dripping honeyed goodness. There is nothing like food as a preservative of memory. I have never tasted anything as good. Childhood memory go deep and stay vivid. I can feel my taste buds come alive just writing about baklewi.


Years later, I would learn that Texas Avenue was considered a rough neighborhood in those days, which came as a surprise. To a little boy, it was just the way life was. I would have been surprised to learn that my world was anything but warm and homey.

I scarcely remember when the war came. In my child's mind, it had always been there. Complete with bond drives and powerful, graphic posters that said Remember Pearl Harbor and ration books and voices on the radio reporting from far-off places in a clear, neutral, standard American pronunciation. That is, midwestern. Robert Trout, for example, and Edward R. Murrow for another. ("This . . . is London.") The enunciation, like the drama, was precise and portentous. There was a world out there in flames. The Blitz was more real than our reality.

The war suffused all of life on Texas Avenue: There were the khaki uniforms on the street, and the little cards that kids prized -- with black silhouettes of different warplanes, ours and theirs. The aircraft themselves might be spotted heading in and out of Barksdale Air Base across the river, and we competed with one another calling out B-17! B-24! P-51! Every Saturday, Texas Avenue teemed with black sharecroppers and their families, and with uniforms once the sun had set. There was a saloon up the street that regularly attracted the attention of the MPs. A source of welcome excitement for a little boy.

A few storefronts up, in the back of a dry goods store, there was the old lady in black. As a child I seldom saw her, but knew what had happened. Her boy Bill had been killed in the war, one of the early American casualties -- of so, so many -- in the Pacific. No one mentioned his name except maybe the grown-ups in hushed tones. I always stepped toward the outside of the broad sidewalk when passing her store. To a little boy there was something ominous in her silent vigil. Mourning is foreign to a child. Threatening.


Years later, I would bring my own kids back to visit the old neighborhood -- just to show them where this store or that one had been, and where this family or that one had lived, and where we'd gone to get RC Colas, or how you could hide in the alleys to ambush the other kids when you played cowboys-and-Indians. ... And there she was, still in black.

Only she was sitting at the front of her store today, and motioned me to bring in the kids. She wanted to know their names and how old they were, and insisted on getting them Cokes. She spoke of people who used to live in the neighborhood. The living and dead and just moved away. It was only then that I realized she could smile.

The river of time had ebbed, revealing a new layer under its dark waters. She still wore black, but I no longer saw her through a glass darkly. The grief still hung on in her visage and bearing, as grief must, but the veil had been lifted. She seemed recalled to life. Maybe it was the presence of the children that did it.

One more memory of mine had deepened and broadened, one more connection was made and renewed. One more soul had reached out -- hers? mine? the children's? Bill's, maybe? Cut down in their youth, the forever young never age. They reappear in our thoughts just as they were, unchanged. Even as those who treasure their memory grow older, then elderly, and then they, too, are gone. The quick and the dead, the young and old, we all seemed of a piece that brief hour, sitting there in her same old store among what seemed the same old stacks of clothes for sale, talking quietly between long pauses, sipping our Cokes, having our own memorial day.


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