PICKANINNY!

“Oh, Honey,” my mother said to 7-year old me more than once, “look at the cute pickaninny.” A pickaninny: a black child whose hair was tied up in ringlets and ribbons.

I didn’t like how she said it. I didn’t like how her mouth curled.

My family was uneducated, full of rage, and bigoted. Schvartzes were lazy. They stole. And haha! The way they spoke was fun to imitate and malign. (It made me wince.)

I think they hated me more than the Svartzas. I was also the butt of jokes, laughed at for my crazy outfits and my oddball remarks. But I suspected they hated me more because I was not, like my mother, anorexic and popular. Who knew?   I was madly sensitive.

When I was 14 my friend Libby fell in love with a black boy, a star basketball player named Harvey, They were the talk of the school, which consisted of very rich white kids, and a minority of black kids. (We lived right on City Line Avenue, so fake rich.)

Soon it became a fad. Black and white couples held hands in the halls and made out after basketball games. My black boyfriend was named Major, and he sang just like Johnny Mathis.

At school the teachers were thrilled. It was the Civil Rights era in Pennsylvania. My history teacher gave me a book about zen buddhism. My English teacher gave me the lead in the the play “Our Hearts were Young and Gay,” where I spoke Jean Kerr’s adaption, heaven.

The highly recommended psychologist I was sent to loathed my family and said he was proud of me.

On the other hand the Rabbi made his sharp features into a thunderstorm, and my family went stark-staring bonkers.

Screams were heard all the way from our duplex to the restaurant at the end of the Universe. My mother took to her bed in screams of hysterics. And something new was invented just for her: colitis.  The aunts had a special meeting.

Even our three-day-a-week Svartza (my mother took a typist’s job to afford her) was enlisted and she yelled at me too.

On the night when they found out that Major had actually come into our actual house when they were out at a party, things went particularly meshuga. “I can smell him,” my mother shrieked. She then had to be restrained from running into the front yard, tearing at her nightgown.  (The police were summoned.)

Finally, after I had been told I was grounded for three months. things seemed to settle down. But, no.

I was sleeping when suddenly the covers were ripped off my body. I sat up with my nightgown down to my waist. My father stood there, red of face.

“GET UP RIGHT NOW!”

I straightened my nightgown and got up. He grabbed me by the shoulders and frogmarched me into the parents bedroom. My mother was curled around herself in bed. On her face was an ocean of snot. She sobbed like a foghorn.

“LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO YOUR MOTHER!” My father shouted.

At the sound of his voice, her voice changed to an actual yodal.

Then I was utterly terrified. Now I grin.

Decades later, when I saw the trailer of a movie starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton and there was a full close-up of their open mouthed kiss, every cell in my body cheered.


Cynthia Heimel is a humorist who writes books, columns, and plays.  She wrote a Village Voice Column for seventeen years, and did a feminist column for Playboy Magazine (!!).  Her seven books include, “Sex Tips for Girls” and “If You Can’t  Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?” She was a contributing editor for Vogue, New York Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine.  Her play, “A Girl’s Guide to Chaos,” has been an international success.

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