An Absence of Grace


In Constantine, Michigan, where I grew up in the fifties, there were the families who gave turkeys at Thanksgiving and the families who received them. Because my family gave turkeys, I thought we were rich. In a parallel but converging reality, there were white people and black people, but, other than us, no Jews or brown people of any kind, in this village of 360. Because we weren’t black, I figured we were white.

I had other way to tell whether someone was rich or poor: the poor kids wore ragged clothes and had to take Special Education. The rich kids did not. I remember my horror when my name was called for Special Ed when I was in first grade, to correct my lisp. My classmates snickered. I complained to my parents, my father spoke to the principal, and I was returned to my regular classroom. Which proved that I wasn’t poor; my parents could make things happen. 

Some of my friends’ fathers were doctors and lawyers, as opposed to a school teacher like mine. But I perceived us all as equally rich. Chrissy’s swimming pool, Virginia’s horse, Laura’s fancy winter coat: I thought I was denied all of these because my parents didn’t like me as much as my friends’ parents liked them.

My friend Grace was poor. At her house there were no rugs on the floors and the furniture had cigarette burns. When we were there I made it a point not to look around so I wouldn’t embarrass her. Mostly I invited her to my house. It was easier.

After her first visit I waited nervously to see what my mother would say about Grace. I’d never had a close friend who was poor before. Mom didn’t allow me to play at some kids’ houses. And some she didn’t allow me to play with at all. Would Grace be one?

My five year old brother spoke first, after Grace left. “How come that girl talks so funny?”

“She has a southern accent,” Mom explained.

“She’s from Kentucky,” I announced.

“What’s Kentucky?”

“It’s a state” I said. “We drove there once. You were too little to remember, but I do.”

I could see he wanted to argue but couldn’t think of a response. He turned to my mother. “Is that how come she has such dumb clothes?”

“Grace’s clothes are not dumb!” I nearly yelled, embarrassed by my memory of her patched blouse and the obviously let out hem on her jumper.

“Grace seems very polite and her clothes are neat and clean,” Mom said. “That’s the important thing.”

“And she can sing good, too,” I added, sticking out my tongue at Bob when Mom turned back to the stove.

Grace and I were in fifth grade the year she moved to Constantine. Fifth graders all get Tonettes--rudimentary recorders--which we studied as an introduction to instrumental music. My father, the band director, came into our classroom for an hour a day and taught us how to play them.

We were all excited when he passed out the Tonettes. For six weeks we learned fingerings and embouchures, rhythm and notation. I of course had an edge because I had been taught to read music when I was Bobby’s age, and had already fooled around with the band instruments Dad brought home over the years.

For most of the kids, any instruments were new. While they puzzled over the mysterious language of musical notation, Grace caught on quickly. She drew staves with treble and bass clefs, half notes, quarter notes, rests.

“Did you learn this at your other school, Grace?” Dad asked. Everyone knew when a new family moved into Constantine.

She flushed, her cheeks bright in contrast with her azure eyes and black hair. “No sir.” Nobody called teachers ‘sir’. “We never had Tonettes at my old school.”

“Did somebody teach you music?” Dad persisted.

“Well, we listened to the radio and sang along.”

Dad looked puzzled. “Good work, Grace,” he finally said.

I warmed with pride and excitement. Maybe Grace would turn out to be a child prodigy.

At recess I told her, “I love to listen to the radio, too. I pull my portable radio off my nightstand and under the covers so only I can hear when I’m in bed. Late at night I can get jazz and blues stations from Chicago and sometimes Atlanta. What kind of music do you listen to?”

“We only have but one radio, in the kitchen. Whoever wants to listen sits at the table.”

The air between us turned sticky with tension, or maybe just my confusion. I seemed to have made a mistake but what was it? Breaking the awkward silence I asked, “What do you listen to?”

She shrugged. “Gospel music on Sunday. Back home we listened to Grand Ole Opry every night   but we can’t get it here.”

I had only heard of Grand Ole Opry from people who made fun of it - mostly my family. “That’s too bad,” I told her.

At the end of the six week Tonette class, everyone my father picked would receive a letter from him inviting them to join the band and assigning an instrument. We all wondered excitedly what we would end up with. You didn’t have to stay with the instrument Dad gave you to be in the band, but if you asked for something different, he would probably tease you about it until you graduated or dropped out of band.

Of course my friends would all get their band letters, even Chrissy, who never managed a decent sound out of her Tonette. It wasn’t because she was my friend; Chrissy would be asked to join because she was rich. And Lois, the one black girl in my class, would be asked even though she wasn’t rich. We all knew Lois was better on Tonettes than any of us. But even if she wasn’t, my father would invite her, expect her, to join the band because her family were all excellent musicians.

There were rules for who were assigned which instrument: only girls played flutes and only boys played tubas. It would be really embarrassing if you were assigned the tuba and you were a girl. Clarinets went mostly to girls, trombones, trumpets and saxophones mostly to boys.

The boys who couldn’t learn to read music but were rich got assigned drums. And the girls who were bad, i.e. sexual, did too. This was clearly my father’s construct; where he got it don’t know. But because “drummer girl” functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe because my father could intuit the girls most likely to get caught, over half the young women who played drums in the High School bands my father taught wound up pregnant. My father’s prurient disapproval of drummer girls weighted the air of both our household and the band room.

Of course I wanted to play the drums. How could I not? I had crushes on most of the drummer girls and eventually became friends with one who taught me how to hold the sticks and paradiddle.

But in fifth grade I was trying to be friends with Grace. I was sitting next to her when, right before the dismissal, the teacher passed out our post-Tonette letters of acceptance and assignment.

I jumped up as the bell rang, eager to compare letters with my friends. Chrissy and Laura both had “flute” written on their letters. No surprise there.

My friend Maryann was chosen to play French Horn, a great honor. The best musicians got assigned French Horn, or maybe clarinet, with the understanding that in a year or so they would move on to bassoon or oboe. Lois and I were both assigned “clarinet” but I knew hers meant she’d be promoted on to a double reed, while mine just meant clarinet.

I ran to Grace, who was hanging back, keeping to herself.

“What instrument did you get, Grace?”

“I didn’t get no letter.”

I couldn’t look at her. “There must be some mistake,” I said, but I knew it wasn’t true. My father didn’t make mistakes like that.

At dinner that night, I asked him why Grace hadn’t been invited to join the band. “She’s one of the best Tonette students,” I said indignantly. “She should have been chosen.”

He answered me in a calm voice. “Her family wouldn’t be able to afford an instrument,” he said. “It would be cruel to get her hopes up.”

“But what about Lois? Her family is poor but she got asked to join.”

“That’s because Lois, as well as being good in music, is a Negro. Colored people understand that music is important. Her parents will scrape together every penny they can to buy Lois an instrument, just like they have for the rest of their kids, and I’ll get them a special deal with the music store.”

“Can’t you get Grace a special deal, too?” I asked, working hard to keep my voice pleasant, so I wouldn’t be sent from the table. Conversations like this one were always on the edge.

“Even if I did at first, eventually she’d have to stop because her family wouldn’t be able to pay for her musical training. Lois will be able to go to music camp and maybe even to Julliard, on scholarships. But there aren’t any scholarships for underprivileged white girls from the South. That’s why it would be cruel to invite Grace to start.”

“But she’s so good,” I said, tears stinging my eyes. “She’s better than Chrissy and Laura. She’s better than me, better than MaryAnn. The only person who’s better than Grace is Lois.”

“Barb,” my mother warned, “watch your tone of voice. You know Daddy’s always been fair. Don’t you have something more pleasant to talk about at dinner?”

“That’s okay, Mom,” he said, lifting his bottle of Schlitz. “We’re almost done with this discussion.” He bent his head toward mine, his eyes commanding me to hold his gaze. “I know Grace is good. But that’s not what’s important.”

And that’s how Grace and I stopped being friends. After the band letters I never could figure out what to say to her.

Laura, Chrissy, me, even MaryAnn - none of us turned out to be very good on our instruments. We all quit, eventually.

In seventh grade our family moved. I kept in touch with Lois throughout high school. She was offered a bassoon scholarship to Juilliard but went to Michigan State instead, close to where my family lived. By that time she had joined CORE and was recruiting students to go South for desegregation and voters registration. Freedom Summer. The last time I saw her was in 1965 when I was home from college. I had joined SDS by then and invited Lois to my parents’ house for dinner. She was militant and beautiful and so self-possessed. She brought along her roommate, the first black Jew I ever met, and the three of us spent dinner talking about the Movement, ignoring my father’s sarcasm and my mother’s attempts to change the subject. Lois and Adisa shared an intensity, a passionate connection, that may have been attributable solely to revolutionary fervor. The three of us sang freedom songs as my father drove them back to the dorm.

And Grace? Her family moved back to Kentucky before the end of the fifth grade school year. We didn’t write. The next Thanksgiving a new family was living in their house and we brought the turkey to them.

About the Author:
Barbara Ruth writes at the convergence of magic and grit, Potowatomee and Jewish, fat and yogi, disabled and neurodivergent. She has performed her original work with Mother Tongue and Wry Crips Disabled Women’s Readers’ Theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area, taught in California Poets In the Schools in San Diego, co-conspired with DYKETACTICS! in Philadelphia and blogged at NeuroQueer. She writes biomythography in poetry and prose, and has been working on a novel since before writing was invented. She is 70 and lives in San Jose, CA. She is also a published photographer.

About All Accounts & Mixture:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as “queer,” while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. Taken from Gertrude Stein’s poem “Rooms,” our series title appears in the line: “Cadences, real cadences, real cadences and a quiet color. Careful and curved, cake and sober, all accounts and mixture, a guess at anything is righteous, should there be a call there would be a voice.”