THIS IS THE STORY I tell my family every seder night. When I was about two years old, soon after my little brother Saul was born, my mother fell ill and was hospitalized for a time. My father, then covering City Hall for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer,” couldn’t handle a toddler and a baby on his own.
My memories of that time are fuzzy around the edges, pervaded by a soft light like an ambient dawn. But they are real impressions of a time when I was journeying into consciousness, not long after I learned to talk, to turn feelings into words. In them, my gaze is always directed upward, for nearly everything is bigger than me. Our modest suburban ranch house thus remains huge in my mind’s eye, centered on an endless corridor that had to be crossed to get from my bedroom to Mommy’s and Daddy’s and to be run down to escape into the light of our living room with its wall-sized picture window. A troop of monsters, led by a sour-smelling pig, lived in a cavity in the corridor’s wall. At night they threatened to devour me.
Daddy needed a live-in nanny for us. In the late 1950s, in Cleveland, this meant a black woman from downtown. A series of matrons in long skirts and aprons made an appearance and then vanished. Sally said we were too noisy, Emma that we lived too far out. Cynthia simply stopped coming, without prior notice. In a dream from that time a dozen of them enter and leave the house in a line, like models on a fashion show runway.
Then Louella came and stayed. Dark, broad, taciturn, and creased, she was stern when that was required but smiled easily. She was very old, older than my grandmothers. She had sons and daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes she’d bring one of them, a Joe or a Lloyd, to unplug a pipe or fix a fixture. She told us that her parents had been slaves in the south. She slept in the house’s third bedroom, which served during the day as a playroom for my brother and me.
After my mother came home, Louella kept living with us for a while, and then moved out of the playroom and started to come to us three times a week to clean, cook and babysit. She’d bring gifts for Saul and me – boxes of Crackerjack, plastic balls, flashlights. In the evening, when my father came home from the paper, she’d serve dinner. Despite my parents’ endless pleadings, she refused to sit at the table with us and insisted on eating by herself in the kitchen.
In the summer of 1962, Daddy was assigned to cover a national mayors’ conference to be held in Miami Beach. Cleveland’s mayor, the earnest and dour Anthony J. Celebrezze, who had just won a record fifth term by a landslide, would be presiding. Mommy’s Aunt Lil and Uncle Sam ran a seedy hotel in nearby Hialeah, patronized largely by tinhorns who hung out at the nearby racetrack. So it was natural to make it a family trip. Louella’s people lived in Columbus, Georgia, and she asked if she could squeeze into our Rambler and be dropped off in Atlanta, where she could catch a bus. Daddy said she might run into trouble traveling with us. Louella said that as long as we told everyone that she was nanny to us kids, everything would be all right.
WE SET OUT ON A FINE summer morning in our 1957 Chrysler with the long back fins. Since I was the oldest, I got to sit behind Daddy. Saul had to sit on Louella’s other side, behind Mommy. I had a pile of books. Saul, who was already displaying the passion for organization and classification that would later make his side of our shared bedroom its only presentable half, had brought a pile of junk mail. When we weren’t counting telephone poles or red cars, I read and Saul meticulously removed the contents of each envelope, arranged the papers by size and color, and then stuffed the papers back into the envelopes in the order he thought fit.
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Daddy headed south, following the thick red line that the American Automobile Association had drawn on the rectangular, spiral-bound Triptik tour book. The interstate highway system was not yet complete, so the route followed old roads and involved a number of roads. Daddy had the navigational skills of a one-winged Arctic tern on drugs, so he was very tense. Mommy had to keep us busy with repeated games of Twenty Questions as he slowed down at each intersection, trying to figure out where to go. Sometimes he’d perform a last minute save when, in the middle of a turn, he suddenly realized that he really had to go straight. Fortunately, we were all held tightly in place with seatbelts, which Daddy, unfashionably for the time, had insisted on installing.
Daddy managed to get us to Cincinnati, and in the mid-afternoon we crossed a huge suspension bridge over the Ohio River which, Daddy told us, was formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, where he had a cousin who’d married a Catholic, but not before the two of them had together converted to Presbyterianism.
To Mommy’s surprise, Daddy managed to take the right turn in Kentucky, which brought us that evening, as the Triptik promised it would, into the outskirts of Lexington. The Triptik had a list of recommended, AAA-inspected motels. We drove up to one of them and Daddy, Mommy, Saul, and I piled out of the car and entered a small lobby with mustard yellow wallpaper and green diamonds on the carpet. The man at the reception desk had wispy white hair brushed over a bald head. The buttons on his shirt strained slightly against the pressure of his paunch. He welcomed us with a smile.
Daddy asked for two rooms, one for him and Mommy and one for “the boys and their nanny.”
The man at the desk leaned toward us and peered out the glass door at our car.
“We can’t take colored people,” he said courteously.
“But she’s the boys’ nanny,” Daddy protested.
“The law doesn’t allow it. Not even nannies,” he explained patiently.
“Do you expect her to sleep in the car?” asked Mommy. “She’s old and unwell.”
“Not at all,” the desk clerk said. “You can take her to a colored hotel. She’ll be more comfortable there anyway.”
Mommy was astounded and furious; Daddy, who’d been in the army and seen segregation up close, was upset but not surprised. When we got back to the car, Louella insisted that the desk clerk was right, that it would be much nicer for her at a colored establishment. Daddy explained segregation to Saul and me. He told us that the Jews had been slaves in Egypt and that God did not like people to own other people, so he freed the Jews. But, Daddy explained, just not being a slave wasn’t enough. It was a long and winding road from there to being a truly free and equal human being. The Children of Israel had wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, taking this wrong turn and that wrong turn, before they reached their Promised Land.
It was taking America’s Negroes a lot longer, but their time was coming.
Then we drove into the black section of town and found a two-story rooming house that looked just fine to Louella. Mommy wanted us all to check in there, but the soft-eyed man at the front desk there said that that would be impossible. On the way back to the white hotel Mommy yelled at Daddy for not setting an example for us boys by forcing the white proprietor to accept this black woman who was, after all, a member of our family. Daddy said that, like it or not, this was a fact of life south of the Ohio River.
The next morning we picked up Louella and headed south through Tennessee and into Georgia. We arrived in Atlanta toward nightfall and again Daddy tried to find a motel that would let Louella sleep with us. We went from one to another but found none.
Finally Louella convinced him to stop. She asked to be dropped off at the Greyhound station, where she’d sleep on a bench and catch the first morning bus to Columbus.
We all accompanied her into the station’s cavernous waiting room. There was a white section, and beyond a divider a back, less well-lit space where black men in threadbare suits were stretched out on chipped plastic benches, their hands gripping long, thin paper bags. Daddy set down Louella’s suitcase and she told us that she’d be just fine and would see us back in Cleveland two weeks hence.
We reached Miami the next evening. First we stopped by to see Aunt Lil and Uncle Sam, walking into a large, stuffy lobby furnished with faded plush settees and slowly circling ceiling fans. There was also an upright piano, on which Uncle Sam played us some ragtime. They offered us rooms for free, but Mommy and Daddy didn’t think we should be keeping company with jockeys, so we headed to the height of Miami Beach ostentation, the Hotel Fontainebleu, where the convention was being held.
Mayor Celebrezze didn’t like Daddy much. Like politicians from time immemorial, hizzoner thought he was doing the best job he possibly could given the myriad obstacles and constraints he had to navigate and couldn’t understand why the headlines didn’t proclaim this to the citizens of his great but troubled city each and every morning. Since my father at times quoted other politicians who said bad things about the mayor, he believed that Daddy was out to get him. But he knew that if he weren’t gracious the coverage would be even worse, so he invited Daddy and the family for dinner in the hotel dining room.
Daddy suggested quietly to the mayor’s sidekick, Joe “the Moose” Ventura, that the Fontainebleu’s cuisine would be wasted on a six- and four-year-old, but there was no way out. We were seated at a round table covered with a pristine white tablecloth. Ablack-suited waiter brought us menus that were almost as long as Saul was. Daddy and Mommy considered the options. Mayor Celebrezze rubbed his mustache as he went over the wine list. The Moose stared at me as if he had never seen anything my size before.
When the waiter came to me and Saul, we ordered hamburgers and French
fries. The waiter pointed out that this was not on the menu. Daddy and
Mommy suggested we try any of a number of other dishes we had never
heard of. Saul and I made it clear, loudly, so that everyone would hear,
that we would eat nothing but a hamburger and French fries. Mommy
appealed to the waiter and Mayor Celebrezze exerted his influence. The
waiter finally agreed to ask the chef to accommodate us but only on
condition that it was clear to all of us that this was against his
better judgment. He eventually returned with two beautifully garnished
chopped sirloin steaks surrounded by sautéed potatoes that didn’t look
like any French fries we had seen. There were no buns and no ketchup, so
we didn’t eat much.
Soon thereafter, president John Kennedy appointed Anthony J. Celebrezze
to be Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He served in that
position for three years, and while historians say that he was not a
particularly impressive figure nor the real power at HEW, he
nevertheless played a role in the passage and implementation of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation and
discrimination against blacks and women. He resigned the next year,
claiming that he missed living apart from his family in Cleveland, but
perhaps also because he heard that the “Plain Dealer” was assigning
Daddy to its Washington bureau.
We, too, left Cleveland soon after that Florida trip. We moved to
Columbus, Ohio, where we lived for three years before moving on to
We left Louella behind. But she shows up every year at my seder. And she sits with us at the table.
Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company
C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in
the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at
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