Under the Apricot Tree

IMG_1200I am not white. The undersides of my arms expose blue veins. The depth of my wrinkles hold darkened time. In summer, my skin turns a honey almond, with freckles on my nose that remind me of the young girl I once was, but my still, blue steely-grey eyes remain the same. When I cry, my skin turns beet red, especially on my forehead. The bottoms of my feet are dark black today because I refuse to wear covered shoes. I am not white, like a blank piece of typing paper or even a cotton ball, but when I have a box to check that asks me to sort myself from other races and ethnicity, I am “white” or “Caucasian” or both. In one small box I become the entire history of a race.
What they saw that day was “White” and they also saw “Woman”. They saw “White Woman Bringing A Tinfoil Brick of Something”. Wrapped inside the tinfoil brick lay the bread I made from my grandmother’s sourdough bread recipe. Past down from generations, I’ve held onto this recipe because I remember her by the smell of baking bread rising from my kitchen every time I make it.
I brought the bread and the strawberry jam because I thought they might like some food. Over the course of several weeks, I had eyed with curiosity the visitors of “God’s Open Hand Outreach” day shelter from a distance. The collection of what I gathered to be homeless individuals that had stayed the previous night at Bethesda Center or Samaritan’s Inn just a couple blocks away had trickled across MLK Blvd. to Lloyd Presbyterian Church to the day shelter held outside the church under a barren apricot tree adjacent to the school that I work at. This collection of individuals gathered every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on concrete, round picnic tables with back packs between their legs at the predominately African American Lloyd Presbyterian church on Chestnut Street in Winston-Salem, N.C. As I came to work at Arts Based School off of Martin Luther King and park my car in the parking lot connecting to the backyard of the church, I would notice that an African-American man that I would later know as “Bishop” led the group of homeless men and women in bible study and prayer. This was all I knew.
Bishop looked surprised when I approached the table that particular morning with my tinfoil brick. I handed the reflective mass to him, and filled him in on the details of must have sounded like a rambling muck of words. “I saw you guys”… “thought”… “hungry”… “grandmother’s bread”… these were the only words I remember getting out. The other men and women sitting at the blackened concrete tables looked surprised too. My actions did not fit inside their box.
Over the course of time and several bread deliveries, I think the members of the day shelter began to drop their guard to my whiteness, my femaleness, my strangeness. Maybe just a bit. I grew generally interested in Carol, a woman who lost her two children to ravages of alcoholism. She was now in the process of finding a permanent home after a year of living at The Bethesda Center; or Reggie, a Winston-Salem State student who was in treatment for a schizophrenic break and lived on and off of the downtown streets; or elderly Hurtis, a resident of Crystal Towers who rode a kick-ass teal Schwinn all around town; or Don, a homeless man who had the singing voice of an angel, or the woman that never said her name, but did look me once in the eye. I think they came to trust me or at least my motives, so much so, that Ella Pomeroy the director of the day shelter, asked me to join them on their gospel singing group that appears weekly at Magnolia Creek Assisted Living off of Willard Road in Winston-Salem, N.C. Perhaps, they just needed the ride and a chauffeur. My white minivan, the one that usually lugs field hockey and football gear and four children, fit the bill.
The time of worship and singing at Magnolia Creek was very different from any religious experiences that I had up to that point. For one thing, Miss Ella brought a small glass bottle with a cork full of canola oil to anoint the heads of the residents of the assisted living facility, as well as the regulars of the day shelter, such as Don and Carol, that were leading the gospel singing hour. Miss Ella would announce the presence of the Holy Spirit by drawing the sign of the cross with her finger dipped in oil on foreheads. I grew up Lutheran and I will tell you Southern Lutherans don’t use canola for anything other than frying a chicken, and most certainly not for purposes of anointing with the Holy Spirit. Assuredly as a child tortured by itchy panty hose while holding a red leather bound hymnal, I never experienced a time when we raised our hands and shouted “Amen” or “Yes Jesus” as I did during the gospel singing hour at Magnolia Creek. I don’t ever recall a hymn being continued past the last verse by the black robed choir in my home church as the Holy Spirit moved or led moments of worship with sound or voice like the jubiliant residents and day shelter regulars. These things just didn’t happen within the stained glass walls and dark wooden pews of the church I grew up attending.
Looking back, I’m trying to make sense of these experiences with the regulars at the day shelter and the gospel singing hour at Magnolia Creek. Perhaps I needed them far more than they needed me. Maybe I needed to get into people’s stories to confirm that things are different for each of us just because of the color of our skin. Perhaps I could imagine sleeping all night in a homeless shelter and spending all day playing chess on the back of a take-out pizza box at my local library, not envisioning the course of my day being any different from another, regardless of the ever present availability of book knowledge surrounding me? Could I ever share in the fear of wrapping my arms with wire from spiral bound notebooks to ward off male street predators as I tried to find enough space between First and Seventh Streets to sleep in for the night? Or maybe, I wanted to see a woman, religious or not, leading a group of individuals in a mesmerizing way, as I hope to do in my own classroom one day. Furthermore, do I really know what each of my students will go home to at night, given that the hours of school make up just a part of their day?
I know I was searching for something in all my bread making, singing, and driving around. Something unpredictable. Something big or something so small you might just miss it. Something crazy. Something that smelled and sounded like compassion.

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This entry was published on January 22, 2013 at 12:38 am and is filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Under the Apricot Tree

  1. lucewriter on said:

    Tiffany, this is beautiful.

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