a writing by Shirley R. Thurmanjohnson

i lived the first eight years of my life with a lady I addressed as "Miss Dean." Until I was much older, I was unaware that she was my great-grandmother. It seemed our relationship wasn't based on love, although at times, I felt very close to her. I was confused about everything, including my own name. I felt as though I was an abstract object, forced to fit into a tiny circle. I needed to know everything about myself.
I was addressed by a nick-name, "baby girl," until I was eight years old. At a very early age, I learned not to question Miss Dean about anything, no matter how important it was. Once i asked her about my mother, I only wanted to know who she was. Instead of getting an answer, I received a very short and evasive lecture about not having one. This was a horrible way of expressing anything to a child. I thought she hated me, but I didn't know why.
I lived on a farm, which was a blessing at the time, because if it weren't for those animals, I wouldn't have had anyone to talk to at all. there was a mule, which I thought was a pony at first, a few chickens, and an old dog named Mr. Gill. I loved them all. I felt it was my responsibilty to take care of them. I wanted to give them everything I didn't have, a mother, a name, and plenty of love.
During my sixth birthday year, Miss Dean told me I was of age and needed to attend school, so she began sending me to the bus stop. This made me very happy...until I learned what was in store for me. The bus stop was just below the bridge on an old country road which I could see from my front yard. I watched children getting on and off the bus each day, but didn't know where they were going.
The very first day, the bus driver left me standing there. Three other children boarded the bus before me, but as I attempted to get on, she closed the door. I was confused and angry, so I ran home and told Miss Dean about the incident, hoping she would have an answer for me. Instead, I was punished for something that wasn't my fault. She continued sending me to the bus stop for about two years, ignoring the fact that I was not allowed on the bus or in the school. I didn't know what racism was at the time because no one had ever explained it to me, that is...until I met Bobby.
I saw him several times at the bus stop. I suppose he noticed I was never on the bus or at school. He told me what his name was and I, reluctantly, told him mine. We became good friends and always played together after school. We sat under the same old tree everyday, while he read to me. He brought me new books each day to practice reading, as well as pencils and paper, before he boarded the bus. I couldn't go home because Miss Dean would punish me for not going to school, so each day I stayed in the woods with Mr. Gill, and did my homework.
After school, Bobby actually checked my work and graded it. If everything was done correctly, he would give me an "S," which meant I had done well. I was learning to read and write, but had never gone to school. My teacher was a child a little older than myself, but it didn't matter because he was also my friend. Bobby explained what racism was as well. He told me because I was of color, was the reason I couldn't get on the bus. He said his parents told him that this was not allowed in our town, and it was the law.
We discussed racism everyday until I really understood what it meant. It was cruel, but I learned that it was true. We still continued playing in those woods, ignoring the outside world. Although I was having fun with him, I still complained about not having a name, so Bobby married me and gave me his name. I was seven, he was eight, and our best man was Mr. Gill. That day, I became Mrs. Robert Vaughn Ostrander. Ironically, I felt I had accomplished a few things so far. One, I met a great kid, two, I had a good teacher, and three, I knew why I couldn't get on the bus. There was one thing Bobby couldn't help me with, my birth-name, I had to depend on Miss Dean for that information, and I dreaded asking her anything.
When i turned eight, my new parents came to get me. Miss Dean had taken ill, and died two years afterwards, at the age of ninety two. The only thing I had of hers was an old bible, which I had never opened. My new mother encouraged me to read it. I always thought she knew there was information in it I needed to know, and she was right. One afternoon, I began reading the hand-written pages in the back, which consisted of many names, birthdays, and other information. As I read, I learned Miss Dean's name was Jessie Dean James. her mother's name was Eleanor Dean, and her father's name was Jessie James. My birth-name was also in the book, which was the same as my great-grandmother's. My mother's name was Elizabeth, her grandaughter. I was amazed to know my great-grandmother had written it because I didn't know she could read or write.
The information in this book gave me all the answers I had been searching for, and it was in my possession all along. There were details about her family, including a history of incest and rape. I now know why she never spoke of it. She had given so much of herself to us, and had lost everyone but me. She always loved me, I just didn't know it. In light of what she did for me, I like to refer to that apron she wore so often, as a fisherman's net that kept all the rejected fish. Unlike an abstract object, I'm now a whole person released from that tiny circle of shame into a vast world of dignity and grace. My life's puzzle is complete. I know who I am today.


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