I was brought up in an inter-racial neighborhood. My grandparents were Italian immigrants and in those days, so were immigrant Irish, Jewish and other ethnic groups. We understood prejudice because we were prejudiced against, too. Our street was primarily black and white families.
Our family had many close ties with the other side of the street. Everyone did, because it was a long narrow street and in many ways, we all depended on one another. For example, my mother got a part-time job and left the key to our house with Mr. Wind, one of the kindest black men on this earth. Mr. Wind was there every day sitting on his stoop with his dog, Blackout, when I returned from school, with the key in his hand to our house. This was very comforting to a nine-year old who worried she wouldn’t be able to get into the house if Mr. Wind for some reason was not there. Mr. Wind was always there. He was a gentleman and I loved him like a grandfather. So did my family. My family may have been imperfect, but their love and respect for our neighbors left little room for prejudice. I am grateful that love prevailed and prejudices got blotted out.
The main attraction for me was a family who lived diagonally across the street from us. They had a daughter – among a handful of children just like our handful of children – and she was my age. Frances also had the same name as me and when my mother called out for me, both of us showed up at the door. Usually Frances got there first, and I remember my mom saying, “No, not you, ..the other one”. And they would laugh. It became a ritual and game between them.
I knew Frances from when we were toddlers. Although we were the same age, she was always bigger than me and the first black person I met in my life. I thought and still do that she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. She was athletically and majestically built, at least a head taller than me, and carried herself proud like a gazelle. She also was the darkest black person I ever saw – like an onyx jewel. What I remember about her the most was the big smile she alway had that lit up her face.
When I had to wear a patch due to a lazy eye, it was she who stopped alI the sing-song name-calling from the kids (One-Eye Frances) that was so hurtful. It was understood in the neighborhood (and in school) that Frances was my protector since we had the same name, were the same age and in the same grade and school. Frances came by every day to ‘pick me up’ and we would walk the 6 blocks to school. And return the same 6 blocks every afternoon. Safely. Nobody ever challenged her.
One of my earliest memories of Frances was one extremely hot summer day (no air-conditioning in that neck of the woods), my mother called the littlest ones together and said she would hose us down in our backyard. All the other five year olds scampered like crazy, flinging off their clothes and whiggling around in the cool, refreshing water. Except me. I was shy about being with all these kids and getting naked. But I really wanted to be part of it. Frances came bounding over like a stallion as only Frances could, and tore off her clothes and jumped around, and said, “Come on, it feels so good!” And I just kind of shied over. And then Frances said something that stayed with me all my life. She said, ‘Come on, we are the same’.
We are the same. What a wonderful thought – she thought that I was like her – what a compliment to me!
I have many happy memories of being best friends with Frances. She was over at our house all the time and received many hand-me-downs from my sisters that were too big for me and perfect for her. It was a long time before she finally invited me to her house and showed me how her mother did her hair. I remember feeling so honored that she invited me in.
Frances was my undesignated protector all through kindergarten to the 6th grade. When the kids at school had made-up fun days – one was called Petticoat Day – for lifting up girl’s blouses or skirts. On those days, Frances always walked besides me eyeing kids who were trying to do that to me – I was always shying away – but no one ever did it to me. Except when we arrived safely untouched at school, Frances would playfully pull up my shirt when we got to school and laugh that big smile – like she got me. But no one else ever did.
One other time, a gang of ‘next street’ all-black girls followed a group of my all-white friends. Comments went back and forth and they started chasing us. They were older than us and I was scared. When they finally caught up with us, I blurted out that Frances Scott was my best friend. The whole mood changed and they left us alone. Frances loved it when I told her – she laughed and said I owed her money for being a bodyguard.
As I got older, I was given my own key to the house which I promptly lost one day walking home alone from school. I panicked and was on all fours when Frances came by and got down on all fours with me and didn’t give up until we found them. No others passing by offered to help.
We were in the same class up to 6th grade and both 12, when our family moved that year. The neighborhood had some robberies, violence and even a murder. My parents thought we should move to a safer neighborhood. And we did at school’s end. My mother worried about me ~ a 12 year old ~ because a few days a week during that summer I would take the bus – a 30 minute ride – back to the old neighborhood – because I missed my friend. I felt I had left my identity there. But I found that I had taken it with me.
The years passed and I lost track of Frances. When I was married and in my early 20s, I took my toddler, who had been hurt, to the emergency room at the hospital near our old area. While I was waiting, I saw Frances. She was angry and talking to a police officer who was holding onto her brother. Focusing just on her and not the situation, I gravitated over to her, and simply said, ‘Frances’. Her angry face registered recognition and her dark eyes fleetingly softened over for me. I was going to hug her, but she regained her anger and said that the police were badgering her brother. She was being a protector and caretaker for her brother and I understood that. She was doing ‘her work’ but her eyes told me that ‘we were the same’.
I tried in later years to find her, but to no avail. More years passed. Then, one day, my sister attended a funeral in the old area, and saw Frances’ sister. My sister told her I was seeking Frances and could she have her phone number. She obliged. I called her the moment I got the number. Frances answered and we talked for quite awhile. I told her I wrote a story about her and how important she was in my life and I loved her. She told me, ‘You give me way too much credit, you were the smart one getting all those high marks in class.” She also told me she was not well health-wise, she was a grandmother of two children, and worked as an accountant. She asked me to email my story to her friend as she did not have a computer. I did so. It was similar to my words here.
The next time I called her, the line was disconnected. I had no other way to reach her, and sent an email to her friend to no avail. Some months later, my sister called me to tell that Frances had passed away and sent me the online obituary. I was the only one who wrote in her guest book and told the world that my angel had passed.
I am so grateful to God that I had Frances in my young life. She was truly my angel, my friend and my sister. She was bigger than me and could easily have bullied me, but she didn’t. She adopted me. If only bullies could see their victims as God made and sees us; that we are all equally made and equally loved. And that we are all children of God who desire to love and be loved. Rest in peace, my friend who taught me about caring, sharing, and equality – we are the same.