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That Noise You Hear Is Real Talk For Real People

Desnee Flakes

Desnee Flakes
Location
Aiken, South Carolina, US
Birthday
December 04
Bio
I am a recently employed activist who has been writing all my life about the issues that mean the most to me. My interests lie in politics, parity, race, and history. I believe that each of those things are interconnected and that only when we look straight at something do we actually see it. My politics are left of center, and I don't rely on any movement to define where my center is. My father taught us to measure others with the same yardstick you measure yourself.

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FEBRUARY 23, 2012 7:56PM

Ice and Fire

Rate: 19 Flag

Sitting in my living room in the middle of an ice storm, I became consumed by isolation. The kind of isolation only nature can impose, when our customary creature comforts are severed. No phone, no electricity, no heat or television. Only a flicker of light from a single candle and the limited warmth of the fireplace. In place of the inane chatter from the television the fluid memories of my childhood.

 

I rest my head against the back of the couch. The numbing hiss of the fire is broken by an occasional belch from the burning wood, each flare-up igniting an image from the past. So much of who I am is rooted in the years my family spent in Italy. Flavia, our beloved housekeeper, my dearest friend and traveling companion for her weekend trips home. Her bedroom, with a lovely little terrace encased by grapevine, was the stuff of romance novels. I remember standing on that terrace eating grapes, enamored, even at four years-old, by the sheer beauty of Italy.

flavia 

With another pop from the fire, now I am standing in the pasture across from our rented house. All around me are sheep, the plaintive lambs crying out to their mothers for food or reassurance. Their coats match the Biblical description of the hair of Jesus: wooly---warm and soft. A sheep's demeanor, as I recall from those days, is likewise warm and soft. The shepherd kept baby bottles with milk for the orphan lambs. He would encourage me to feed the hungry babies, which I was always eager to do. I remember his coming two or three times a week. I so looked forward to those days. He imparted simple lessons about nature and kindness that live with me today.

As a log drops from the fire, my thoughts jump to the two little girls who lived next door. Their images are fresh in my mind's eye yet their names escape me now. What memories of them remain are of three little girls curious about the world around us. We are unaware of any difference between us. After all, they have two long pigtails and so do I. We wear similar clothing. I have learned their language; we understand each other.(I don't remember ever not understanding them, even before I learned to speak Italian.) Between us race or nationality presented no barrier because none of our parents told us they did. And nothing within that village acted as a barricade to our friendship. So when the three of us went to the little store at the end of the road, we were just the little girls from down the road.

pigtails 

The wood on the fire shifts with a violent thump. My mind shifts to our move from town, to the Army base. The flames from the fire have subdued, as has the warmth. And I am remembering being chased home from the bus by the white American children. Being treated differently by my teachers at the American school where the military kids are taught. I remember becoming aware of the differences between my black American family and the white American families.  My father in particular, so determined to make it in white America's world that he didn't even see how his children were suffering.

young dad 

Perhaps because he was impotent to insulate us from that hatred he chose to ignore its existence. But in his denial of what his children faced he denied our very humanity as well. Today I understand how difficult it is to raise children. I also understand how difficult it must be to have to look away from their pain, especially when you have no power to change it. What my parents chose to do was empower us with the knowledge that no one was better than we were. But what do such things really mean to a five year-old? What do they mean when your teacher is telling you that, by virtue of your skin color it is simply not possible that the white boy seated beside you copied his answers from your worksheet? For my brother those kinds of experiences worked to spur him on. He excelled all through school and seemed to relish the competitive challenge. He's much like my father in the way he withholds his feelings. For me, school was a prison where my own knowledge could be stolen, and used against me.

The fire is gasping its last and I need to move to stoke it. As the flames rise again and emit their heat, I again rest my head. I'm swept back 44 years. As the flames weave their way up, my memories are of a five year-old walking off the Army base to the farms just beyond. There I spend many afternoons helping with the chores, basking in the warmth of acceptance. It was to be the precursor to my life as a racehorse groom. Afterwards a meal served, according to Italian custom, in courses. A typical meal: a little bread and wine, a bit of olive oil for dunking, and then a simple soup, followed by pasta, perhaps some meat and to finish, a salad.  

On the days I didn't go to the farms, the farmers' children would come get me. We would collected multicolored leaches, or tadpoles, or tree frogs. My poor mother often found petrified tree frogs in my dresser. I simply couldn't grasp their need for food and water, or even for air. Because the Americans' bigotry wasn't limited to race, the Italians and I rarely played with the American children.

A farmer gave me a small black chick, which I brought home to keep as a pet. That night the chick, which was in a bucket next to my bed, actually jumped into my bed with me. By morning it was pasted to my sheet, flat as a pancake. I had killed my little chick. After some contemplation and a good talk from my mother, it was clear that the chick had committed suicide. After all he jumped into bed while I was asleep. How could I have known? I was soon given another chick. I named him Baby Huey after the popular cartoon. Baby Huey was a house pet that followed me everywhere . As he grew into a young cock, replete with crown, he traveled with our family to the beach. The most heinous crime occurred that day: someone stole my Baby Huey from his cage in our family car. That was the one great injury I suffered at the hands of the Italians.

Off in the distance I hear a snake-like sound. I must be in a deep sleep, as the snake like sounds come from the ice-soaked wood in the fireplace. Once I realize that the sound isn't caused by something slithering across the room, my thoughts return to Italy. Motherdear my maternal grandmother came to visit us for a month. My baby sister had been born, and Motherdear couldn't wait until our return stateside to see her third grandchild. My sister was born just before I turned six; I was enchanted by the richness of her dark-chocolate skin. Her eyes were not almond-shaped like my own, but rather were wide open like a doe's, taking in everything that lay before her. Her eyes encapsulated her core: dark, tender, and open. Her birth was, like everything else I experienced in Italy, pure joy and discovery for me.

 family in Rome

The fire has reached its peak, clamoring to reach the top of the chimney. My eyes close again, and there stands Motherdear, impeccably dressed, trying her best to evade a pigeon bombardment in St. Peter's Square. (Quite a feat, since there are more pigeons than people.) We take a carriage, and I get to ride bedside the driver, whom I regale. Years later Motherdear would still marvel at my ease with both the language and people of Italy. Perhaps because my parents and the other young officers and their wives socialized, she thought the same niceties applied to the American children. The truth was that the white American children chased me home nearly everyday. One day, exiting the bus, I challenged anyone willing to take me on. I had resolved to face them one at a time, regardless of their sex or size. The first to accept my challenge was a little blonde girl. I quickly dispatched her by bending her fingers backward. No one else stepped forward. I was a far fiercer fighter than they were prepared to take. I never again left the bus running.

As the fire subsides again I wake up, and realize that that single incident is a sort of blueprint of my life, I simply do not accept conventional wisdom. Instead I challenge it. 

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open call, essay, childhood, family

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Comments

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This is fantastic and the pics are priceless. Bravo. R!
Thank you Ron I really like your work as well. Appreciated.
Lovely, touching post, and a rare description of the racial situation in the military. Many thanks.
Thank you ordinary joe, but remember this was from many moons ago I can only hope that all has changed. I mean back the the Americans didn't even consider the Italians white. I don't recall ever having an American go to the farms with me. I can't imagine today being so small and wondering the countryside without my parents fearing for me. But they never thought for a moment that anything would happen when I left the base.
I guess you're right - the taunting would not happen today because the base schools would come down hard, and also the fact that in some branches, minorities are a majority. But I lived near a big base a few years ago and didn't notice a whole lot of mixing socially offbase. Well, no more than in civilian life anyway. (PS - mouth is watering from Italian food description.)
This is such beautiful writing, Des. It's truly worthy of a novel and I hope you write one someday. I'll be first in line to get it. This is just a glimpse--but what a glimpse into your life. I got a lump in my throat when I saw the picture of you as a child. I feel honored to get to know you. You're a beautiful human being with a gift. Thank you for a wonderful read.
I was glad that you were able to face down the bullies at the end. Italy sounds wonderful.
@June awww shucks girl you're making me blush. Weird how we are learning so much more about each other through our writing, and wonderful as well. Wish I had the focus to write a book I've lived 9 nines so far.
@Phyllis Italy is the one place I would have loved to go back to maybe even stay. However they are no having a great deal of problems stemming from the immigration of Africans to the country so I don't know that I would find her a lovely as my memories of her.
Beautifully written. Like you, I live a rather monkish life, with a fireplace to dream by. What an interesting childhood you had. No surprise that you did. A difficult and extraordinary childhood is what it costs to become the women we become. Expensive, but to me, worth every bit.
What a fabulous piece of writing here. Riveting back and force from your memory, time and place.
The photos are beautiful. I really hope to see this on the cover. What a read this morning.
What a wonderfully rich post. I love the photographs~ r
back and forth* sorry, need coffee!
@greenheron unfortunately I no longer have the fireplace just a little Southern cottage with a herd of dogs for company. thank you for reading.
@Rita glad you enjoyed the read I enjoy the memories. thank you
@Joan I have you to thank, after reading about Percy I wanted to share memories of my childhood they reveal so much about the adult.
Amazing what happens when we are left quietly alone with our thoughts, isn't it? Thank you for sharing yours. Wonderful piece of writing.
@Ted, I'm truly appreciative that you enjoyed this slice of my life. I consider it high praise indeed.
P.S. I forgot to add -- your Dad was fine!
June don't I know it!!
This post should be on the cover, it's one of the best pieces I've read here for quite a while. Your writing is powerful and honest and imbued with a striking clarity; I'm glad the ice storm allowed these memories to bubble up, and glad that you shared them here.
Hoooooooohah!! An EP for you. Bout time, Missy ;-)
Congratulations.
@nanatehay like your story about Pepper it is the things which are closest to our hearts which offer profound truth. Those truths are recognized whether it is our own experience or that of another. I've enjoyed reading you and your comments thanks for commenting here it made me cry.
@greenheron you are so kind and I really am grateful that I'm getting to know some wonderful, talented, creative souls here.
This wasn't in the story but I'm compelled to say it. I don't recall why or how I found this paper that showed that Flavia was required by the military to take test to ensure she didn't have a venereal disease. I recall talking to my mother about it, and how upset she was that it was required of her. But on a lighter note, before we left Italy Flavia married a Count, and we visted their villa. My memory is of being more impressed by her new home than I was of her family's farm.
@ Rita thanks, I'm shocked.
Good. Should have a larger audience than OS.
Thanks for sharing this story from your childhood. Beautiful writing and cherished photos! Keep challenging - it's what makes lasting change.
@Peter you are so kind and I thank you.
@Jennifer thank you as well, and what else can I do at nearly 60 to not challenge is not a trick this dog wants to learn;-)
Beautiful memories, beautifully described!

I was friends for several years with Jewish holocaust survivors who had similar love for Italy and Italians. Some of them learned to speak Italian and sing Italian songs.

After hearing stories from other survivors about what happened to them in other countries after the camps were liberated, I knew why.
I remember standing on that terrace eating grapes, enamored, even at four years-old, by the sheer beauty of Italy. - I can picture it clearly and it sounds wonderful. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, the good and the bad.
Thank you for reading and commenting Brianna.
This is one of the best essays I have read on OS in a long time. You weave 2 themes throughout like a virtuoso. The story is very illuminating. Bravo.

r
Consistently GREAT stuff coming from this blog - long overdue EP - congrats.


-R-
I agree with markinjapan. we 'bum' on O.S. grub feed.

Under each person there is a fire burning and ashes.
There are hidden hypocrites, moderates, and labels.
Often we sense the terrified majority insist to shush.
Folks insist on seeing nothing, or taking one side will:
cause trouble . . .
raise an opinion . . .
about 'issues' . . .
bring a charge of
falsification of facts,
and cause fear of
false accusations.
`
Keeper. cc. Thank you.
I am gonna share this.
Let's shout. no whisper.
This is coolly written and grows memorable.

More, please.
@rw oog many thanks it feels very rewarding to have people acknowledge the truths of my life.
@Art James thank you and believe me no one ever accused me of whispering. cool poem too!
@j p hart thank you and since writing is all I really want to do you have but to ask. ;-)
I love the vintage-ish photographs!
@jobrobinson they're vintage because I am too. hehehehe
It's been a good educational reminder to read yours and a few others' accounts of how life is so very different growing up black. It's human nature to take the good things in life for granted. Growing up as a white kid in a nearly all white small town, the notion that I might ever be treated differently based on my skin color never even registered in my consciousness. My mother avidly followed current events so I followed the civil rights movement, MLK and later Malcolm X, Carmichael, Cleaver & Rap Brown and was well aware that prejudice and discrimination were alive and well and reluctant to loosen their grip. But essays like your Desnee have reminded me in a more personal way of how the everyday realities were, and still are, so different than what I was accustomed to. Thanks for posting it.