The Way It Was
It was a very warm day in August 1944. Our family, my Dad, Mom, Sister and Mary were on our way back to Scott Field, an Army Air Corps Base, east of Bellville, Illinois. We had been in Indianapolis on leave for ten days, and were driving back to base in our 1941 Chrysler four-door. My sister, along with Mary, and I were straddling a rubber tire between the front and back seats of the car. It held a position of honor because a tire, of any kind, was precious beyond words during the war years.
Because of the length of the trip and the heat of the day, it was determined we would stop in Terre Haute, Indiana, for a bite of lunch and a brief rest break. A small restaurant was selected in the center of town, and the family with my Dad in his Major Uniform and the rest of us in tow, entered the restaurant and found a table for lunch. The waitress approached us and stated quietly, but very firmly, that Mary, could not be served in the restaurant. She would have to leave.
Without a word, Mary eased out of her chair and started toward the door. I followed quickly behind her out the door. The waitress looked toward my mother, and said, “The little boy didn’t have to leave!” My mother answered, “Yes, he did. You hurt his best friend!” Mom brought sandwiches to the two us in the car before we drove out of Terre Haute.
Mary Sanford was my sister’s and my best friend and shield growing up. I was just a little over five years old when Mary joined our family. She meant a lot to my sister and to me. Mary was a story-teller; a trusted buddy; a confidant; a playmate and was different than the two of us.. Mary was African-American. We didn’t understand what that “difference” meant. To us, Mary was a part of our family – as much as we all were. We understood she was with us to take care of us, and to help my Mom with chores, but Mary held a position of pride and no prejudice in the family. She was as much a part of our life and living with us as was anyone else in the family. As far as I was concerned, she had equal status with everyone. I could take anyone being upset with me in the family, but Mary. If Mary wasn’t happy with what I was doing, it hurt me deeply. I think I expected my Mom and Dad to get upset with me, but not Mary. However, my Mom and Dad made sure that my sister and I knew that Mary was to be respected, just as if they were giving the orders.
Mary was in early twenties when she arrived at Homecroft, our home prior to World War II, just south of Indianapolis. She had been married twice prior to joining our family, and had been sold by her father into marriage with her first husband while just a girl in her early teens. Mary told me once that she didn’t know how to cook for her first husband, and as a little girl, she thought mud pies were to be served and eaten. Both of her husbands had been killed in accidents prior to her coming to Indiana. She was working as a servant for another family in Indianapolis when we learned of her wanting to find a different position. I personally felt that it was destiny that Mary found us, and that she was to become a part of our family.
Mary was responsible for my upbringing as was anyone in the family. I looked to her for guidance and consulting. She taught me the basics of cooking; how to wash dishes and clothes properly; how to play kindly with neighborhood kids and to respect all races and religions. She would not tolerate any cussing, or swearing of any kind. So, we just didn’t do it! We knew, however, that Mary was a woman of “color” and consequently, would be treated differently outside of our home. We still went everywhere with her. We went to the base movie theatre with Mary, but couldn’t sit with her because she was segregated from us. We traveled downtown with her on the streetcar, but couldn’t sit with her at a lunch counter. We took her hand when crossing street corners, much to the dismay of on- lookers, but we didn’t care.
I learned many lessons from Mary. The most important, I would say, was tolerance. She showed me the fortitude to withstand the pressure of those around me who were void of decent understanding and caring. Consequently, I grew up with no racial prejudice, and still refrain from having any to this day.
As we grew older and left home, we always knew that Mary was still a major part of our home life. She was there for our Mom and Dad, even though, they were now growing much older – the needs still existed. My sister and I were always happy to see that Mary was still a very active part of our family life even though it wasn’t the same as when we were growing up. Mary stayed with the family for over fifty years, and grew old right along with my folks.
Mary’s health gave way in later years, and she went to a rest home in Kentucky. When she passed away in her late seventies, my sister and I drove to Kentucky for the funeral. Mary had always paid her own insurance program out of her weekly pay. Her sister used the funds for other expenses. So, the funeral had not been paid for. As we were leaving after the funeral, the director, asked my sister and me, “Who will pay for the expenses?” My sister stated immediately, “My mother will!” There was no doubt in her answer to the question. Mary was still a part of our family, and always will be.