CHANGE means...missing the smell of safety

Trudi Young Taylor was born in Scotland from a maternal line of Mediterranean Jews (artists, musicians, and a mathematician) and a paternal line of Viking atheists (policemen, gardeners, and a ship captain).  After traveling the world on her father’s ship, her family settled in LA (Lower Alabama). When she was thirteen, she won the 8th grade creative writing contest for a short story about falling off the balance beam.  To support her writing habit, she works as a yoga teacher, massage therapist, and psychotherapist in Raleigh, NC. Trudi is my guest today, and here's her rite-of-passage story.

I vividly remember when my mother took my baby doll from me. “It’s for your own safety.”

Both of us looked at the soft African features – round flat nose, wide lips, plastic skin faded but still brown not white.  She was named after my favorite Aunt Charmaine. My mother had bought the baby doll in Trinidad.  While my father was finishing his dealings with Shipping agents, we were spending the day exploring the tiny shops nearby. “You have a friend now.  Look after her.  Don’t drop her.”

“She’s my best friend.  I’ll keep her safe.  You can’t play with her.” Mother had smiled.  She reached for my hand.  I was smitten with my doll and mother had to pull me out of the path of an oncoming bus.  I did not drop the doll.

The doll lived cradled in my arms most of my sixth year.  I held her as I stepped along gangplanks, over ship hatches, into lifeboats.  I learned how to put on a bright orange life preserver without losing hold of her, transferring her from one arm to the other.  I knew the precise angle to hold her so she wasn’t in jeopardy of falling overboard.  Together we traveled between Europe and South America.  My body wrapped around her at night in the swaying bunk bed of my cabin.  Her smooth brown plastic crammed up against my body as we explored the container ship during the day.

“You’re going to carry that doll everywhere.”

“Uh huh.  She’s my baby.”

My Episcopalian father was the captain of an Israeli ship christened The Avadat.  The captain, first mate and other officers were Northern European Christians.  The seamen were African, Jamaican, and Haitian.  How this happened, no one could explain.

As an adult, I do wonder if the limp bacon my father, the Captain, received every morning was a consciously brilliant statement from the black crew.  My father complained to the cook, even yelled but I got the crisp bacon he wanted, feeding the crumbs to my baby doll.  To this day, I love the smell of bacon sizzling and eat bacon at every opportunity.

My favorite crewmember was the cook.  I only knew him as Cook.  After dinner, I would run from the captain’s table to sit on a stool in the galley.  Cook would talk and laugh with me in his gentle Jamaican voice.  I cannot recall what we talked about during those evenings.  Probably unimportant.  But his sweet tone, the playfulness, his paying attention to me, soothed me.  Maybe he sensed the loneliness settling around my body.  He was a good and decent person.

I have one Polaroid picture of him.  In the picture, he is pressed pants and a white tee shirt.  He is lanky and tall next to two tiny little girls.  His big hands are delicately wrapped around my sister and me.  His wide smile is genuine, eyes crinkled, forehead smooth, gap-toothed with startling white teeth against the shiny brown skin.  I am smiling back at him.  My four year-old-sister is looking lost and waifish in her faded dress and I am proudly wearing the green uniform of my boarding school.  While Cook holds my left hand, my right grasps the brown baby doll.  He was the tender voice in a ship of tall, uninterested men and bickering parents.  To this day, I carry copies of his picture in my wallet, taped inside my pantry door, and pinned to the bulletin board at work.

One sultry day, the ship docked in Alabama and my mother tried to peel me away from Cook. “We have to go now.  Say goodbye to your friend.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Say goodbye.”

“Noooooooooooooo.”

I stomped my feet, screamed bloody murder, and tried to hit my mother in the chest.  It was my first act of defiance.  It was the first time I fought for love.  Cook picked me up and rocked me in his arms.  Mother watched with her hands on her hips. “Stop being a little girl.”

“Can Cook come with us?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Why can’t he?”

“Well he works on the ship for your father.”

“I hate you.  I hate you both.  I love Cook.”

Cook held me tight for a moment.  I was bathed in the smells of the galley and the island’s flowers from the soft skin of Cook’s neck.  Mother tapped her foot.

“You’re my second best friend.  I’ll never forget you.”

“Go with your mother now.  You’ll learn all kind of things.  Eat all your dinner.”

“Will you send me bacon and apple dumplings?”

My mother pulled me down the gangplank.  I waved at Cook through eyes and nose smeared in my grief.  It was late summer in 1965 and the Alabama public elementary school was about to start.  It was going to be very different from my private girl’s school in Scotland.  As a treat, that night my Mother had introduced me to an American phenomenon, Mr. Bubble.  Of course I took my baby doll into the bath with me.  When I had lathered us both clean, I dried us off, speckled our bodies with talcum powder, and went to bed.  Her hair still smelled of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and the galley’s bacon.

The next day mother dressed me in a full-skirted plaid dress with a white Peter Pan collar.  She buckled the patent leather shoes over white lacy socks, handed me a book bag, and pushed my baby doll under a sofa cushion.  I pulled the doll out and faced my mother. 

“Give me the doll.”

“No.  No.  No.”

“What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing.  Nothing’s wrong.  You can’t have her.”

“Let me take her.  You can get her after school.”

“No.  I am taking my dolly to school.”

“You can’t do that here.”

“Yes I can.  Why can’t I?”

“She’s black.  You’re white.”

“So?  You’re mean.  Mean.  Mean.  Mean.”

“It’s for your own good.”

“I hate you.  You made me leave Cook.  You want my dolly.  Go away.”

My mother wrestled me to the floor, got the doll and threw it in the corner.  I yelled until I was hoarse and my words made no sense.  When I came home from school, my baby doll was gone.  Mother said she mailed the baby doll to Cook who would keep her safe for me.  As a bribe, she made bacon.  I pushed away the greasy limp strips.  I never trusted my mother again.  She knew it.

I have guarded the original picture of us – Cook, my sister, and my dolly.  The original Polaroid is swaddled in tissue paper and stowed away in a flowered hatbox.  In times of need, I pull out the hatbox.  My body relaxes when I look at the photograph.  I sink into the evocative smells of that time – bacon frying, apples in pastry, lush tropical flowers, the talcum-covered plastic skin of my doll, and Cook’s skin.  My breath drops down deep into my belly – finding again the safety in brown skin.

Trudi is the author of Breasts Don’t Lie.  Your can reach her at her website/blog.

As a writer and personal coach, I believe the dynamics of change affect characters in storytelling as much as they do individuals in real life. If you’d like to share a story about what change means to you (or to one of your story characters), contact me to make a guest contribution to this insightful story series.