It was 1960, the summer of my 8th birthday. I was about to learn some life lessons that I’ve never forgotten. These lessons remain quite clear in my memory, mainly because of the bizarre and ironic fashion in which they were taught.
Mom, my older brother Richard, and I hopped into the car and began our trip from northern New Jersey to Lakeland, Florida to visit Grandma and Grandpa. This was my first trip out of the state. It was my first trip anywhere. For a little girl whose favorite pastime was to browse atlases and imagine that she was traveling to distant venues, this was the ultimate excitement. The South! This seemed so exotic to me. I couldn’t wait to hear a southern accent, to see palm trees, and to feel the warmth of a tropical climate. My mother told me that Grandma and Grandpa had an avocado tree, a mango tree, and a papaya tree and that I could taste these curious fruits; I could pick them right off the tree and eat them. “Are they good Mom?” “Yes, and they’re very good for you.” I naively wondered if Southerners would have a different appearance than those of us in the North. Would they dress differently? What did they eat? What did they wear? Did alligators roam the streets?
What an adventure! We began the odyssey by zooming down the Garden State Parkway in our new Mercury – a blue and white marvel with whitewall tires, chrome details, and wings in the back in which the red cone tail lights were embedded. Wind blew in through the half-open windows (air conditioning of the era) and gave some relief from the stifling July heat. Richard and I sang songs, played “Mad Libs”, read comic books, and took turns lying down on the ledge beneath the rear window. We snacked on some sandwiches, fruit and juice that Mom had packed in the cooler that she placed on the front passenger seat. Seat belts were not part of the public consciousness back then and Richard and I bounced about with joyous, youthful, and expectant exuberance.
Early that evening we stopped at a motel. This was another first and we were overflowing with excitement. Even better, there was a swimming pool! Richard and I donned our swim suits and jumped in the pool with several other children who appeared to be fellow travelers on the long asphalt river that flowed down the eastern seaboard. After the swim, we had dinner at the motel’s small restaurant, then back to the motel room, pajamas, TV, and then sleep.
We resumed our journey very early in the morning. Mom said that we’d probably arrive at Grandma and Grandpa’s house about the time that lightening bugs come out. We started to pay more attention to the landscape. The first striking difference is that we began to see billboards that advertised an establishment called Stuckey’s. At first, these signs would periodically appear every 10 miles or so, and advised us that we shouldn’t miss Stuckey’s because it sold the best pecan rolls in the South. Each successive billboard told us that we were getting “closer and closer” to Stuckey’s. They continued to remind us that we just couldn’t forget to try their famous pecan rolls. We seemed to be getting “closer and closer” to Stuckey’s (according to the billboards) for at least 3-4 hours. What could a pecan roll be? We were fascinated. Anticipation had nearly reached a fever pitch. Finally, the billboards appeared with much-increased frequency. “Is that it?” “Stuckey’s!” “I see it!” “Could that be it?” I felt a twinge of disappointment when we finally arrived at the famous Stuckey’s. After all of the advertisement, I expected something grander than this small store at the side of the road with an oversized American flag and yet another billboard on the premises that announced that we had arrived at Stuckey’s. A smaller billboard displayed a red painted arrow that pointed to the store. However, our spirits weren’t dampened and we were thrilled when Mom turned into the Stuckey’s parking lot. Many other families were there, no doubt for the famous pecan rolls. Richard and I jumped out of the car and ran into Stuckey’s – the Stuckey’s. The pecan rolls weren’t immediately visible. We meandered through the aisles of souvenirs until we found them. We’d seen so many billboards that extolled the sumptuousness of these delectable treats! But instead of seeing magical candy that floated in the air suspended by fairy lights, instead of seeing world-renowned pecan rolls that brought tears to my eyes and made me hear ethereal music in the background, instead of seeing a display of these elegant confections surrounded by crowds of people ooh-ing and aah-ing, we saw only an unexpectedly small number of pecan rolls that were piled on a wire rack in the back of the store and wrapped in white paper that said only, “Stuckey’s Pecan Roll”. That was it? Mom bought one for both of us. As soon as I got in the car I unwrapped my treat and immediately bit into it. It was hard, stiff, and the nuts were too salty. There was some white nougat-type filling that was tooth-achingly sweet and sticky. I looked over at Richard and he looked at me; accurate communication sometimes requires no words, especially when one’s mouth is filled with stale gooey candy. What a let-down! It was an unexpected and excellent lesson about false advertising and the consumer’s (my) willingness to be manipulated. It taught me that skepticism can be a healthy and helpful attribute. When we returned home after our trip and I fell back into my comic book reading ways, thoughts of Stuckey’s flashed through my mind whenever I read the ads in the back of the comics that touted x-ray vision glasses, magic beans, and other fantastic products. Still fell for the Sea Monkeys though!
Mom made an announcement every time we entered a new state. I first saw Spanish moss when we were in Georgia. It was exquisitely beautiful, airy, and graceful. The trees were dressed in gossamer drapes of silvery-green lace that drooped to the ground in masses of gauzy loveliness. I was transfixed, mesmerized by the splendor, but I noticed that trees that had the most luxuriant displays of Spanish moss often appeared to be sickly. They had many bare, black, leafless branches. My mother explained that Spanish moss was a parasite. Although beautiful, it saps the life from its host and eventually can harm the tree. This was another life lesson and was a clear metaphor for what real beauty demands; it’s not simply a graceful appearance, but a gracious nature.
We reached Lakeland in the late afternoon. It was uncomfortably hot and sticky but we were all very excited about seeing Grandma and Grandpa. When we finally arrived, my mother cried when she hugged her parents. I could tell she was tired but happy. Grandma made dinner and Grandpa sat in his favorite chair while he puffed on his pipe, making tiny clouds of bluish-gray, sweet-smelling smoke. After dinner, Grandma told Richard and me to go outside to play but ordered us to stay away from her fruit trees; we tried unsuccessfully.
There was a five & dime store directly across the street from my grandparents’ home. I went there with Mom to buy some ice cream. While there, my mother took me to the restroom and I was astonished to see that there were restrooms that were labeled “colored” or “white”. There were even two water fountains – one for “coloreds” and one for “whites”. Mom said that this is what was done in the South. We both stared at the water fountains for a while and I could tell that Mom was uncomfortable. I thought back to my atlas and realized that I might have, for the first time in my life, traveled to a different world. Mom uttered the word “prejudice” but I really didn’t understand or question at the time. I just used the correct bathroom. When I exited the toilet I furtively looked about, flirted with the idea of drinking from the “coloreds” water fountain and then running away, but finally decided against it, thinking that I could possibly go to jail if I broke the law.
The next morning Mom gave me a quarter and said that I could go to the five & dime all by myself to buy whatever I could purchase for 25 cents. I was in heaven! I got to cross the street myself and go shopping in this unfamiliar world. I scrutinized everything I saw. Everybody looked the same as Northerners. They wore the same clothes. Their behavior was the same. The commonplace was disappointing for this atlas-toting 8-year-old who yearned for the strange and alien. However, this blow was softened when I listened to the interesting southern dialect spoken by the other patrons in the store. I freely admit that I was a weird little kid, and I wandered about the store just listening and watching and making mental notes. I did choose a purchase – a tiny wooden clown that spun on a stick when I twirled the knob at its base. It cost 10 cents.
I went to the check-out line. It was moving slowly, but I had fun playing with my wooden clown. Suddenly, a woman in front of me turned and saw me. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said. Then she got in back of me in the line. I froze. What did I do? I thought I must have made some terrible cultural faux-pas (still my particular speciality). The atlas girl abruptly felt very uncomfortable. I remained silent, waited in line, paid for my toy, and ran home.
I explained the situation to my mother. I was confused. Why did the lady apologize to me and let me go ahead of her? The woman was black. Even though she was an adult and I was a child, and even though she entered the line first, she felt that she needed to be deferential to me – a child playing with a toy and paying no attention to anything else – simply because I was white. Mom mentioned the word “prejudice” again. She explained it to me and told me that it was nonsensical, but I didn’t completely grasp the full meaning. “Why do people in the South do that, Mom?” “Because everyone in the South is crazy.” Suddenly I got it. I knew precisely what prejudice was and why it was nonsensical. I just heard it right from my mother! This was another great life lesson taught by my mother who meant well but had no idea how funny she was!
P.S. She didn’t really mean it.