When visiting with my mother on Friday to celebrate her 105th birthday, I did one of those silly things one is inclined to do on such occasions.
Rather than asking her which invention or technological development that occurred during her lifetime was, in her view, most consequential--electric lighting, radio, TV, airplanes, the Internet--instead, I asked what single lesson she learned that she felt was most important in guiding her.
Without missing a beat, she said, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you."
"I totally agree," I said, once again amazed by her mental acuity and what she chose to offer as her guiding principle.
"I think, without your preaching it to me, that by your example, I learned that Golden Rule and hope I also have been at least partially inspired by it."
She smiled at me as if to say, as I hoped she would say, that she feels I for the most part have been a good person.
To test that, I asked if I could tell her a story about something I had never before revealed to her that has been troubling me for more than 60 years.
She continued to smile at me.
"A few years after I was born, you returned to teaching and needed someone to care for me during the day. You hired Bessie Cross to do that. You remember her, don't you?"
She nodded and said, "Of course I do. She was wonderful. And do you remember she had a son, Henry, who was about two years older than you?"
"Yes. Of course I do. In fact, my story is about him. Henry Cross. And it is relevant to mention that he was black.
"One summer," I continued, "because Bessie Cross had to return to South Carolina to take care of her mother, who still lived on a plantation where she and Bessie as a young girl had picked cotton, Henry came to live with us.
"And since at that time I was an only child and our apartment had only two bedrooms, he slept on the daybed in my room. At night, lying side-by-side, we shared stories while waiting to fall asleep. He became like a brother to me. I liked to hear about his family, especially his Aunt Sis and Uncle Homer who tended the coal-fired boiler and steam heat system in the basement of an apartment house not far from where we lived. They lived in that basement too, and I loved to visit them with Henry. Aunt Sis would make us chocolate milk and pecan cookies that I can to this day still taste. They were that good."
"I remember your bringing some home for me one day. I had them with a cup of tea."
"After his mother returned from South Carolina, for years Henry continued to stay with us on weekends and the two of us would join our friends in street games. Since he and I were good athletes we were among the first to be chosen when it came time to choose up sides.
"When we were done playing the whole gang of us would go to one of our mother's houses for milk and cookies. This went on for some years. But then a terrible thing happened."
"What was that darling?"
"What I never told you about." I took a deep breath. "One Saturday, after a stickball game, we were invited to Stanley Shapiro's house for milk and cookies."
"I remember his mother. She was such a nice woman. I wonder if she is still alive."
"That was about 60 years ago. Well, all of us, including Henry, walked over to her porch where she had set up a card table with pitchers of cold milk and stacks of oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies. As we were passing these around, Mrs. Shapiro came over to me and to say she had something to tell me.
"'In the house,' she said.
"Puzzled, I followed her inside where her 14 year-old daughter, Rosalie, was hovering. Mrs. Shapiro leaned close to me and said, 'It is of course all right for you to stay. You are always welcome in my house; but your friend, he has to leave.' Protectively, she glanced over at her unhappy-looking daughter."
"That sounds terrible," my mother said.
"That's only half of it," I said. "I went outside again and saw Henry waiting his turn to get a glass of milk. I took him aside and told him what Mrs. Shapiro had said.
"Henry did not look back at me nor did he say a word in response. Rather, he turned and raced down the steps and then down East 56th Street toward Church Avenue."
I heard my mother sigh.
"I never saw him again," I said, tearing up. The memory of that sweltering summer day rushed over me as if it were yesterday.
When I gained control of my emotions, I confessed that I did not follow after him because I chose to stay behind with my neighborhood friends. I had trouble continuing the story.
"Here's what I've wanted to ask you about," I managed to say to me 105-year-old mother. "If I had asked you later that day what I should have done after what Mrs. Shapiro told me to do, what would you have said?"
Again without hesitating, this time in her most loving voice, my mother said, "You should have gone with Henry."