Remembering when i was a little girl

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

When I was a little girl, living in Harrisburg, Pa., two of my playmates were Jewish. I didn’t know what that meant so I watched what they did and listened to what they said to see if I could figure out what “being Jewish” meant.

All I noticed was that Lowee (Lois’ nickname) was the roller skating champ of our block.

My dad, a very quiet man, said simply that because of their beliefs Jews ate a bit differently than we did and went to “church” on Friday or Saturday instead of Sunday, as we did.

When I was a bit bigger, high school-sized in Cumberland County, across the river from Harrisburg, I was becoming a bit more observant, maybe, and I learned that a girl in my class was Jewish. Flora Anne (“Flan”) and I were members of the Mechanicsburg High School Class of ’53. Her red-haired younger brother was about two years behind us.

Flan and I became good friends and eventually I got invited to attend Temple (or do you say “Synagogue”?). I was astounded by the similarities between the worship practices of Jews and of Lutherans.

The cantor sang some strange-sounding solos to which the congregation sometimes responded. That mirrored the liturgy we were so familiar with, but more interesting were the hymns that could have been lifted right out of the Lutheran hymnal. “Oh, Worship the King” is the one I remember specifically. Known to most Protestants, I’m sure, it praises God and compares God with nature: God was borne on the black clouds of the storm; God’s care “streams from the hills, descends to the plain,” and describes how we frail children of dust trust in God’s steadfast mercy.

I also noticed that we pronounce “amen” differently. We say “Ahh-men,” they say “Ahh-MAIN,” but I decided that was insignificant.

When I was a little girl, a city bus stopped at the corner and I got aboard on Wednesday afternoons for children’s choir practice in our downtown church. It was in a poor area across Forster Street from the state capital and often the driver had to slow down until the hoards of children got out of the street. I honestly can’t remember if the children were white or black, but I was sure anyone who played barefooted in the street must at least be poor.

I often complain about my memory being bad, so I was interested recently in an article that says we may or may not remember conversations, books, incidents, but we do remember how they made us feel.

One of the most poignant feelings of my childhood: I was on the city bus, high above the street like a queen on her throne, and outside the poor kids were swarming. I was eating an apple and why I threw it out the window into the street I’ll never know.

I never throw things away if they have any use left in them whatsoever. I can plainly recall that I had eaten only about half of that otherwise beautiful piece of fruit. And whether I was motivated by pity or contempt (I, the queen above), I watched as the children scrambled to see what it was. Who got it and what did they do with it, I donno, but remorse was instant and unrelenting.

To throw away a perfectly good half an apple in the first place, into a crowd of (I thought) starving children – well, I remembered the feelings that swarmed like starving children, or at least the starving children in China to whom we were always willing to ship our peas and liver.

To this day – to this day – I can feel that knot in my throat.

When I was a little girl, I rarely saw black people. Again, feelings remain. A high school chum and I went to Williamsburg, Va. after graduation, driven by Gwen’s father. We stopped in a southern town for dinner, and I recall it had boardwalks instead of the concrete sidewalks we had up north. As we strolled along that evening, a black man, coming toward us, stepped off the boardwalk to let us pass.

I was mortified. For me, a scrawny kid, a middle-aged man had to step off into a busy street so I could pass.

I was all set to apologize to him, but Gwen, more sophisticated than I, must have hissed at me not to make the scene worse. For him. I would come to no harm, but the imagination gasps at what could have happened. To him.

When I was not such a little girl any more, there was a thin black youth working in the kitchen – dishwashing, I believe – at Gettysburg College. The first black kid ever at the ’Burg, stories flew as to how he got there. One had it that he left his photo off his application and the administration decided not to make an issue of it. Others said he was carefully chosen from a Philadelphia church to integrate the college.

We became friends. I remember him showing me a picture of the basketball team in the college paper. In several rows of white youngsters, there was this black thumbprint in the second from bottom row. “Look at that, Sallie,” he jeered. “I ain't nothing but a blur.”

He didn’t stay a blur but has lived a life of service; at one time I think he was a bishop. When I discovered his name in a church publication, I called and we spoke briefly. He says he remembers me, but disagreed when I told him I thought our world was a better place since 1953.

“For you, maybe,” was the gist of what he said.

Enough of this. I’m not a little girl any more, and I haven’t even gotten into how I learned to tolerate Roman Catholics. (Tolerance: I hate that word. Tolerance is passive.)

Come to Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church this Sunday afternoon and see Jews and Christians and maybe even a Muslim or two worshipping together at 4 p.m. We will sing and listen and watch.

And we will remember.

login to post comments | Sallie Satterthwaite's blog