My Mother’s best friend Odessa was a black woman. The 2 swapped chores, Odessa ironing as my Mom sewed, singing hymns and sharing Scriptures as they worked. I loved days when Odessa was in our home. I’d sit outside the open window and listen. Their laughter would make my heart smile.
One day my Dad was home at lunchtime. Odessa sat down to sweet tea, peas, cornbread, and sliced tomatoes with us. My Dad stopped her, turned to my Mom and laid down the law: Odessa was not to drink out of a glass. Horrified, best describes my Mom and sisters; we were accustomed to treating Odessa with the same respect as my Mom’s white friends. It wasn’t even as if the jelly glasses that the rest of us drank from were fancy. Why couldn’t Odessa drink from a jelly glass like us?
Growing up in The South in the 1960s, prejudice, racism, and hatred were as thick as the humidity. I am ashamed to tell the story of Odessa and the jar. Ashamed that prejudice existed in my home. Even typing out this story brought pain to my heart.
The day Odessa couldn’t drink from the jelly glass brought confusion. What made this woman that I loved dearly different than all the other people I loved? Odessa had a laugh that filled the house and gave the best hugs in the world. Odessa was poor but so were we. She had birthed 22 children. She’d bring some of the children with her to play in the summer. One of her daughters was blind, she was my age but rode on the train by herself to the blind school in Talladega, AL, I thought she was the bravest person that had ever lived. We would take her to the train station and watch her board without a tear.
Odessa couldn’t drink out of our jelly glasses just because God created her with a little different skin tone. Odessa did not choose to be born as she was, but she loved her Creator. She accepted herself with the unique dignity of one who has faced hardships and survived. Odessa deserved to drink from crystal, but she did not let that one day she couldn’t drink from a free jelly glass stop her from being with the friends she loved. I respect that most of all about her.