"An Apology to Ladova"
The first one came swiftly, without warning, like the wind down the plains. I, in the fourth grade class of Mrs. Mendes, hid under my green corduroy coat and sobbed for John F. Kennedy, the president a nation had hoped in. I wept for the man that looked like a nice daddy, a daddy who would not see his children grown, full and ripe, the sweet bounty of summer.
The next day of loss came when I was fearful, not so naive. I had licked the acrid taste of tragedy on my lips. I was wary now… and it came. A coward of bigotry silenced a voice that pealed as a melodious bell, a voice that had given his people hope. This voice had belonged to a black man named Martin. I hid under my bed covers and sobbed for the children of a man who looked like a nice daddy, another father who would not live to see his children grown.
It was in the early 60’s that I moved from the northern state of Montana to the golden, windswept plains of Oklahoma. I was a shy kid, conscious of every freckle on my face and felt as though my feet were never obliging to me. In fact, they seemed delighted in tripping me up.
I had a few friends in my new neighborhood, all nice little “white” girls like myself. We walked home from school and became experts at leaping over every crack in the sidewalk. We knew every Beatles tune that came out and crooned, “I want to hold your hand…” at the top of our lungs. I loved Paul, of course, just like every other 10-year-old girl in the rest of the world.
In the summer, we made long walks to the library, checking out our favorite books. We relished Saturday afternoon matinees at the Esquire Theater and filled up on popcorn and a soda for a grand total of 50 cents.
My favorite movie was Shenandoah. I loved James Stewart, with his gentle ways and fatherly stature. I studied him carefully as he talked to his departed wife, Martha, at her graveside. I just knew someday I would be loved like that, totally and reverently.
The subject of the Civil War in Shenandoah also fascinated me. All the sons were marching off to war to fight for the “just” cause of the North, to abolish slavery and emancipate the slaves of the South. There was no greater or nobler cause in my mind.
Civil rights…just those two words filled the air all around me. I thought of the Civil War and wondered why we had not come farther than we had. There was not much freedom that I could see for the Negroes of the South. They lived in fear. They were told where they could and where they could not eat. Negroes could not sit where they wanted on a public bus nor could they use the same restrooms or laundries as whites. They lived with hate and ridicule at every turn. Was this the definition of freedom?
I watched as Walter Cronkite closed the news with his sign-off, “…and that’s the way it is on this day of…” I watched in horror as the police beat Negro men and women on the streets of Selma and Birmingham. Right before my eyes, I witnessed the same brutality and bigotry that had killed Martin Luther King. I could not understand such a world of hatred or accept it. It made me shudder.
Little did I know that my own world would soon mirror the ugliness of prejudice. I had never known a single Negro before moving to Oklahoma, but as far as I could see, they looked pretty much the same as myself: a nose, a mouth, skin a little darker than mine and the most intriguing eyes. I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. In my thinking, God had made us all the same inside. Wasn’t the inside what we were supposed to be looking at, like I was taught in Sunday school?
My first African-American friend was in my fifth grade class. She had beautiful brown skin and an even more inviting smile. She looked like molasses come to life and had a laugh that drew me in close. We became friends on the playground, as we dodged balls thrown at lightning speed by Floyd Broomfield. I was not athletic in the least, but my friend Ladova was. With long legs and keen reflexes, she was never “out” as I was. She must have had a soft spot for the new kid at school and risked her reputation as an exceptional athlete by becoming my friend.
I invited her to come by my house to walk to school together. She rang the bell and smiled that bright smile of hers as she waited for me. I invited her in while I went to get my books. That was the moment the hammer fell. It shattered the altruistic world of my dreams into broken pieces. For many years I would reflect back upon this moment and wonder what I could have done to change its outcome.
My father was a hard working, honest man, but grew up in an era when the thinking was, “ They have their side of town and we have our side of town,” and never the twain shall meet. He took one look at the color of Ladova’s skin and never saw her beating heart or heard her gentle laugh. He looked at me with eyes of steel and said, “She can’t come in, not in this house, ever again …”
My heart was mortified. In my eyes, my father had become one and the same with the mobs that withheld equality and freedom from other human beings. Now he was denying them to my friend, Ladova. It broke my heart.
I cried many nights and pleaded for him to reconsider his decision, but his mind was made up. With sadness, I had to obey him. I could only be friends with Ladova at school and never bring her to my home again. Our friendship would never have the chance to grow, as it should have. It would not have the opportunity to reach its full potential.
The years went by, as they often do. I found myself an adult and wondered about the friend of my youth, Ladova. I had not seen her in years but I happened to meet her mother at a Christian women’s event I was attending. Through her information, I was exuberant to find Ladova was still living in the same city as myself.
Feelings, long dormant, surfaced once again I knew I had to do something to resolve them now. I felt the best way to do resolve them was to honor Ladova by acknowledging that she had been trespassed against. I could not say the words so easily, but I could write them and they came pouring from my heart. My thoughts became willed into my pen as the words grew into a poem. I prayed… Please God, let me make some kind of amends to my friend…please…
This is the poem I wrote that day.
On a cold February day, I took the last few steps of my journey and attempted to pay some token of reparation for the damages done to a soul. I presented Ladova her poem and my apology. We both became teary-eyed when Ladova interjected some humor into the moment, quipping, “Girl, do you write for Hallmark or something?” We parted that day as friends, hugging and laughing.
I called Ladova today; we caught up on what our kids were doing and chitchatted about jobs and such. She informed me that last August she was diagnosed with colon cancer. But just like Ladova, she was quick to let me know that she is doing well, that all things have a purpose in this life. Somehow, I have the feeling that our purpose in each other’s lives is not quite over. Oh and the poem? Ladova said that she placed it by her bedside to remind herself how special she is…but I already knew that…