Photography © Jennifer Matthews
The Good Luck Charm
Anti-Semitism was a natural part of the community. I can’t remember when or where I became aware of that fact, it was just a fact. It was more understated than the vocal and demonstrated prejudice against Blacks, but it was there just the same. And I was born into and raised with cultural expectations that I would grow up and take over the attitudes to perpetuate the interactions founded on hate and exclusion. I was meant to inherit the jokes, the projected stereotypes, and the comments in the name of Christianity to preserve the rural community with a church-blessed purity avenging the death of Jesus.
Mr. F__ was our neighbor. He lived with his wife in the house behind us, one street back. It was a wooden house painted burgundy with a garage and a driveway sitting on a typical half-acre lot common in the neighborhood. I have no idea what the inside of the house looked like as I was never invited in and never had any reason to get close enough to look inside. My sister told me it was kind of a strange house with long hallways laid out in a maze of corridors. I don’t know how she came to have firsthand experience with the inside of Mr. F__’s house, but I didn’t doubt her. She was older, and always knew more than I did.
One summer, Mr. and Mrs. F__ built a fence around the back of the house. The fence didn’t encircle the whole yard; it was just a decorative fence around a small portion of the backyard against the house. Inside the fence we heard they had put in a Chinese rock garden. The fence was six feet tall, and had no gaps or holes in the boards, so I never found out what a Chinese rock garden entailed or contained (Chinese rocks, I guessed), but it was interesting to consider what it might look like.
Meanwhile, there was a prevalent undercurrent of attitudes that would surface in the course of neighborhood discussions that a Chinese rock garden was an extravagant use of wealth. It was not a practical expense at all, and that made it foreign to the local culture of Kentucky expenditures. If a local Kentucky family was going to have a garden, it would have tomatoes, beans and green onions. If a family was going to fence that garden in, it would be a practical fence to keep the rabbits, dogs, neighborhood kids, and baseballs out of it. It would be constructed out of chicken-wire and tobacco sticks at best, and not a six-foot wooden panel privacy fence that only made people think they were being excluded by the Jewish family instead of the normal state of affairs formulated by excluding the Jewish family.
Mr. and Mrs. F__’s children were older than my sister and me. Having already left the shelter of their parents’ house, the children were just visitors to the neighborhood. My sister pointed out the oldest child to me once, but I only saw a glimpse of him before he disappeared into the maze of hallways inside the house. I had a vision of him sipping iced tea behind the privacy fence as he enjoyed the Chinese rock garden, but I may have simply been imagining what I would have been doing if my family had a Chinese rock garden.
Their house was quiet all the time. It was, after all, inhabited by a couple of elderly empty-nesters who had very little need to make much noise or draw too much attention from a community prepared to show them the kind of attention that would let let them know their noise wasn’t appreciated. I did hear someone say once that as quiet as the house was all week, it was even more quiet on Sundays. I took that to have some kind of Jewish meaning, though I wasn’t sure what it was. I was quiet on Sunday mornings when we were at Sunday School and immediately after, while forced to sit in the pews during the full service at the Steubenville Baptist Church, but that silence was not carried on the rest of the day when there was baseball and tag and general sister-fighting to be addressed. But after it was pointed out that their house was quiet on Sundays, I, too, noticed that it seemed more abandoned than it usually felt on other days of the week.
I actually got to witness more of the stillness and solitude of their house on Sundays after we stopped going to the Steubenville Baptist Church. I didn’t think too much about why we had stopped going at the time; not going to church was not necessarily a bad thing in my young opinion. I didn’t like sitting still or staying quiet, and I was never real sure what was going on in church anyway, so I took Sunday mornings at home as a chance to play more ball, expand the games of tag, and fight my sister more.
It had been my mother’s decision to stop going to the Steubenville Baptist Church around the same time I heard her tell my sister our next-door neighbors didn’t want their children playing with us. It had to do something about my parents not living together anymore. I didn’t really take time out from my backyard adventures or my neighborhood journeys to worry about who could or couldn’t play with us, so it didn’t strike me as anything that had to do with me. I was the son of a soon-to-be-divorced mother and didn’t know that was supposed to come with a set of community parameters within which I was supposed to maintain low expectations. If it kept me from having to go to the Steubenville Baptist Church for two hours on Sunday morning and for a week of Summer Vacation Bible School, I was all for it.
My mother’s decision also helped free up opportunities to go to Conley Bottom where we could spend summer Sunday mornings swimming in Lake Cumberland. We would park along the long boat ramp, and walk down to the shoreline where the Cumberland River had been dammed up to form the lake. We would claim a spot on the rocky shore to spend the day, spread out our beach towels, and frequent our Styrofoam cooler with snacks and drinks. I didn’t miss church at all.
Usually, my mother would quack at the ducks that lived at the lake. She only did it for our benefit – to hear us laugh, which was for her benefit – so when there was anyone else around, she was more reserved, and not as willing to bring attention to herself. On one of those reserved days, there was an elderly couple walking down to the afternoon beach as we were walking up from the morning beach, and my mother said hello. The ducks were surprised she wasn’t quacking at them, but not as surprised as I was that my mother knew someone I didn’t know. Her circle of acquaintances was relatively small, and I thought I knew everyone in that circle, yet there my mother was saying hello to a couple I didn’t know. Not only did she say hello, she actually stopped and had a short, kind conversation with them.
How are you?
How have you been?
It’s good to see you.
Yes, that’s Rachel, and that’s Benny.
Have a nice day.
Who was that? I asked my mother in the car.
She told me that was Mr. and Mrs. F__.
It was like meeting Boo Radley.
It wasn’t too long after that encounter that my grandmother, the county librarian, gave me a small figurine carved – maybe molded – out of hard plastic. She told me that Mr. F__ had been in the library and had asked her to give this figure to me. She told me that he had said it was a Jewish good luck charm, and he wanted me to have it. I was never sure why I was chosen to receive such a gift, but since such a gift was rare to receive, I didn’t ask questions. I accepted it as a gift from a neighbor with a Chinese rock garden in which I may never get to sit or sip iced tea. It was really a cool, unique figurine – more of a talisman, I think – and he had asked my grandmother to make sure I received it. That was special. Of course, what made it more special was that he didn’t ask my grandmother to give it to my sister. He meant for me to have it.
Mr. F__ owned the Monticello Shirt Factory. It was the largest employer in town, and so it was no small event the night the factory caught on fire. My Aunt Gussie, who was my grandmother’s sister, so really my great aunt, walked us over to watch as the fire department respond to the flames. As much water as they sprayed on that factory, it was still a futile effort. They couldn’t save any part of the business – not the sewing machines, the cloth, the spools of thread, the shipping boxes, the fixtures. Nothing was saved. It was a total loss, and that night Mr. F__ had a heart attack and died.
I thought about, or maybe I overheard someone talking about Mr. F__ being so connected to the Monticello Shirt Factory that when it was destroyed the stress of it destroyed him. As young as I was, I was still old enough to recognize a life being shaken by life-events. It was my first glimpse of a tragedy that made me stop and think about how events can impact people and families. Someone else’s decision to leave had helped me not be required to attend church, but this was different. This event was devastating; so much so, a man had a heart attack…and had died.
It wasn’t lost on me that I had a Jewish good luck charm given to me by a man who shortly after lost his livelihood and his life. I have always been baseball-superstitious enough to think about what might have happened differently if he had kept the good luck charm instead of giving it to me. Maybe, if he had kept the charm, the factory would not have burned down. That idea has only increased the emotional connection to the Jewish good luck charm and has made it more valuable than any other possession. He gave me his luck.
There was a fire, and then Mr. F__ died. There’s no way around the causal relationship between those two tragic events. The night the shirt factory burned down Mr. F__ had a heart attack and died. But causal relationships pass, and in a few days, life calmed back down, and people seemed to shrug at the ashes of the shirt factory as they went back to their conversations without much sympathy or empathy for Mr. or Mrs. F__. Routines fell back into ways of thinking, while thinking about and discussing less discussing less tragic events. Then, not long after that, her son came and moved Mrs. F__ out of Monticello, and their house was put on the market.
My math teacher and her husband bought it. One of the first things they did was remove the decorative fence to reveal some gravel and larger, boulder-sized rocks. They removed those as well, and let the yard reclaim the area with grass.
Anti-Semitism was a natural part of that community, so I have heard the jokes, know the stereotypes, and have seen the result of conditioned prejudices. But I was given a Jewish good luck charm by a man who met me once and who thought I may have needed some luck. I held it, and still hold it, dear.
As the son of a single mother – a divorcee – I was supposed to be trapped (mentally and physically; figuratively and literally) by the prevalent beliefs and low expectations of a perpetuated, self-limited culture. But experience, and maybe a small token of friendship, made me luckier than that. Whether it was luck or not, I was given the chance to break out from the patterns awaiting me. Being excluded that community allowed me to see other communities, and to be seen by other people who weren’t as welcomed in that community. And I have always been glad to understand and embrace the factors that separated me from where I might have otherwise belonged…even if I have never sipped iced tea in a Chinese rock garden.
When Ben White was serving his 22-year military career, and again when he was earning his MFA from the University of Tampa, he thought he was a poet. But he has since found out he is not a poet at all. Ben is a witness. What he writes is testimony.
Poet/Photographer Jennifer Matthews’ poetry has been published in Nepal by Pen Himalaya and locally by the Wilderness Retreat Writers Organization, Midway Journal, The Somerville Times, Ibbetson Street Press and Boston Girl Guide. Jennifer was nominated for a poetry award by the Cambridge Arts Council for her book of Poetry Fairy Tales and Misdemeanors. Her songs have been released nationally and internationally and her photography has been used as covers for a number of Ibbetson Street Press poetry books and has been exhibited at The Middle East Restaurant, 1369 Coffeehouses, Sound Bites Restaurant in Somerville and McLean Hospital.