During the presentations I’ve been doing about Writing Out Loud I am often asked where I come up with the prompts I use in our memoir-writing classes. My answer? “All over the place!” Here’s an example. After Sam Shepherd died a few weeks ago I listened to a 1998 interview Terry Gross did with him on Fresh Air. One question she asked the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor in that interview was, “What rules were you supposed to obey as a kid?” What a great question to ask the writers in my class!
And so, I did, and today I’m going to share some of the rules Melinda Mitchell read aloud to us in class Wednesday. You might remember Melinda — I wrote about her here back in 2014 in a post called Waking Up in a Strange Room.
Some sixty-plus years ago, the girl who was supposed to be Melinda’s roommate showed up with her mother to meet Melinda at their Kalamazoo College dorm. The girl’s mother took one look at Melinda, stormed off to school authorities and insisted her daughter “not room with a Negress.”
Melinda was moved to a room by herself in the building’s attic. She transferred to Howard University shortly afterwards. Melinda has retired now after a long career teaching in Chicago Public Schools. Her lists of rules are both nostalgic and thought-provoking — let’s start with her early childhood:
- Don’t come into mama’s kitchen wearing bedclothes.
- Don’t eat with your fingers, or put your elbows on the table.
- Don’t walk around barefoot in the kitchen.
- Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
- Don’t interrupt when adults are talking.
- Don’t waste food.
- Don’t run in the house or run down the hall.
- Don’t holler out the front window to playmates on the porch below.
- Don’t play in the street and dodge cars.
- Don’t go into other kid’s homes without permission.
The list Melinda wrote from her teen years gives readers a hint of how things were changing – and have changed:
- Don’t watch TV after 8 pm.
- Don’t leave your room messy.
- Don’t stay in the bathroom primping all day.
- Don’t stay on the phone yakking and yakking with girlfriends.
- Don’t talk back, complain, or whine.
- Don’t make noise after bedtime bumping and thumping around the place.
- Don’t sleep late.
- Don’t let your friends turn the lights out when you have your parties in the living room.
- Don’t go out, or anywhere, if you’re not properly dressed.
On that last restriction, Melinda asked, “May I offer the quaint guidelines adhered to by the women in the family during the 1950s?”
To go to the Loop on the #3 bus
- Don’t go barelegged, or without a little girdle.
- Don’t wear shorts or pants.
- Do have lunch with the girls at “The Circle,” the only welcoming department store restaurant.
- Do wear your Easter hat.
- Do wear your white gloves.
- Do wear stockings.
- Do carry a purse with a handle and a hankie.
- Do bring a coin purse and enough dollars to pay.
- Do wear a dress with a belt, sleeves and buttons up to the neck.
- Do remember your manners.
- Do enjoy yourself, young lady.
When Melinda was finished reading, fellow writer Janie piped up. “I think I know the answer to this, but what did you mean when you said ‘the only welcoming’ department store?”
Melinda shrugged and said, “We were African American.” Others in class knew exactly the restaurant and the department store she was talking about: Charles A. Stevens.
A little research revealed that Stevens was one of several, now defunct, department stores along State Street. I couldn’t find any reference to its forward thinking policies regarding Black people, but I’m glad one store had the good sense to welcome Melinda and her friends.