All of us, at one point or another, have asked our parents how they met. This story is based on what my mother told me…
July, 1958. My mother was a 22 year old student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, sitting in the back seat of her American cousins’ Buick on the way to her first summer job. Her first job ever. She had grown up in a wealthy family with cooks and maids, and had a history of medical issues, so she had never worked a day in her life. Now, she was to be the art counselor at Bellefair, a summer camp for emotionally disturbed children.
The cousins hadn’t anticipated how far Bellefair was from the city. When they pulled up to the entrance of the grounds it was already sunset and the gate was closed. There was no phone to call anyone, so all they could do was wait. After a while, the cousins got antsy. They couldn’t wait all night.
“Just go,” she reassured them. “Someone will come for me. I’ll be fine.” The husband didn’t want to leave her standing alone in the darkness, but his wife reassured him. “She’ll be fine. It’s the country,” she pointed around to the empty fields.
As they drove away, the Buick’s tires crunching on the gravel, my mother sat on one of her suitcases and looked up at the sky. It looked different than the sky in the city, which always had a haze to it. This sky was a deep almost-black navy blue highlighted with millions of stars. She lit a cigarette and studied the constellations. She was nervous about what lay ahead, but also excited. She couldn’t put her finger on why, but she had a feeling something was going to happen to her this summer.
At the same time, in the soft light of the camp’s office, the camp director was reviewing the list of expected arrivals for the day. Everyone had arrived except the art counselor. “Take the jeep and check the gate,” he told one of the male counselors, throwing him the keys. With any luck, she’d be there.
My father lit a cigarette before hopping into the jeep, and then drove through the bucolic grounds towards the gate. There in the distance stood a shadowy female figure, whispers of smoke rising from her cigarette. When he made the last turn, the jeep’s headlights shined on the woman for a few seconds before throwing her into complete darkness again. She had jet black hair in a close-cropped pixie style, full, naturally red lips (she wore no make-up), and, though he couldn’t see them yet, he would soon discover that the had large ocean-blue eyes.
As the jeep approached, she couldn’t see the driver because his brown skin blended with the darkness. All she could make out was his white uniform until he pulled up and hopped down. His skin was the color of honey. “I’m Harold,” he said, extending his hand. “Varda,” she said, shaking it. Their eyes met in the darkness, then he turned to pick up her two suitcases and a box, which, he noted, contained only records by black musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.
He drove slower back to headquarters so that the suitcases wouldn’t fall out, and so he could talk to her for a few extra moments. She was from Israel. Her name meant “rose” in Hebrew. She was an artist, 22 years old, in her second year at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He was 29 years old, born and raised in Cleveland, and had served in the Army.
“Are you a doctor now?” she asked him.
He laughed. “No, why would you think that?”
“Because you’re wearing all white,” she answered. He shook his head, still smiling. “I’m a counselor, just like you. But I live with the kids. We all wear white uniforms.”
She nodded. He was so handsome, she couldn’t think straight. His shaved head, skin tone and body type reminded her of the actor Yul Brenner. Her left thigh was only three inches from his right thigh, her torso even closer than that, and she felt heat on the left side of her body. She felt the urge to place a hand on his right arm, outstretched towards the steering wheel. Instead she gripped the jeep’s frame just above her head as they bounced along towards the office.
In the next few days, they would see each other again, first by chance on their respective ways to work, in the cafeteria, at counselor meetings. Then they began taking walks together, sitting next to each other at meal times and during meetings. The first time they kissed, they found it difficult to stop. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
He had dated more beautiful women than her before, but none as intelligent, exotic and kind. He could talk to her about history, art and traveling. She made him laugh. But what really captured him was her innocence and lack of prejudice. The more time they spent together, the more people began to stare, and then to frown. Progressive as Bellefair was, it still didn’t approve of a black male counselor consorting with a white female counselor. Varda didn’t seem to notice the growing tension around them. Or if she did notice, she didn’t care. She was oblivious to social mores. She related to him as a man, not as a black man, though he sensed that his blackness was part of the attraction.
She possessed a rebellious, independent spirit similar to his. Her history of bad health – rheumatic fever at three years old, cancer at 15, surgeries and a permanently scarred neck which she would always cover with a scarf or turtleneck, thin sleeveless ones in the summer – her being Jewish and an artist, all lead to her identifying as an outsider.
He was an outsider too – an educated, intellectual, world-traveled black man in a white world that refused to see him as anything other than “just another Negro.”
By October, they had married. It all happened so fast that they didn’t think it through, or maybe they did. They would always be outsiders.