The Smell of Safety
I will never forget when my mother took my baby doll away from me.
“It’s for your own safety,” she said steely-eyed.
Both of us looked at the doll’s soft African features — round flat nose and wide lips. The plastic skin faded from shared baths but still brown not white. The hair stuck out in clumps from my attempts to wash it. The doll had been my constant companion on a long sea trip through South America.
While my father, the ship’s captain, was dealing with Customs agents in Trinidad, my mother had bought the baby doll.
“You have a friend now. Look after her. Don’t drop her,” she said.
“She’s my best friend. You can’t play with her.”
Smitten with the doll, I stepped into the road. My mother had to pull me out of the path of an oncoming bus.
My dolly lived cradled in my arms most of my sixth year. I held her as I stepped along gangplanks, over ship hatches, and into lifeboats. I learned how to put on a bright orange life preserver without losing hold of her. I called her Sherry at the suggestion of my favorite cousin, Charmaine.
“You’re going to carry that doll everywhere,” my mother said.
“Uh huh. Sherry’s my baby.”
At night, my six-year old body wrapped tightly around the doll. Sherry’s plastic shape imprinted onto the mattress of my cabin’s bunk bed. During the day, I crammed her smooth brown plastic skin up against mine. Drawing courage from her, I explored the container ship. All the while avoiding the white officers and black crew members.
Each morning at the captain’s table, I ate crisp bacon, feeding the crumbs to my baby doll. My father and his Northern European officers were served limp greasy strips by the African, Jamaican, and Haitian crew. As an adult, I wondered if this was a deliberate statement from the black crew to the white officers — brilliant political payback for the racial inequality. But as a child, having grown up colorblind in my mother’s biracial family, I was clueless. My cousins had the blue-black skin, hook noses, and hazel eyes of their blended Nigerian and Ashkenazi Jewish genes. To me, my cousins were beautiful — reminiscent of the pictures of Nefertiti but with a suntan. One day, I said to Charmaine, “You must sunbathe a lot. You have a great tan.” The adults laughed. My mother covered her face with her hands.
On the boat, my favorite crew member was the cook. I only knew him as Cook. After the formal dinner hour, I would run from the captain’s table to sit on a stool in the galley. Cook would talk and laugh with me in his gentle Jamaican voice. He tucked exotic flowers, snatched from the officers’ table, behind my ear. “What a beautiful young lady you are,” he would say as he tucked a smaller bloom in the hair of my dolly. His sweet tone, his playfulness, his attention to me, soothed me. Maybe he sensed the loneliness settling around my body. He was a good and decent person.
I have one Polaroid of him. Wearing pressed pants and a white tee shirt, Cook is lanky and tall next to two tiny White girls. His big hands are delicately wrapped around my sister and me. His wide smile is genuine, gap-toothed with startling white teeth against the shiny brown skin. My four year-old-sister is looking lost and waifish in her washed-out dress. I am smiling back at him holding my dolly. Cook was the tender voice in a ship of towering, uninterested men and bickering parents.
One sultry day, my father’s ship docked in Alabama. Handing over our possessions to a crew member, my mother tried to peel me away from Cook.
“We have to go now. Say goodbye to your friend,” she said.
“I don’t want to go,” I said clutching tighter to Cook and my dolly.
“Say goodbye,” she said with her usual gruff tone.
I stomped my feet, screamed bloody murder, and tried to hit my mother in the chest. It was my first act of defiance. The first time I fought for love. Cook picked me up to rock me in his arms. Mother watched with her hands on her hips.
“Stop being a little girl,’ she said.
“Can Cook come with us?”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Why can’t he?”
“Well he works on the ship for your father,” she said looking around at the watchful crew.
“I hate you. I hate Dad. I love Cook.”
For a moment, Cook held me tight. I breathed in the smells of his skin, food from the ship’s galley, and the tropical flowers of South America. Mother tapped her foot.
“You’re my best friend next to dolly. I’ll never forget you,” I said.
“Go with your mother now. You’ll learn all kind of things. Eat all your dinner,” Cook said uncurling my fingers from his neck with care. He placed my little hand on his face for a second. With the touch of his satin skin and the scent of his neck, I relaxed enough to let him put me down.
“Will you send me bacon and apple dumplings?”
Cook smiled and nodded.
My mother pulled me down the gangplank. I waved at Cook through eyes and nose smeared in my grief. It was late summer in 1965. The Alabama public school system was struggling with racial integration after decades of segregation. St. Margaret’s College for Young Ladies, my Scottish boarding school, had not prepared me for the racial violence and hatred of the South.
On the first day of school, my mother dressed me in a full-skirted plaid dress with a white Peter Pan collar. She buckled the patent leather shoes over white lacy socks, handed me a book bag, and pushed my dolly under a sofa cushion. I pulled the doll out and faced my mother.
“Give me the doll,” she said.
“No. No. No,” I said clutching the doll closer to my heart.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me. You can’t have her.”
“Let me take her. You can get her after school.”
“No. I am taking my dolly to school.”
“You can’t do that here.”
“Why can’t I?”
“She’s black. You’re white.”
“So? You’re mean. Mean. Mean. Mean.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“I hate you. You made me leave Cook. You want my dolly. Go away,” I said as my fifty pound self pushed my mother onto the sofa.
My mother wrestled me to the floor and threw my dolly in the corner. I yelled myself hoarse. When I came home from school, my doll was gone. Mother said she mailed my dolly to Cook. As a bribe, she made bacon. I pushed away the limp greasy strips. I never trusted my mother again. She knew it.
I have guarded the original picture of us — Cook, my sister, and me holding my dolly. The Polaroid is swaddled in tissue paper and stowed away in a flowered hatbox. In times of need, I pull out the faded picture. My body relaxes. My breath drops down deep into my belly. My heart sinks into the evocative smells of that time. I am bathed in the comforting smells of the talcum-sprinkled plastic of my dolly, apples cooked in pastry, lush tropical flowers, bacon frying, and Cook’s skin.