The Cold of Winter

Doreen Oliver

The Kenyon Review · "The Cold of Winter" by Doreen Oliver

I was standing near the coat section of Costco when a fellow Black woman—a woman I barely knew—revealed to me she was on antidepressants. I’d just wound my way through that central bazaar filled with jeans, toys, books, basketballs, and twenty kinds of socks and found her pushing her mule-sized cart between the rack of outerwear and the video section. Her face was familiar, and we smiled at each other with “Hello!” and “Don’t I know you . . . ?” just before her phone rang. I browsed stacks of DVDs while listening in on her conversation.

“I have told the bus company about Sam’s driving before, but they are not being responsive. We all have to call the Department of Special Services to do something before he gets all those children killed. . . .”

She was firm but gracious in her advocacy on behalf of her child, and it made me wonder whether my style was similar in times of crisis. I definitely wasn’t very diplomatic when I e-mailed the bus company when my older son, Xavier, an eleven-year-old with autism who cannot speak up for himself, was attacked on the school bus the year before. He was just ten minutes away from home when another child began clawing him from behind. I met him off the bus, and he crum­pled into my arms, moaning. His smooth cheek that I loved rubbing against my own was now torn and bloodied, the drawings from the other child’s fingernails embedded into his forehead and neck. There was an abrasion in his eyeball that burned as red as Mars. His seat belt had tethered him closer to his assailant, and Xavier, a child who has trouble understanding cause and effect, couldn’t process in that fearful moment how to get out of harm’s way. From the extent of his injuries, it seemed to have taken the bus aide too long to figure it out, too. I didn’t blame the other child, who also suffered from issues beyond their control. Instead, my outrage to the bus company and school district was formal and menacing.

When the woman wrapped up her call, I shared my bus story, which compelled her to tell me that her daughter also attended a private, special needs school because of her burgeoning schizophrenia. She said it as if she were informing me she got that five-hundred-count bottle of vitamin C in the pharmacy section, right over there. “It’s hard,” she said, a single mother. “She couldn’t finish fifth grade at Kennedy because she had a psychotic break in the classroom.”

Her openness startled me into releasing things that had been hibernating inside me. “Is your daughter on medication?” I asked. We were starting to consider it for Xavier. He was sweet and huggable, but at 5’5” and 165 pounds, it was getting harder to contain him when he decided to dart off screeching in Penn Station, which, since 9/11, was filled with armed guards on high alert. I was afraid of giving someone a reason to shoot my child, as if reasons were needed these days to kill unarmed Black boys.

“Oh, yes,” she said, of her twelve-year-old. “Since elementary school. It’s rough—she’ll scream constantly, talk to strangers about sex. She stuffs her used maxi pads in her sister’s drawers. It’s too much,” she sighed. “Shoot, I’m on something too. I can’t even imagine life without Prozac.”

Taking medication because life was messed up was something I was raised to believe only white people did. Also in the “Things Only White People Do” box was drunk dancing, yelling indignantly at police officers, kissing pets on the mouth, and that all-time white-woman favorite, crying at work. Whether you were a gas station attendant struggling to put food on the table or an executive at Morgan Stanley, every Black person in America was stressed. But keeping our hands out of that box was a source of pride. I mean, every now and again, for better or worse, we reveled in the status of doing things that once were deemed “white”: eating sushi, skiing, flaunting a white lover, becoming president of the United States, or escaping unscathed from a traffic stop. But doing anything that appeared weak? Never. In order to survive everyday indignities, we forced ourselves to believe that we were stronger than white folk—our ancestors proved it. Shame on you if you took a pill to cope. You think you have it harder than Harriet Tubman?

On top of that, I’d always had the admittedly ridiculous notion that someone on mood medication looks tense and disheveled, so overwhelmed with life that her winter hat is always askew upon unkempt hair, and she is forever in a desperate search for something in her purse that she’ll never find. Actually, this is how my mother describes me, with fresh exasperation, on any occasion I stop by her house.

But this woman looked together without looking put together. She appeared to be in her early fifties and had short, natural hair dyed an energetic red. Her long, down coat adorned her thick, matronly frame, and she had eyes wide and wise enough to really see you.

She seemed fearless, secure in her insecurities, calm in the face of so many uncertainties. Prozac, depression—these words of the so-called weak rolled out of her mouth like a red carpet, inviting me to walk with her upon it, in the center aisle, if not center stage, under Costco’s wash of fluorescent lights.

My heart began to beat.

• •

I had gone to Costco for the usual things, but also because it was January, and I was still without a proper coat. The cold in New Jersey was downright mean, and I had spent most of the season under my covers, trying to keep out the chill. This included staying away from New York City, where my closest friends lived, a thirty-five-minute train ride away. We were Black women bonded from nearly thirty years of friendship, and collectively they could tell you the story of my life. But they were less versed in this chapter. They had remained in the city, child-free, where they worked at global investment banks or developed television shows while I, a film producer until Xavier was born, had taken the Motherhood Express out of Brooklyn, two rivers and countless career opportunities away.

That winter I was desperate for connection, particularly with fellow black women in my northern New Jersey town. Over the last several years, I had been the lone African American surrounded by a cocoon of white women who, like me, weren’t rich, but were able to make ends meet while staying at home and volunteering at my younger son’s school, Kennedy Elementary.

My husband dubbed us all the Playground Ladies. Our bond was formed over four years by the simple ritual of letting our kids run around in the school playground after pickup. Our boys were now in third grade, and we remained the self-determined keepers of the yard. We watched closely as students burst through the doors after the final bell, discarded their backpacks, ran up jungle gyms, and cartwheeled on balance beams. We wiped tears from five-year-old faces, raced to young ones who hit their heads on the gray asphalt, broke up fights, and monitored the language of unchaperoned fifth graders. The Playground Ladies in our town were different from ones you might find in haughtier suburbs like Millburn or Livingston. We lived in cheap sneakers and Kirkland-branded sweats, and headed directly to Trader Joe’s in our Subarus or CRVs after drop-off. Our coffee was from the local bakery, not Starbucks. We were skinny and pale or flabby and fatigued; we made our husbands’ dollars go far for our children, but not for ourselves. We were former attorneys, Wall Street traders, graphic designers. Former individuals.

Despite the cold, our children still played. Now, allowing your child to play outside in thirty-five-degree weather—or below, as was often the case—was another Thing Only White People Do, and I had been admonished many times by my mother for this violation.

“Do-reen! Now you know better than that. Y’all both are gonna catch cold!” she said, knowing those afternoons I hopped from one foot to another, trying to keep warm while I waited for my eight-year-old to play a few rounds of Four Square. Bug (my shortcut for “Love Bug”) was brilliant and loving, but once he started elementary school, I discovered how socially unaware he was, having been raised in a house with an older brother who couldn’t play T-ball with him—a brother who thought it was perfectly normal to show he loved you by hugging your head to his and landing a wet, open mouth on your cheek—a home where the only people he could talk to were adults. Bug needed to learn how to argue about whether the ball was out of bounds or not, stand his ground when someone cut in line, and teach the younger kids how to play.

I didn’t bother to explain all this to my mother. All she worried about was that I was letting her grandson hang outside in temperatures near freezing—temperatures as cold as a refrigerator. What kind of mother allows her child to play inside a refrigerator?

“You’re crazy,” she added, as she often did for one reason or another.

I had gone to Costco that day because I needed a heavier coat to brace myself for the winter playground grind, but that was all. I had stopped going to the gym and board meetings of a theater company with which I had long been involved. I abandoned leadership of the parents association I founded at Xavier’s school. I declined dinner and drink invitations, friends’ book parties in the Village, and bar openings in Brooklyn, things I had once rushed into the city to attend. My winter was filled with kids and carbs, and I devoured the latter to escape the mundaneness of the former, then tucked myself in shortly after their 7:30 p.m. bedtime, ignoring calls from my friends on the other side of the Hudson. I had gained twenty pounds with this daily routine and felt as bound to my bed as Xavier had been to his bus seat, and I couldn’t figure out how to break free.

What I did more than anything that winter was wipe Xavier’s butt. He had been toilet trained since he was four, but over the years, possibly for sensory issues, held his poop for long periods. He got so compacted that there were times only clear liquid would run out of his anus. He still had the urge to go but had simply decided he didn’t want to, and he’d fight those urges by running back and forth, screaming and giggling, regardless of whether we were home or in Willowbrook Mall. Cramps in his stomach woke him up in the middle of the night, and he’d jump on his bed and squeal for up to two hours, or whenever the cramps subsided. My husband and I—and sometimes Bug—no longer slept through the night.

To fix this problem, Xavier’s school had advised us to reward him with the exclusive use of the iPad only when he had a bowel movement. It worked beautifully—he made a deposit, he earned five minutes on the iPad. Soon enough, however, this developmentally disabled child realized he could get the iPad more often if he parceled out his feces. So instead of one daily man-sized log, he pooped about five times per day, doling it out like Cheerios to a newborn first learning to eat solids.

This meant that I had to help him wipe his bottom, five times per day. Xavier had learned to ride a bike, prepare cereal, play the piano, clean a table, and read, but he couldn’t clean his butt. To prevent him from going around smelling like crap, I sat with him in the bathroom and, hand over hand, wiped him from the rooty to the tooty.

I put the soiled toilet paper in front of his face. “Xavier, is this clean or dirty?”

“Clean,” he’d say.

“No, it’s dirty. Let’s try again.”

We’d wipe from down to up once more, bringing the brown residue closer to his face. “Clean or dirty?”

“Clean,” he’d say.

“No, Xavier, it’s dirrr-rty.” I put the paper in the toilet beneath him and wound a new sheet off the roll.

Impatient, he’d rocket off the toilet. “All done,” he’d say, his eyes almost the same height as mine.

“No, Xavier, we have to finish wiping until it’s all clee-eeeeean.” Usually, he’d sit down again, or if he refused, I’d have to wipe him standing up, my hand over his so he can feel how much pressure to use. I’d ask him if the paper were clean or dirty, correcting him when he got it wrong, cheering when he got it right. We did this at least five times each trip to the bathroom, which added up to about twenty-five times per sleep-starved day when he wasn’t in school.

A few years before, when we were first grappling with this issue, his teacher had warned us that some kids with autism didn’t learn how to use the bathroom independently until they were twelve or even older.

“What?” I shrieked in the middle of our parent-teacher conference. Then I laughed and said, “If Xavier can’t crap on his own by the time he’s twelve, I’m going to throw myself out the window.” He was now eleven, and I had lingered in front of our attic window and loitered crossing an intersection more than once.

I didn’t share my toileting woes with the Playground Ladies. Our friendship mostly remained on the playground. They were cool and helpful, offering to keep an eye on Bug in the schoolyard if I had a teacher conference or ran late to pick up. We had visited each other’s houses or slurped down sloshy margaritas at El Toro Loco. I’d become close with a few, but I wasn’t interested in getting to know too many of them well. I was afraid they’d turn into Lilianna David, a high school friend who, once it was revealed that I was the only person in our senior class to get into Harvard, told everyone that it was just because I was Black. The ache of that experience lingered in my body, and I anesthetized myself against future pain by keeping a survivable distance between me and the Lilianna Davids that surely lurked somewhere inside every liberal white woman.

But there had once been Neff. Neff’s full name was Nefertiti and yes, she was named for the African queen. She had clear skin and thick, healthy natural hair I envied. Her gaggle of young children inherited their mom’s tresses, sometimes worn down in twists or up and out in a carefree “fight-the-power” pose that looked adorable on little boys and girls. Everyone around town would always remark about how gorgeous she and her young ones were when headed to our local bookstore or the frozen yogurt shop, the kids following her like ducklings. “She keeps them so neat,” people would say, usually white people. “And they’re so articulate.”

Neff was also a Black, stay-at-home mother, thus solidifying our bond that had started forming long before she moved to town. She was dedicated to her job: volunteering in her kids’ classrooms, discovering Afrocentric enrichment programs, enrolling them in activities that spoke to each child’s unique personality. She was so entrenched in her role as a mother that even I forgot that she once worked full time.

I didn’t always talk with her about the challenges of raising Xavier, but I unloaded the weight of my life on her more than anyone else in the area. I’d go over her house, often unannounced, and we’d chat about whatever came to mind. Once, she told me about the time the Black police officer came to her three-story home to investigate something in the neighborhood.

“He rang the bell and Marta happened to answer the door,” she said, referring to her Polish cleaning lady. I leaned in the door frame of her bathroom, watching as she applied a dab of coconut oil to two tiny sections of her hair and twisted them together. “I came downstairs and asked him what could I do for him. You know what happened?”

“What?” I said.

She turned from the mirror and looked me straight in the eye. “He glanced at me, then looked back at Marta and started talking to her as if she were the owner of the house!”

“Oh, no he didn’t!” I said, my body jerking back in shock, a double exclamation point at the end of her story.

“Yes, he did.”

“Mm, mm, mm,” I said, shaking my head to the beat of my disbelief. “Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.”

“I know that’s right,” she said, parting her scalp and moving on to the next twist.

Neff and Harry’s house, a short walk from ours, was always alive with cookouts, Fannie Lou Hamer parties, and Easter egg hunts. It was a focal point of our family’s social life, especially in the summertime when activity swelled. This was great for Bug because he could finally play with a group of fellow, brown-skinned children. Xavier felt at home there, too, often going upstairs to play the keyboard. On warm weather days, he’d lie on the grassy hill that sloped down from their wraparound porch and watch the leaves on the trees blow in the breeze. It was respite for all of us—we could relax, knowing that he had found his nooks of comfort in their home and wouldn’t try to escape or chew on computer cords when he was idle.

Lying in bed at night, reflecting over a day at their house, I’d whisper to my husband, “Thank God for Neff and Harry.”

“Yes,” he’d sigh, wrapping his arms around me. “Thank God.”

The September before that day in Costco, just as summer was cooling into fall, Neff sat me down on her porch to tell me about a spat between our children. My child had called one of hers “fat” and “stupid,” and hers didn’t like it and didn’t want him at her birthday party. I didn’t care about the party at all—our children didn’t have to be best friends—but despite our close family ties, it became clear to me Neff wanted more distance than that between our kids.

I thought the situation demanded attention but not abandonment. The children were so young, still in the ages of single digits. Plus, we were a village. Neff would understand that, considering the African art hung on her walls, and how she and her family lit a candle of the kinara for each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, from Umoja to Imani. But Neff liked that her daughter spoke up about it and wanted to keep my son at arm’s length. It seemed like the untidiness of my children was spilling into her space, and she had worked long and hard to keep her house clean.

“I mean, like, you won’t invite him over the house anymore?” I asked, trying to understand how she was gerrymandering our relationship. “Your kids won’t come over to ours?”

“I don’t know, I guess,” she fumbled, nervous. “Maybe?”

I was glad she’d told me about the incident; knowing allowed me to help fix it. I thought her daughter could address the issue with my son head on, encouraging female empowerment while giving my son an opportunity to understand the repercussions of his words. Our family was used to facing difficult things, dealing with disarray. “When it comes to raising kids, I don’t know anything but hard,” I told her, trying to figure out how to resolve this conflict she had set at my already cluttered table.

“But you see, I don’t!” Neff said, bright and emphatic, relieved our differences were brought to light. And she didn’t want to. She didn’t like confrontation, she’d once said. She wasn’t interested in fixing problems; she wanted them to disappear, like my children.

Neff was eager for us to remain friends, as we had spilled secrets and emotions to each other for quite some time. I spent weeks pulling apart my brain, trying to figure out how I could remain open to someone who now seemed so closed, ever confide in her again about my children, the most important and complicating people in my life, the ones who loved hard but left all of their belongings splayed everywhere for all to see, while hers, as far as anyone could tell, put everything back in its place.

I decided I couldn’t. I stopped talking to her, neglecting to even say hello as we passed each other on the street, in the school hallway, at a mutual friend’s home. I didn’t do it to punish her, although if I did, so be it. I simply was unable to speak. She had blasted all of the oxygen out of my body; all that remained was dead air.

I’d swept my arm across that messy table of our friendship, clearing the filthy and pristine, shiny and dingy, shattering all cups half full. I salvaged nothing.

Not long after, Xavier and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood. As we were passing by Neff and Harry’s house, he stopped, laid his bicycle against their lawn and began making his way up their front steps.

“No, Xavier,” I said, my voice sharp. I picked up his bike, the metal frame heavy, as I pulled it away from their yard. “We’ve got to keep going.”’

A month or two later, during our bedtime prayers, Bug piped up, “And thank you, Lord, for Ms. Neff’s birthday.”

My eyes flew open. “How did you know it’s Ms. Neff’s birthday?”

“I don’t know, I just remembered,” he said, yawning. “Maybe I saw it on your Facebook page. You guys are friends, right?”

I put my face to his, inhaling his soft skin, fresh from that evening’s shower. “Good night, Sweet Pea,” I breathed into his ear, then headed to my room, burying myself deep into the mattress.

• •

Each day after felt colder than the one before, darkness gnawed away the daylight, and the blankets on my bed enveloped me, shielding me against the frigidity of the season. Were it not for school drop off or pick up, youth choir or soccer practice, Mandarin lessons or speech therapy, my limbs would not have moved.

And then an e-mail made me sit upright.

Someone had invited me to a Jack and Jill event.

More and more African American women I knew were joining the local chapter of Jack and Jill, an eighty-year-old, invitation-only Black family organization which met frequently and held activities for their kids. A national social and philanthropic association, in its early years, Jack and Jill allowed upper-class mothers to give back to the community while also ensuring that their children would befriend and ultimately marry someone of the same ilk. These mothers often vacationed with their beautiful families in Martha’s Vineyard in August, sent their children to top private schools, and walked around in high-heeled pumps with first and last names. It had toned down its hoityness over the years, but it was pretty obvious that one of my children would likely never marry, the other was accustomed to doing the less aspirational Things Only White People Do, and I wore overrun sneakers with orthotic insoles. Even though I knew a number of people in that exclusive group, no one had asked my family to be a part of it.

Until now. Or at least I was invited to one event, if not into the actual organization. Actually, the invitation wasn’t directed specifically to me—it was a mass e-mail to twenty-three women. Scrolling down the list of recipients, I was invitee #22.

Ladies,
Several of you expressed interest in attending our Biannual event.
This is a fun time of dancing, conversation, and food. We would love to have you!
Early bird tickets—today is the last day. Feel free to invite friends to join.

OK, fine—the woman who sent the e-mail was just probably trying to sell her quota of tickets at the last minute. Still, it was a sign! I missed the camaraderie of local friends—women I didn’t need to explain my blackness to, women who could surround my children with a culture of love and acceptance—and I decided to muster up the energy to seek out new ones. While some of the people I adored were Links or Deltas or in Jack and Jill (or, like my girl Wendy from Shreveport, Louisiana, all of those things), I’d never felt compelled to join a group for sisterhood or based on some select, mysterious criteria—at least, mysterious to me. Making friends had always been easy. Now, nothing was.

This would be good for my kids. This would be good for all of us.

That November, I convinced my husband to join me at that gala. He donned a tuxedo, and I squeezed into two layers of supportive undergarments in order to slide into a boobalicious black dress. In the middle of that country club, we bounced so hard to Jay-Z’s 1998 “Hard Knock Life” we remembered who we were back then: me, a rising advertising executive who’d just gotten her first apartment in Brooklyn; my husband, a sales rep whose weekend gig was getting the shy and elderly up and grooving at weddings. That year, we kissed for the first time on a cramped dance floor at a party in Manhattan, our life together just beginning. Now, on the shellacked floors of this middle-aged affair, the past was present again. We disappeared into the beats and each other, song after song after song after song, resurfacing only when the DJ segued into a swooning Luther ballad that demanded folks sway, not sweat. Only then we realized everyone had been staring at us, smiling.

But when it was time to eat dinner, my husband and I had nowhere to sit. We had bought the cheapest tier of gala tickets, which didn’t come with reserved seating. On paper, I had the pedigree of W.E.B. DuBois’s Talented Tenth, but in my real life, I wandered through crowds, plate in hand, searching for a place to sit, relax, and taste a life I one day hoped to enjoy.

• •

Costco always had everything one needed, whether you were rich or poor, in sickness or in health, until death did you part. I always came with a list of things to buy—pillows, oranges, granola, a seventy-two-count pack of AA batteries, and, my cold weather favorite, madeleines, which I would dip, lovingly, one by one, into hot Chai Rooibos tea before realizing I’d almost finished the family-sized pack. I longed to wander through this house of abundance, this place where all of my needs were met, where kind strangers in uniforms invited me to sample their warmed pastas or sweet chocolates. I loved strolling through at my own pace, admiring the various cheeses while inhaling the scent of freshly baked breads. Most days, though, I had to quickly grab the essentials before rushing back to Bug’s school in time for pick up.

I didn’t find a coat that January day. The biggest size they carried was a large, and when I tried to zip it up, it pinched my expanded torso. But after the woman and I traded contact information, I didn’t worry that I hadn’t crossed off everything on my shopping list. I headed back out into the brutal cold, one hand maneuvering the cart, the other in my jacket pocket, my fingers rubbing against the slip of paper she gave me like kindling.

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