Nana and Henry

Don’t you love those nostalgic memories that seem to pop up at the oddest times?

When I was in the first grade at Adams Elementary School on Franklin Avenue at Bloomington Avenue, four long city blocks from where we lived above our little store at 1119 East. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN., I had to walk to school every day.

Now don’t start ragging on me about it being only four blocks from home. It was in Minnesota where winter starts right after Labor day and ends just before Mother’s day (sometimes), and I was only five years old. Between the street cars, the diesel buses, the other cars, and trucks spewing gasses and dust filling my lungs with all kinds of stuff I didn’t need, it was a challenge just walking down the sidewalk. Winter wasn’t so bad because the snowplows piled the snow up on the sidewalk so tall I couldn’t see over them. If the store owners got out early and shoveled, then it was relatively smooth sliding along on the ice because the wall of snow sent the smog above us. The sad part was that we always had black and brown snow because of all the crap in the air.

So, I would walk to school on the South side of Franklin Avenue and return home on the North side so where the Old Dutch Potato Chip company had a plant. Oh my god, if you haven’t smelled fresh potato chips on a cold winter’s day, you haven’t lived. We, my buddy Henry who walked to and from school with me, would stand in front of the big window and watch the chips being bagged by the machine. I think the imprint of our lips and drool are still on that window if it’s there.

Even today, 68 years later, when I smell fresh potato chips I think of Henry, one of the best friends I ever had, but he was a Negro. That seemed to be important to people sometimes cause when we would be walking home from school, they would make nasty comments about a white boy and a nigger walking together.

I once asked my Nana why people, especially my mom didn’t like Henry and she said it was only because he “is a knee-grow” and “those people were wrong because they don’t use the brains God gave them. Your friend is no different than anyone else, in fact, he’s better than most cause he let you be his friend.”

But Nana,  his mom is white, and his dad is black!

“So, what does that prove? Do they take good care of your friend? Do they love him? Are they nice people?”

I think so, yes.

“Then, their skin color makes no difference, does it?

But Nana, how can he be black like that when his momma is white, and his dad is black – shouldn’t he be like a zebra?

I think Nana, and maybe Henry too is still laughing about that one.

I never did see his knee grow, but that’s ok, because he was then, and remains in my heart as Henry, my bestest friend ever.

Nana said I was a gifted little boy because I saw people “through the eyes of a blind man” and heard their words “with deaf ear.”

“When you look at Henry, you don’t see his skin, you know his heart.”

Nana, though you are gone, yet remain. Your words still echo in my mind.

I miss you both.

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