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Our neighbors' simple gift of brotherhood

The black family lived on the dirt road off the other side of the highway from our place. Our sign read: "Grandview Modern Cabins, gas, ice cream, film, gift shop" - my Brooklyn-born father's idea of "being his own boss." With the late autumn, the tourist season over, life was settling down to Mother's idea of normal for a family. With the holidays coming, of course she would want us to spend Thanksgiving where she still considered home.

Hardly three hours away by car were the narrow cobblestone streets and the wooden trolleys, the hucksters calling out along the streets of row houses with alleys in between, and the Polish butcher shop right around the corner. That was Port Richmond on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

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"No," was my father's answer, "you know I don't want to drive there and back for one day. The wear and tear on the car, and we're going to need new tires.... Besides, I could catch a few customers for gas with people on the road."

How the Watkinses ever learned of my mother's yearning to be with her family, I don't know. Maybe it came out when we kids were over there playing ball after school in the stubbly field.

My teenaged brother, Ray, was always desperate for a fellow baseball player. He and tall, lanky Estelle Watkins would each take my sister or me to make two equal teams. Or did I blurt out, in answer to a polite question from Mrs. Watkins about our plans for the holiday, "My mother wants to go to Philly for Thanksgiving, but my father won't take us."

The invitation came only two days before Thanksgiving. Something was going on; Mrs. Watkins and my mother never talked on the phone. But the smile and resolve on my mother's face said it all as she put down the receiver: "The Watkinses have relatives in Philadelphia, too, and if we don't mind riding four in the back...."

Two days later, a cold, colorless, gray morning, they arrived at our gas pumps. Mr. Watkins, tall, lean, and quiet-spoken, got out and held the door as we got into the back seat of their maroon 1938 Buick. From the front seat Mrs. Watkins told us to cover our legs against the chill with the wool blanket back there. To help us all fit as we started out, Ray leaned forward, his folded arms on the back of the front seat, watching the road. Then there was a hush, as we knew no protocol for being the guests of black people.

Hours later, our family was stuffed and immobilized around our grandparents' dining-room table. We kids - as usual - were trapped in our chairs between the table and the credenza in the narrow room. We suddenly realized it was time to be driven back to North Philadelphia Station. Uncle Barney announced that he would go along with Uncle Ed to deliver us and check out Mr. Watkins, our benefactor.

As we pulled into the station's parking lot, there they were, waiting for us. We spotted the car, its engine running, exhaust hovering like breath in the cold night, and them expectant, watching for us to arrive.

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Estelle, tall and straight between her parents, gave not the slightest sign of wishing she had the whole back seat to herself. We girls settled against our mother for the trip back, while Ray, leaning forward, watched the road wind before us, across lonely crossroads, between frosty fields, and through the black night, safely home.

SOMEWHERE between 45 and 50 years later, I remembered this Thanksgiving Day. Yes, my brother confirmed, when I asked, it really did happen as I described it. No, it wasn't mentioned much at home after that, or by the relatives in Philly, as far as he knew.

But, I thought, even though the memory of this unique Thanksgiving lay hidden in memory for nearly half a century - not even awakened by the racial turmoil of the intervening decades - its message of simple goodness, dignity, love, and thanks-giving was now never to be forgotten.

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