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The Gray Victorian

Judith Davidson

A 12-year-old, White girl with a pimply forehead and blue, cat-eye glasses, I looked upward at the pigeons cooing from the second-floor porch of a tall, paintless Victorian, sharp against the soft light of an early June morning in Portland, Oregon—1966. 


I was one of four White children and a short, White woman, standing in front of the elongated door of the house. A tall, fierce-looking Black man, trailed behind us, small suitcase in hand. 


My mother, the short White woman, took an old-fashioned key from her oversized purse, inserted it in the door, then jiggled and pulled until the door creaked open, allowing the six of us to swim in through the opening like a small school of fish. 


In the deep center of the house, the Black man, whose relationship to the four of us had not yet been fully explained by my mother, sat on a low bed and opened the small suitcase. Inside was a gleaming brass trumpet. We watched him lift it out of its soft bed and delicately shake its open mouth toward the ground. 


Pigeons cooed in the background. 


“Go upstairs, find your rooms,” said my mother, as she motioned the four of us toward the angular staircase crawling up the wall of the entranceway to the second floor. 


“And don’t go out on the porch. I think it’s broken, and I don’t want pigeon poop in the house.” 


Broken didn’t sound good to me, as I led the way up the stairs. At the top we scattered down the long hallway looking for our things, piled in jumbles marking our room assignments. I found my stuff in the first room by the door to the porch where the pigeons lounged in the sun. 


Where was my black and white quilt, I worried, as I dug into boxes and bags, but it wasn’t there. I remembered yesterday when I lived in the big green house on the hill. I should have been lying in bed covered by the black and white quilt, tracing my fingers along its seams as my parents shouted beyond my closed door. 


Where is my father? Why did he leave me? Why did my mother do this? Like hard pellets shot from a BB gun, my silent questions smacked the sterile white walls and made holes in the plaster that I would never be able to patch. 


Standing against one wall of my new room was a lilac-colored sink balanced delicately on a tall pedestal of the same color. It must have been a relic from the time this had been a boarding house, a fact my mother shared as we arrived. I realized I’d never lived in a rented house before. Down the street I heard a heaving city bus leaving its stop; I’d never lived along a bus route either. 


In response to some movement of air, a cloud of pigeons suddenly arose from the old porch, circling over the gray Victorian, to gain a vantage point not available to me, even with my blue cat-eye glasses. 


Judith Davidson is a writer with deep interest in memoirs and creative nonfiction who lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she is a very proud trustee of the Pollard Memorial Library. She has just completed a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center.

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