Chapter 1: Aunt Lillian’s Gift
Sometimes, I wonder if there are people who really do try to be happy. Both my parents made decisions in their lives which led to so much unhappiness, but I suppose it was all unintentional. These decisions were made to cover up real feelings, secret desires and to maintain the facades the society wants to give us.
My father’s name was Harlan Johnson. He came from a very wealthy black family; I was never to know where this money came from. My father would have us believe we were part of some black aristocracy. However that wasn’t the case. Our family was matriarchal and run by two women: Lillian Lee Forrester, and Rondaline Johnson, whom everybody called Ronnie. Lillian Lee was the more powerful of the two; she’s the one who held all the purse strings. Rondaline was the one who kept everything in order.
By 1953, they had both retired from a very successful business, which seemed to be a family secret. Whatever this business was, it left both of them with an enormous amount of money and political clout.
On June 24th 1953, Lillian Lee walked into the Stockton Central Bank and asked to speak to the director. Miss Habershatt, the head teller, evaded the request with small talk. She really never could understand how this high yellow heifer had gotten so rich. Of course, she never dared to say it to Miss Lillian.
“Well, how are you today Miss Lillian?”
“Quite fine, and you, Miss Habershatt?”
“As right as rain. Now, isn’t there something that I can help you with?”
“I think I ask you to see the director.”
“Well, you have to understand Miss Lillian, he is quite a busy man.”
“But I believe if you ask him, he will find time for me.”
She gave a half-baked smile to Miss Lillian, pulled away from her cashier’s desk reluctantly and went into the director’s office. Miss Lillian was as cool as a cucumber. She watched Miss Habershatt jabbering with the director and imagined what she was saying. “I told her you’re a very busy man, she insists on seeing you.”
The director, Alan Dressler, shook his head in agreement to see Miss Lillian. As he walked out the door, Miss Lillian heard him say “It really is no problem. I’m always ready and willing to see my favorite client. Miss Lillian how can I help you today? Do you want to open another account?”
“Oh no, God knows I have enough accounts.”
“You could say that.”
“Could we discuss it in your office?”
“Of course we can. Right this way. Miss Habershatt, please hold all my calls.”
Miss Habershatt shook her head in disgust as they entered his office.
“So what can I do for you today, Miss Lillian?”
“This summer, my nephew, Harlan Johnson, will be graduating from Stockton High School.”
“Thank you! So, I would like to offer him something special; entry into the University of the Pacific.”
“Lillian!” Allen droned, “You know that I would do anything in the world that I could for you, but traditionally U. O. P. is a white college.”
“Well then, we’ll just have to break tradition.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Yes, you can Allen and you will. You owe me a lot. You do remember how you got this position at the bank, who arranged all your contacts and how?”
“Why Lillian, if I didn’t know you better I’d say you were blackmailing me.”
“Then Allen, it’s a good thing you know me better.”
“How do you expect me to get a colored kid into the University of Pacific? Even if I do recommend him, they won’t accept him. He’d have to be more like…”
“Well, like you.”
“I’ll forget that you said that, and better yet, I’ll forget that I heard it. You are an alumnus, and my nephew is extremely talented; borders on genius, and I believe he’s graduating first in his class from Stockton High. He’s won several local art contests already and one in San Francisco. With those credentials, I am sure they will let him into the university in spite of his negritude. But he will not get in if he is not recommended by an alumnus and that is going to be you. I think your son is going to the university this year is he not?”
“Yes, he is Miss Lillian.”
“And I’m sure he will be joining your old fraternity, will he not?
“Yes, he will.”
“And so will my nephew.”
“Oh, Miss Lillian, you can’t ask me that.”
“Allen, I can ask you anything, and you know that. All I want is for my nephew to have the same life as everybody else, and you’re going to help me get that.”
Miss Lillian was determined in her quest. She had a steel cold look in her eye when she spoke. He whimpered at the regard that she gave him. He knew that she would not back down.
“I’ll tell you what, Miss Lillian, I’ll arrange an event, let us say a party. Your nephew will be the guest of honor. It’ll be an occasion for us to demonstrate his artistic talents. That way the other alumnus can get to know him, and I will feel more comfortable recommending him. Is that acceptable Miss Lillian?”
She thought about it for a while. Since Alan and she had been friends for such a long time, there should have been no hesitation in the opportunity of recommending her nephew for entry into the University of Pacific, but a partial victory was better than none. Therefore she shook her head yes.
“It’s always been a pleasure doing business with you Allen. You have always understood me.”
“Let us say that we have always understood each other.”
“Yes, we have haven’t we?”
Lillian left under the hot Stockton sun. She headed back to 912 East Lafayette; she had bought a comfortable home there. It sat on two and a half acres of land which were surrounded by hedges. Her garden was filled with fruit trees of all types: plum, pear, pomegranate, apricot, figs and in the very back of her garden were grapevines of two sorts, white grapes and black. It was truly Lillian’s little paradise.
As she walked through the door, she could here Harlan playing “Guys and Dolls” on the phonograph. Harlan love musical comedy, and would often listen to music while he was studying. Of course, in the fifties, this didn’t mean much; the most popular music at the time was from musical theater.
Her house was neat and comfortable. The style of furniture was somewhat modern, although she did have some pieces that had been given to her by her grandmother. They had been meticulously renovated. These three pieces were rather baroque looking chairs and a matching loveseat. All three were upholstered in red velvet, a crimson red; over this set, hung a painting that Harlan had painted. It was of too shadowy dancers, a man and woman against the red background. It matched the furniture well, and Harlan had won first prize for the painting in a local competition, therefore Lillian was quite proud of it.
The living room was quite large, and away from the antique pieces, which nobody ever sat on, was more modern furniture. The sofa was against the wall as you entered the living room, in front of it was a coffee table and to the right was an easy chair. There was a large archway, which led to the dining room and off the dining room, of course, the kitchen. The bedrooms were off the hall. Harlan’s room was at the far end of the hall and rather secluded, while Miss Lillian’s room almost faced the archway to the entrance of the living room. It was just slightly right, so as when you sat in the living room you could barely see the door. In the hallway sitting in the center of the large archway, was Miss Lillian’s famous knickknack stand. She collected knickknacks from all over the world.
“Harlan, I’m home.”
“Aunt Lillian, we’re have you been?”
“I just had to run to the bank.”
She pulled off her gloves and unpinned her hat. “What are you doing now?”
“Just studying some French.”
“Harlan, school is out honey. Why don’t you give yourself a break? You really must learn to relax.”
“But this is how I relax.” he said laughing. “Someday I’m going to be a great artist, I’ll live in Paris; so can’t you see I have to speak French.”
“Well before you run off to Paris, we need to go downtown and buy you a new suit.”
“A new suit for what?”
“You never know when you’ll need a new suit. It’s always best to be prepared.”
“You’ve got something up your sleeve aunt Lillian.”
“You know what, you’re right.”
After that statement, Aunt Lillian calmly smiled then pranced into her bedroom, lay on her bed, opened up a book and read. Harlan peaked around the corner of her bedroom door and said,
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“That, young man, is a surprise.”
Harlan muttered softly “OK”. He knew his aunt was very good at keeping secrets; therefore he went back to his room quietly to study French and to listen to his records.
Chapter 2: The Shopping Trip
The next day, Lillian and Harlan went to Quinn’s the most fashionable store in Stockton. Before they had always bought Harlan suits at Sear’s and Roebuck’s, the quality there was good however it wasn’t Quinn’s. Harlan did love stylish clothes; he was like a child in a candy shop. For a longtime, he’d been doting on a camel colored cashmere sweater, and at that time they only sold them at Quinn’s in Stockton.
“Aunt Lillian, look!”
“Harlan, we’re not here for that.”
Lillian looked out of the corner of her eye and saw the saleslady looking at Harlan suspiciously.
“Harlan, come over here honey. We’ll look at the sweaters later. What do you think of this suit?”
“Aunt Lillian, the suit cost almost $200.”
“Yes, but I want you to try it on. Excuse me ma’am, is there a place where he can try this on?”
The saleslady hesitantly approached them. She was looking at Lillian holding the suit up in front of Harlan, and really could not figure anything out. In her mind, Lillian was white; she couldn’t understand why this old white woman would be buying a suit for this little colored boy.
“Can I help you ma’am,” the saleswoman asked with reticence.
“Yes, I’d like to know where my nephew can try on this suit.”
“Oh, he’s your nephew?”
“Yes, he is. Is there a problem?”
“Well, no ma’am, except, well, I have instructions not to let colored people try on the clothes.”
“I beg your pardon? I thought this was Stockton California, not Montgomery Alabama.”
“I am sorry ma’am. But I only work here.”
“Is Justin Quinn here? He is still the owner, isn’t he?”
“Yes ma’am. But I believe he’s in his office right now and I think he’s busy.”
“You tell him that Lillian Lee Forrester is here. I’m sure he’ll see me.”
Harlan felt extremely uncomfortable with the situation. He never did like to make any trouble. But he knew that his aunt had been riled, and once she had been riled it was best to stay out of her way. This is not the first time that Harlan had encountered this type of situation. His mother was very fair skin too, and people had often made comments when he was a child as they would walk down a street.
The saleslady hurried upstairs to the office. She went into Mr. Quinn’s office slightly upset but she knew that she was right. There were venetian blinds that covered the windows of his office. Miss Lillian looked up at the windows and saw him peeking out at her. Recognizing Miss Lillian, he came out immediately.
“Miss Lillian, what can we do for you today?”
“Well, I’ve come to buy a new suit for my nephew as there is to be a glorious occasion in our family.”
Harlan knew that there was to be a surprise, but what was she speaking of “glorious occasion.”
“You see, I know for a fact that my son, I mean my nephew is to be accepted into the University of the Pacific, and we’re having a reception in honor of that; therefore he will need a new suit of clothes appropriate for the occasion. And I thought I would buy it here but perhaps I am mistaken.”
“Well Miss Lillian, I don’t see what the problem is.”
“I was told by your saleslady that colored people were not allowed to try on the clothes here.”
“There must be some mistake; we have no such policy here.”
“But sir you said …”
“I said that we serve people of quality. And Miss Lillian and her nephew are certainly among those people.”
Miss Lillian didn’t really know who was telling the truth, but she had a very strong suspicion that it was the saleslady. If they had been any other black family, they probably wouldn’t have been served. That’s the reason why Miss Lillian abruptly stopped all arguments.
“Do you know what Justin? I have decided that I’m not up to shopping today, I will come back when all of us are in a better humor.”
“Please don’t go Miss Lillian! I’m sure you’ll find everything you need here.”
“I promise you Justin that I will come back on another day.”
Miss Lillian left the store frustrated, angered and humiliated. Harlan tried to calm her down.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “It’s not the first time that things like that have happened. And I don’t think it’ll be the last.”
“You know what Harlan? We’re taking a train to San Francisco.”
“I’m going to buy you a suit at I. Magnin’s.”
“I Magnin’s, that’s the most expensive store in San Francisco, Aunt Lillian!”
“Yes, it is. And I’ve decided that’s where we’re going to buy your suit. Come on let’s go to the train station.
Lillian always loved to take trips to San Francisco. There was a certain excitement about riding the train and then taking the cable car or a taxi to Union Square. There you could sit in cafes, go to the theater or the cinema. San Francisco was far from any type of provincial life style or antiquated thinking and that’s what Lillian loved. In San Francisco, even in 1953, most people didn’t care what you did or whom you did it with. San Franciscans always seemed to know how to mind their own business. Lillian also loved Chinese food, and of course San Francisco is the ideal place to get that. So she took Harlan to her favorite restaurant and that was the Golden Dragon. At that time, it was the most stylish of Chinese restaurants, even though it may have been a little kitsch. Lillian loved their fried prawns with hot mustard and spicy ketchup: chicken chow-mein and chop-suey with fried noodles. Harlan had only been to San Francisco once or twice before and that was when he was a small child, and had vague memories of a wonderful place that seemed like a fairyland. It was about 3:00 and Lillian realized that they had better hurry since the shops closed at about 6:00 in those days.
They stepped through the door of I. Magnin’s and landed in with a small crowd of people who were shopping there. Harlan, once again, was attracted to the cashmere sweaters; his aunt commented that he couldn’t keep away from those things. Harlan remarked on how beautiful they were, far more beautiful than the ones that were in Stockton, at Quinn’s.
“Harlan, if you don’t come away from those cashmere sweaters… Today, we are shopping for a suit.”
“Yes, Aunt Lillian.”
“Now, what do you think of this one?”
She held up a black suit with fine dark blue pinstripes. Harlan’s eyes lit up when he saw it. Then she saw a rusty brown suit, and she held it up.
“Now the first one goes very well with your hair and your eyes but this one suits your skin color better.”
Harlan’s feelings seemed hurt when his aunt made that comment. Lillian immediately picked up on that.
“Harlan Johnson, what is the matter with you?”
“Yes, something is; I can see it, and I know what it is. It is because I said this brown suit would go better with your skin color, isn’t it? Well young man, I was just stating an aesthetic fact, and there’s nothing wrong with a suit going with your skin color. Now, let’s go try them on.”
“Do you think they will let me try them on here?”
“Don’t be foolish, of course they will.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Cause we’re not in Stockton, California anymore, nor in Montgomery, Alabama. Harlan, let me explain something to you. When people are really not important, then they give importance to little things, little things, such as skin color, or who your parents are or where you came from and even what school you’ve gone to. But when people are truly magnanimous, authentically humane and human, when they are great people, then they give no importance to these little things. Do you understand that?”
Harlan shook his head yes, but Lillian sensed that his feelings still were hurt, and of course this is what happens in 16-year-olds. Therefore she smiled at Harlan and said “Come on, let’s go try them on.”
They approached the saleslady, who didn’t seem to see anything other than customers.
“How can I help you today?”
“My nephew is going to try these suits on.”
“The changing rooms are right over there ma’am. Would you like me to find some shirts that match the suit and maybe some ties?”
“That would be nice if you would. Thank you, very much.”
First, Harlan tried on the black suit, and the saleswoman brought him a very pale blue shirt with a dark blue tie. The saleswoman said herself that it looked very elegant on him, and of course, Aunt Lillian agreed. Then she stated that she would still like to see the brown one. Both the saleswoman and she stated that it looked a little more casual and with the pinch back it gave him a sort of Hollywood look. After all the jabbering about how both suits looked on him, Aunt Lillian turned to him and said “which one do you prefer Harlan.”
Harlan’s face was full of doubt; he didn’t know which one to pick.
“Why Harlan,” Aunt Lillian said “sometimes you’re as fickle as a woman! What am I to do with you?” Then she turned to the saleslady and said, “We’ll take both.”
Harlan’s eyes popped open then he cried “both? Aunt Lillian, that’s over a thousand dollars!”
“And it will be money well spent; you need a suit for the reception. And you’ll need a suit for other occasions while you’re attending the University of Pacific.”
“That wasn’t a joke that you told a saleslady in Stockton?”
“Why Harlan Johnson, I’d think you would know me better by now. I never joke about such serious matters. You are going to the University of the Pacific.”
“But Aunt Lillian, that’s an all-white college. There is no way that they’ll let me in.”
“Who ever said that the University of Pacific was an all-white college?”
“No one has ever said it. It’s just that way.”
“If it hasn’t been said, then it’s not that way.”
The saleswoman smiled at the conversation and then said “Shall I wrap these up then?”
Lillian replied with determination, “You most certainly shall.”
On the train ride back Harlan sat opposite his aunt. They caught a late train, the 9:20 back to Stockton. Harlan laid his head against the window and tried to sleep but he couldn’t. He kept thinking of how brave his aunt was. She didn’t seem to be afraid of anybody black or white, and this is the way she had always been. Harlan wondered how she had gotten that way. He knew that she had been married before but knew nothing about her husband. She never spoke of him. She didn’t seem to want to. She must have been badly hurt when they separated or when he died. No one in the family would ever speak of Mr. Forrester. For a long time, Harlan assumed that he had died. But after a while, he realized that wasn’t the case. Maybe having been a woman alone for so long is what gave Lillian Forrester her courage.
They didn’t get home until almost midnight. They caught a taxi from the Stockton train station back to Lafayette Street. After such a long day, both of them walked slowly to the front door with all the packages in hand. It was a soft summer evening, not really hot but too warm to be comfortable. Lillian took off her hat as she walked through the door. She clutched it in her hand with a small bag she had from I. Magnin’s. Harlan followed behind her.
“Just leave the packages on the couch. I’ll unwrap everything tomorrow.”
“All right Aunt Lillian.” Harlan said with fatigue in his voice. “Aunt Lillian, thank you for everything.”
“You don’t have to thank me Harlan, it was my pleasure.”