Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART I: CHILD'S VIEW
BERNICE M. FISHER
BECAUSE OF A DOLL
was the only girl in the third grade who had to wear glasses, and I
hated being called “four eyes.” My mother said not to worry about
being different, because we were in a Depression, and many kids were
worse off than I was. In
1936, the word “Depression” referred to the mental state it
precipitated as well as to the economy. It meant the footsore, weary
men in threadbare clothes who trudged up and down University Avenue,
where we lived, looking for jobs. When no one would hire them, and they
couldn’t walk any further, they sat on our back porch and ate the bread
and onion soup my mother served them.
me, the rhythms of life went on—school during the week, my father going
to work and coming home, chicken with dumplings for dinner on Sunday
and “Fireside Chats” by President Roosevelt on the radio at 1:30 on
Sunday afternoon. The President told us everything would be fine; he
would fix it all, he said, and we believed him.
mother said that the Depression was the reason Mr. Cohen didn’t have a
job, and why, one early June day, he had to paint the trim on our
Cohen’s eyes were two brown pools framed by steel-rimmed glasses. I
wondered if people called him “four eyes,” but I didn’t think it would
be polite to ask. He
had curly black hair, and he hummed while he worked. I stood a few feet
back from his ladder, close enough to smell the pungent odor of
turpentine and watch the milky white paint ooze out of his brush onto
the trim, but far enough back to avoid paint splatters. He climbed down
to move his ladder and smiled at me.
“What’s your name, little one?”
“Marie,” I stammered, confused by his sudden attention.
“And how old are you?”
“You have nice long curls.”
“Thank you. Mom wraps them in rags every night.”
"What’s that you’re holding?”
“My top. It’s broken.”
me see.” He wiped the paint off his hands with a rag he had looped
through his belt and reached for the top. “Hm-m. So it is. Well,
let’s see what we can do.” He pulled a screwdriver out of his pocket,
gave a screw a few turns, and handed the top back to me. “Try it now.”
I put the top on the porch floor and pushed the handle down. The top worked perfectly. I thanked him and began to walk away.
hope you’ll come to visit my Millie. She doesn’t have any friends
yet.” He brushed a fly off his forehead with the back of his hand and
frowned. “We haven’t lived in this neighborhood long enough, maybe.
friend Barb came running across the yard. She was wearing a sun visor
over her curly brown hair, and her blue dress had a white kitten on the
pocket. Barb glanced at Mr. Cohen and made a face—probably, I thought,
because she didn’t like the odor of turpentine.
“Let’s go to my house,” she said. “I want to tell you a secret.”
her back yard touched mine, Barb lived in a different world than mine.
In her house, everything was new. I liked running my finger across the
satin-smooth mohair on the sofa and the overstuffed chair. Not like my
house, with the massive furniture my parents had inherited from my
grandparents—chairs with designs carved on their backs and cushions
covered with floral tapestries.
was a good person to have as a friend, since she had been miraculously
endowed with four dolls by doting grandparents. The doll she was
willing to share, Touslehead, had curly hair that I could comb and tie
was a warm day. We took our places on the front porch and had set a
small table for a tea party. When I glanced across the street, I saw
Millie Cohen playing on her front porch, and I remembered Mr. Cohen’s
ask the new girl over,” I said. “Her name’s Millie.” We went out the
front door, and I started across the street. When I turned around to
see if Barb was following, I saw her standing on the curb.
"I can't play with Millie,” she said. “Don’t go there. My mother will get mad."
knew that other people’s parents often made arbitrary rules that I had
to follow, or so my mother said. When you go to someone’s house, they
make the rules. I was about to turn back when I noticed that Millie was
wearing glasses. I had found a kindred soul. Barbara picked up her
dolls and went back in the house. I decided to take my chances with
Millie had curly black hair, dimples, and dark brown eyes. She was sitting at a table covered with sheets of paper and crayons.
“Your dad is painting our trim,” I said. “And he fixed my top.”
“My dad can fix anything,” She put a crayon back in its box. “Want to see my picture?”
to now, drawing was, for me, a solitary occupation, indulged in when I
had no friends around, so I was excited to find someone else who liked
to draw. She held up a picture of a red house with some trees growing
behind it and a picket fence across the front.
my house,” she said. I understood that, in the lexicon of childhood,
it was a picture of the house she hoped to live in at some future time,
not the old white house with the cupola and gingerbread trim she was
living in now.
have two sheets of paper left. You can take one and draw a picture, if
you want to.” She pointed to a battered green chair beside her and
handed me a sheet of paper.
When I knocked on Barb’s door the next day, her mother answered. “Barb’s not home. She’s playing with Carol Nelson today.”
# # #
sunny days, Millie and I played hopscotch, ball, or jacks, jumped rope
or roller skated up and down the sidewalk; on rainy days, we sat on
Millie’s big front porch, shaded by a huge elm whose branches overhung
the house and sheltered a flock of chirping sparrows. We colored
pictures in our coloring books or drew on the big sheets of newsprint
my father brought home from the St. Paul Dispatch, where he worked as a
printer. Sometimes we played in the cupola, a truly magic place, but
not in the way I had imagined when I looked at it from across the
street. Its walls were decorated with Millie’s pictures—butterflies
with rainbow-colored wings and flowers of every shape and color, all
with stems and leaves—quite an accomplishment, I thought.
picture caught my attention—a man with a beard and a crown. He was
sitting on something wavy that, Millie said, was a cloud, and the lines
spreading out behind him were sunshine.
he an angel?” I asked, looking at his white gown, which reminded me of
the angels in the stained glass windows in our church.
“No,” Millie said. “He’s the Messiah.”
Saturdays, a bus stopped in front of Millie’s house to take her family
to what she called “synagogue,” but on Sunday mornings, when most
everyone on our block went to church, Millie’s family stayed home. My
mother was in the kitchen making lunch when I asked her about
“The Jewish people believe that God chose them to receive His message, and that the Messiah will come to them as a great king. When He comes, He’ll bring peace and justice to the whole world and make everything right.”
told her about Millie’s picture of the Messiah sitting on a cloud. “If
Millie’s picture of the Messiah has a cloud, that’s probably right.”
# # #
the days I played on Millie’s front porch, Barb never came outside, and
no one answered when I knocked at her door. I caught brief glimpses of
her running through Carol Nelson’s back yard or going away in her
family’s Essex on Sunday afternoons. I missed playing with Touslehead
and exploring the nooks and crannies of Barb’s attic, but most of all,
I worried about not being invited to her birthday party, so I was
relieved when my invitation finally came in the mail.
was taking off her roller skates when I walked over to show her the
invitation with the clown holding four colored balloons, but she looked
“You’ll probably get yours soon,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
followed her up the steps to the front porch. At that moment, Helen
Spiess, the neighborhood bully, came walking down the street. Helen
had long, greasy hair and a wrinkled cotton dress that hung unevenly to
her knees. If she saw me walking home from school, she would yell “four
eyes,” so I avoided her whenever I could. Millie remembered, too late,
that she had left her roller skates near the front sidewalk when we saw
Helen pick them up.
“These your skates, sheeney?” she asked.
we didn’t answer, she dangled one skate at arm’s length and made a
face, as if it was something disgusting. Then she wound up and pitched
the skates at us, one at a time, slamming them into the front step.
sheeney. Take your damn skates.” She stood at the end of the sidewalk
and waited, her hands on her hips. When we didn’t answer, she stuck her
tongue out at us and walked away.
We picked up Millie’s skates
and ran into the house. One of her skates had a broken front wheel.
“My dad will fix it,” she said.
# # #
The day of Barb’s
birthday party finally arrived, but for some reason, Millie didn’t
receive an invitation. I told her that maybe her invitation got lost in
the mail, but she said no, she probably just didn’t get one.
was a great party. We played "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" and dropped
clothespins into a bottle for prizes and ate cake with pink frosting
and pink ice cream. And on this birthday, her seventh, Barb received
that most precious of gifts, a Shirley Temple doll.
Temple was our idol. We had Shirley Temple paper dolls, books, and
coloring books, and we saw all of her movies, but no one I knew had a
Shirley Temple doll. I had whined and pleaded for one, to no avail.
Too expensive, even for Santa, my mother said. That doll costs seven
dollars. I could hardly wait to tell Millie about Barb’s new doll.
The next day I saw Barb on her front porch. She was tucking the Shirley Temple doll into her buggy.
“I’m taking Shirley for a walk,” she said. “If you want to come along, I’ll get Touslehead, and we’ll bring her, too.”
Shirley Temple doll was a sensation. Kids we barely knew stopped to
admire the doll with bright golden curls, blue eyes that opened and
closed, and a red organdy polka dot dress with a red velveteen sash, a
dress exactly like the one Shirley wore in her latest film, "The
Littlest Colonel," when she danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. We
walked back to Barb’s front porch in triumph. I glanced across the
street, where Millie was sitting on her front steps.
Millie, come on over," I called. “Come and see the Shirley Temple
doll.” Millie didn’t have a doll, so I knew she’d want to see this
one. She hesitated; then she smiled and ran toward us. She peered into
the buggy and stood, speechless, staring at the doll.
“Oh, she’s so beautiful,” Millie said. She reached down to touch one of the golden curls. “Her hair is so soft.”
mother, a large-boned Norwegian lady with icy blue eyes and bobbed
hair, burst through the front door. I had never seen her look so
"Barbara! Bring that doll and that buggy in the
house! Now!” Barb’s mother ran down the steps and grabbed her arm,
then reached down and pulled the buggy bump-bump-bump up the wooden
steps. Touslehead tipped over and tumbled out of sight.
to come in. You’ll have to play inside.” She shoved the buggy, then
Barb, through the open doorway, slammed the door shut, then turned and
walked back to the porch railing.
“And you--” Barb’s mother
stood with her hands on her hips and shook her finger at Millie.
“You--go back to your own side of the street. You can’t play here.”
Millie stood motionless. She looked as if she was going to cry.
“Now, I said!”
turned and ran across the street and up her front steps. She paused on
her porch and looked back at me. I wanted to run after her and tell her
not to feel bad, that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that Barb’s mother probably didn’t want anyone to touch the new doll.
on, Marie.” Barb was holding the front door open for me. I hesitated,
weighing the possible loss of Touslehead against the dues of
friendship. Touslehead won. I turned and followed Barb into the house.
mother didn’t say anything, at first, when I told her what happened to
Millie, but she looked angry. Then she said she was going to talk to
Barb’s mother. I pleaded with her not to, because I was afraid I would
never again get to play with Touslehead.
# # #
the ragman drove his horse-drawn cart down Sherburne Avenue yelling
"Rags! Rags!" Some folks called him “the sheeney,” but my mother said
I should never call him that because it wasn’t polite, and that I could
call him “the ragman” because we didn’t know his name.
vantage point in our back yard, I watched him stop in front of Millie’s
house. Her mother came out the front door and handed him an armload of
rags, which he stuffed into a box at the rear of his wagon. Then he
climbed down, walked up to the Cohens' porch and sat down on the top
step. Millie came out and sat beside him.
I loved horses, or
thought I would if I could ever get close to a real one, and the
ragman’s horse looked like a good choice; he was beautiful, with his
shiny brown coat and the white spot on his nose. I climbed over our
back fence, walked across the street and watched the horse eating grass
on the boulevard. When I reached up to touch him, he rolled his eyes,
shook his head and made his harness jingle, so I jumped back. The ragman laughed. “You can pet him,” he said. “He won’t hurt you.”
I was tempted, prudence took over: I didn’t want to risk antagonizing a
creature so much larger than I was, so I walked up the steps and sat
next to Millie. When she didn’t smile or say anything, I thought she
must have been feeling bad about getting yelled at for touching Barb’s
Mrs. Cohen came out the front door with two cups of tea
and handed one to the ragman. When he wrapped his bony fingers around
the blue cup and thanked her, I noticed that he had two fingers missing
on his right hand.
“What happened to your fingers?” I
asked. Mrs. Cohen frowned at me and shook her head. I had done
something wrong, but I didn’t know what. The ragman’s watery blue eyes
clouded, and he was silent for so long I wondered if he had heard me.
Marie, when I was little boy in Poland, little like you and Millie, my
brother David—he was bigger than me—we go to village to get flour for
our mother so she bake bread. Some Cossacks come down road on
horseback.” He took a sip of tea and cradled the cup in his hands. He
looked down at me and must have read my thoughts.
soldiers. Russian soldiers, fierce-looking men with long curling
mustaches and fur hats. Matka—my mother —tell us Cossacks are trouble.
If Cossacks come, hide. They don’t like—our people. So David and I, we
hide—behind building—wait for Cossacks to go away. But David, he says
‘I’m not afraid,’ and he walks out into road. Then Cossacks gallop
past, horses make dust, a terrible lot of dust. David put arm over his
face to keep dust out of eyes. One of Cossacks—he had a sword—long,
shiny sword. He sees David, and he stops the horse.
don’t like dust, Jew?’ he yell. David stands in road, afraid to move.
Cossack yell at him again: ‘On your knees!’ This time he pull out
sword, hold over David’s head. Before David can move, Cossack swing
sword. David falls down in street. ‘Taste it, Jew,” Cossack say.
“Taste the dust!’”
The ragman took a sip of tea and made a
face, as if his tea was too hot. I tried to imagine how David must have
felt, how frightened he must have been.
“I see David fall down,
bleeding in the dirt. My hand shakes when I reach out to touch him.
Then Cossack swings sword again, and blood is all over—over me, and
over David, and my hand is bleeding. See?” He held his hand out. I
recoiled at the jagged red scar across the mangled stumps of his
The ragman looked angry. “They should know, these children, that there is cruelty in the world. They should know!”
knows,” her mother said, looking sad. “She learned it yesterday when
she got sent home for touching a playmate’s new doll.”
Millie sat very still. “Why?” I asked.
“Why, what, Little One?” The ragman put his arm around my shoulders.
“Why did Barb’s mother get so mad at Millie for touching Barb’s doll? She didn’t hurt it.”
The ragman shrugged. "They've been mad at my people for two thousand years now," he said.
thousand years seemed like a long time to be mad at someone. I wondered
if he was teasing. My dad liked saying things that didn’t make sense
or that weren’t true, just to see if I was paying attention. But Dad
couldn’t help smiling when he teased, and the ragman wasn’t smiling.
thought of the people who called me “four eyes,” and how I hated
wearing glasses because I didn’t like being different. But I knew there
was nothing wrong with wearing glasses, so there couldn’t be anything
wrong with believing that a Messiah who wore a crown and came on a big
cloud was going to make everything right. And what could be bad about
two children on a dusty road who were afraid of Cossacks?
“How can people hate little children?” I asked.
was only six, just a child. Just a child. Like you and Millie,” the
ragman said. He lifted the blue cup to his lips, but his hand was
shaking so that a few drops of tea spilled on the front of his shirt.
The horse shook his head, and his harness jingled. The ragman stood up
so slowly, I could almost hear his bones creak. He handed the blue
teacup to Millie’s mother, thanked her, then turned and walked down the
steps, untied his horse and climbed back up into his wagon.
mother went into the house, leaving Millie and me to watch the ragman’s
cart clatter down the street, I wondered why Millie was so quiet.
“Barb’s mother shouldn’t have got mad at you,” I said.
Millie drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around her blue cotton dress.
“We’ll always be friends, won’t we,” I said. “Like in the song. ‘We’ll be jolly friends, forevermore.’”
shrugged and looked away, and I knew, with the shattering insight of
childhood, that I had betrayed our friendship. Nothing between us would
ever be the same.
# # #
I shaded my eyes against the
late afternoon sun and glanced at Millie. She was looking down the
street, where the elms met overhead like the ceiling of a green
“When the Messiah comes, He’ll fix everything,” I said, hoping to cheer her up, “Just like your dad does.”
sat without speaking. Maybe she was hoping that the Messiah would come
walking down the sidewalk through the sun-dappled shadows, just as the
postman had done that morning.
“I saw the Shirley Temple doll, though,” she said.
what circumstances can you imagine a six year old acting differently
from the narrator at the party—abandoning her new friend Millie in
favor of a new doll?
What is the effect of the ragman not completing his story? Is Millie's experience comparable to his, as her mother claims?
has happened in this story that can't be undone. The narrator
understands her own capacity for betrayal. How is this bittersweet
understanding the basis of a more resilient friendship? What does
Millie say to help her friend to this new relationship?
What inspired you to write this story? The memory of how Barb's mother treated Millie--excluded her from playing with Barb and didn't invite her to the party. How true to life is it for you now? I think anti-Semitism is still alive and well, but it's expressed in more subtle ways.
did writing the story change your understanding of the situation and of
yourself and of the dynamics of inclusion or exclusion?
didn't understand at the time why Millie was being excluded. I had
never heard of anti-Semitism. My mother grew up in an immigrant
community (her parents were French-Canadian immigrants), and she often
told stories about the immigrant community and how people got along and
helped each other. I don't recall if I ever told her that Millie was
excluded. I do know that her next-door neighbors were Irish Catholics,
and Millie played with their daughter occasionally. Millie attended a public school and I attended a private one, which separated us for awhile. Then she moved away.
BERNICE M. FISHER
is a graduate of St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, Minnesota, She
has taught literature and creative writing at Hill-Murray High School
in Maplewood, Minnesota, for twenty-five years. Her short stories have appeared in The Young Judean. The Baltimore Times, and in a previous anthology entitled Love after 70. She has also published non-fiction articles in Ramsey County History Magazine, (Spring 2004 and 2006 issues) and The Catholic Digest, (August 1985).