Shirley had her quiet Mona Lisa smile that day. I was always uncomfortable around her. She made me feel inferior. Our desks sat on each side of the commissioner’s office like two finely matching pieces of furniture with jarringly mismatched statues on top. Lovely petite Shirley sat on one side with her shining pitch black hair and eyes, pale milk-white skin, and high cheekbones.
On the other, I sat with wire-rimmed glasses covering my beady brown eyes always trying to hide as much of my blotchy plain face as possible with my thin brown hair. Shirley was the associate commissioner’s secretary.
She was not only beautiful, she also had the perfect husband, a beautiful apartment, and geisha elegance. I was secretary for one of the commissioner’s underlings. An unmarried mother of an infant daughter, I lived in a dingy two-room row house apartment. I wanted to hate Shirley, but I couldn’t. She was just too nice.
This was the day the new board secretary was arriving. There was some excitement about Ms. Edith Crew’s arrival along with some discontented grumbling. She was part Native American which was going to help with the affirmative action quota, but some people thought she wasn’t qualified for the job. She didn’t have a doctorate and no board secretary had ever been hired without one before. I kind of agreed with those that felt the head of the professional licensing office should have a doctorate in the field. There had been other candidates with doctor’s degrees. Shirley, on the other hand, seemed really excited about Ms. Crew.
Ms. Crew, dressed in an expensive brown tweed suit with one of those long midi skirts, literally swept into the office. It wasn’t so much an arrival as a presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen serene Shirley move so fast. Before Ms. Crew could speak, Shirley was up out of her chair with her hand extended. “Hello, Ms. Craw, I’m Shirley White from the St. Regis Reservation. What reservation are you from?
Ms. Crew drew back looking confused. It took her several excruciatingly long seconds before she understood what Shirley was talking about. “I’m not from any reservation.” She muttered something about being one-sixteenth Native American through some distant grandparent. Shirley’s genuine excitement froze into a formal polite interest. She quickly ushered Ms. Crew into Dr. Stewart’s conference room.
Once we were alone I said, “Wow, Shirley, I didn’t know you were from an Indian reservation. You don’t look Indian.” She smiled at that. Shirley told me her father was Mohawk, but her mother was of Irish descent with bright red hair. Shirley was the third of fourteen children some of whom had her father’s dark hair and skin, a couple even had red hair, and some had Shirley’s coloring.
I was bored so I kept picking Shirley’s brain to find out what it was like growing up on a reservation and as part of such a big family. Shirley didn’t glamorize it, but she also didn’t present her childhood as exceedingly hard. Being the oldest girl, she had often been expected to take care of the younger siblings. Her mother worked and Shirley relieved a babysitter everyday after school from the time she was ten.
I asked if taking care of her siblings so much was why she didn’t have any kids of her own yet. I knew Shirley liked kids. She was always asking me about my daughter, something I really appreciated. That was one of the things about single parenting that I hadn’t expected. There was no one to talk about the little things. People were polite, but they really didn’t care that the baby was finally sleeping through the night or had learned to maneuver a piece of Cheerios into her mouth. Shirley did, though. She was always interested and greeted my news of little triumphs with honest enthusiasm.
Having to take care of siblings wasn’t why she didn’t want kids, though. Shirley said her two-year-old sister had died from pneumonia when she was twelve. Her parents hadn’t taken the baby to the doctor. Money was tight. Babies had been sick before and gotten well. Not this time, though. Shirley was devastated by the loss. She had been the one the baby ran to when in need of comforting. The death of that baby was so painful Shirley said she would never chance going through something like that again. She was never going to have kids of her own.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” I said. “Nobody dies from pneumonia now. Besides, you have great insurance. You’d never have to worry about something like that. When was the last time you heard of any baby dying? That just doesn’t happen anymore.” Shirley was adamant, though. There would be no children.
Barbara Easton, a writer in Albany, New York, will graduate from the University at Albany, SUNY in May, 2007. She intends to pursue a master's degree in literacy education. The concluding segment of this story, "Dead Reckoning," will appear shortly.