Way Opens

Patricia WildPUBLISHED IN: 2008

THE AUTHOR: Patricia Wild

THE EDITOR: Joyce Maddox

THE PUBLISHER: Warwick House Publishers, Lynchburg, VA

SUMMARY: Way Opens chronicles the journey that began when I wondered: “What happened to the two African American students who desegregated my Lynchburg, VA high school in 1962?”

Way OpensTHE BACK STORY: In “Quaker-ese,” my desire to find Reverend Owen Cardwell, now a Baptist preacher and Dr. Lynda Woodruff, now a retired college professor (Physical Therapy) and to allow myself to be open and faithful to whatever might then unfold is called “a leading.” So Way Opens took seven years, and many trips to Lynchburg, and many interviews with Lynda and Owen, and many books to discover and to read about African-American history and white privilege, and lots of stumbling around before it was ready!


“The old Quaker expression ‘Way Opens’ describes the serendipitous unfolding of God’s will for a person or community. For accomplished Quaker writer Patricia Wild and for us, her readers, way opens unexpectedly, sometimes painfully, and at last redemptively in this powerful, beautifully crafted spiritual memoir. From the very first page, we are drawn into a twisting odyssey of faith confronting the complexities of white privilege and American racism. Patricia Wild writes prose like a poet and tells stories like a trusted friend or favorite neighbor. Her gift is humility, tenderness, humor, humanity, and a wisdom born of experience and struggle. Way Opens establishes Patricia Wild among our finest contemporary spiritual writers, Quaker and otherwise. Profoundly moving, healing, and inspiring, this book bears eloquent witness to the pain of past and present, and the promise of our future.” — Alexander Levering Kern, Executive Director, Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

AUTHOR PROFILE: Flower Valley Press, Gaithersburg, Maryland, published my first novel, Swimming In It, in 1998. From 1998 until 2008, I was a much-read columnist for The Somerville Journal. In April, I finished Welling Up, the sequel to Swimming In It, and now seek a good home for it. Presently I’m working on the third—and perhaps the last—of this series: Buying Water. I spend every Wednesday with ex-offenders, a direct outcome of my leading. (You’ll have to read Way Opens to understand why.) On most Tuesdays I post blogs re spirituality, white privilege, and inter-connectedness on my website (http://www.patriciawild.net). I have also written for “First Day Press,” an online Quaker magazine. I am a mother, a grandmother, a member of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, and an active volunteer working on environmental justice issues with Mothers Out Front.

(http://www.mothersoutfront.org) My husband and I live in Somerville, MA.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: Obviously, Way Opens predates the Black Lives Matter movement. How I wish that the issues I raised in my book weren’t so timely in 2015!


Chapter Two: “What did I know, what did I know?”

Winter mornings in Fayetteville, (NY) I’d lie in bed listening to the tinkling sound of my mother’s silver belt buckle as she began that day’s chores. A multi-tasker before the word had been invented, my bustling mother always completed dressing on the run, threading her belt through her pants loops while gathering that day’s laundry. My nose red with cold—we always slept with our windows open—I snuggled under my thick quilt and waited: Would my mother approach my chilly bedroom to rouse me for school? Or was it, as I fervently hoped, a snow day? If so, my efficiency-expert mother, a basket of laundry on her hip, bypassed my room and proceeded directly down the stairs to fix breakfast for my father.

So, in the early hours of Sunday, January 28, 1962, when a freakish snowstorm dumped almost a foot of snow on Lynchburg, our family reacted almost with relief. So much of Lynchburg, Virginia, bewildered or depressed us. But snow? We knew snow.

“This’ll melt by noontime,” my father, who turned forty-seven that day, confidently predicted. Nevertheless, my parents decided to forego church. Lynchburg’s Unitarian church, a tiny, lovely stone structure perched midway up downtown’s steep hill and only accessible by staircase, was attended by a handful of parishioners, many of them fellow Yankee transplants. My parents, my father in particular, felt strongly that our family had a responsibility to consistently show up. But in his mind, the precipitous and unplowed streets of Lynchburg and snow-ignorant drivers posed too much of a threat. The Wilds would stay at what was now home, a boxy, roomy, split-level just off Peakland Place.

Foregoing church also meant foregoing the Hotel Virginian for a birthday dinner for my father. A short walk from church, down the Monument Terrace staircase to the corner of Church and Eighth streets, the Hotel Virginian was our favorite place for Sunday dinner. The hotel’s genteelly shabby dining room, the African American string quartet softly playing in one corner, its traditional fare, and scarcity of diners—we sometimes had the dining room to ourselves—allowed the six of us to relax in an atmosphere both Southern, yet accessible. Going to the Hotel Virginian after church and always ordering chocolate parfaits for dessert became a family tradition. Strangers in a strange land, the Wilds were as hungry for tradition and for ritual as we were for the hotel’s tasty beaten biscuits.

Dressed in our church clothes and seated around our favorite round table, serenaded by the dining room’s Black, tuxedoed musicians playing something by Strauss, perhaps, my family knew we looked good; our pervading sense of alienation made us intensely self-conscious as if constantly watching ourselves in a large mirror. “Wouldn’t this make a great picture?” my brother Paul often asked on family outings.

Yes it would: There sits Al Wild, successful executive with General Electric, a tall, handsome man whose well-tailored suit minimizes the considerable weight he’s gained since marriage.

Beside him is my mother, Pat, nearly as tall as her husband, a stunning woman whose keen blue eyes search out table-manners transgressions on the part of her four children. After her initial depression when we’d first arrived, my mother has regained her considerable energy. Recently, in addition to civic activities, a busy social life, and playing golf, she has begun classes at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Paul, at age fourteen, is still pubescent; after three years in Lynchburg, his sweet, boyish face retains the deer-in-the-headlights bewilderment that, for reasons he cannot understand, he and the rest of us live here.

Deborah, age nine, is blonde and sturdy; she wears a white-collared, smocked dress and, as she has done since she was three, glasses. Determined to hold her own as the third

oldest, Debby has recently memorized a series of joke books and, no matter what topic may come up at dinner, can deliver two or three appropriate jokes, some of them actually funny.

Benjamin, age seven, has outgrown his natty sailor outfit and now wears a suit like his father and older brother. Wide-eyed, curious, Benjy studies the Hotel Virginian dining room. Of all of us, only Benjy actually acknowledges—and wonders about—those well-dressed, dark-skinned men just feet away from where we eat.

At seventeen, I am a teenaged version of my mother; we even share the same name— although I am now known as “Pepper.” “Patty” until I was ten, I’d acquired my new name at a Girl Scout camp on Cape Cod. That fall when our family moved to Fayetteville, I’d told Linda Lloyd-Jones that my name was Pepper; she and the other fifth-graders believed me. In Lynchburg, where family names are often first names, my puerile name rarely merits comment.

Because of the snowstorm, however, there would be no Hotel Virginian dinner that cold, late-January Sunday. Instead, my mother made pancakes and we settled for a cozy day inside.

“Can I stay in my pajamas all day?” Debby, always testing parental limits, requested.

“Why not,” my father answered.

I spent the afternoon sledding with friends and went to bed that night hoping for a snow day but awoke to everyday weekday sounds.

Which meant I had a problem: What would I use for a coat on such a wintry day? The week before, when driving back to Lynchburg after a week’s skiing near Pittsburgh, I’d carelessly left my warm woolen coat in a restaurant in Pennsylvania. Although my father always provided Paul and me with door-to-door service, his Buick convertible’s heater didn’t really begin to function until after he’d dropped us off at E. C. Glass. “The car got nice and warm right after you two left,” he’d tease us at dinner. What to wear?

An unexpected snowstorm and the petty, trifling concern over a missing coat; these I clearly remember over forty years later. What I cannot remember is any conversation or discussion of what was about to happen on January 29, 1962. Everyone in Lynchburg knew what was about to happen. For weeks, the two Lynchburg newspapers, both owned by the ubiquitous Glass family, had trumpeted that, like it or not, two African American students would begin classes at E. C. Glass that day. But as I recall, during the weeks leading up to that historic event, neither my family nor my U-U church community discussed the two Black students’ pending arrival. Not even in the privacy of our home did my family talk about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision, “separate but equal” schools, the Freedom Rides, segregation. “We didn’t do enough,” my mother says sadly, now. Like polite guests obeying Lynchburg’s house rules, we kept silent.

I can remember—with great embarrassment—one family conversation, prompted by an early civil rights demonstration in Lynchburg in the fall of 1960. Dressed in a pastel shirtwaist dress, a matching cardigan over my shoulders, tasseled loafers from Coleman’s Shoe Store, and white gloves, I’d taken the bus downtown that day to do a little shopping. Like most teenagers in my neighborhood, I received a generous allowance; I also ran a successful children’s party business. So I could afford to shop for clothes at upscale Miller and Rhoads or Baldwin’s department stores, buy a new silver charm for my already jangly charm bracelet at Buckingham-Flippin jewelers, then consume a coke and a packet of peanut-butter Nabs at a Main Street drug store lunch counter.

On the day I’m remembering, the usual downtown crowds were joined by ten or twelve neatly-dressed African Americans who silently walked in a circle on Main Street in front of Woolworth’s Five and Ten. That evening at dinner, I proudly told my family what I’d done to “support” these silent civil rights walkers, who were protesting the store’s segregated lunch counter.

“I bought a pair of sunglasses,” I announced. “It was hard to find anything in that store that I wanted so I finally just bought sunglasses. With white frames. Like Jackie Kennedy wears. Only white.”

My father, my Republican, anti-labor, business-executive father, slowly lowered his fork. “You crossed a picket line?” he asked incredulously, then gave my mother a look I knew well. Can you believe a daughter of ours could be so stupid? this look said.

“What’s a picket line?” I asked. Only then did it occur to my parents that their teenaged daughter genuinely had no idea what she’d done. Gently, they gave me a brief lesson on the labor movement: on boycotts, picket lines, and strikes. And, of course, given their background and upbringing, my mother and father talked about feather-bedding and malingering and how labor leaders were, in their opinion, often members of the Communist Party. Did they mention that it was to avoid unions that GE had moved all of us to Lynchburg? Of course not.

What my family did not discuss that evening in 1960, and what wasn’t being discussed around dining room tables all over the nation that night was the cruel injustice of Jim Crow, why sit-ins and Freedom Rides were happening, and most important, why people who looked like our family could sit at a drug store counter, take a seat in the front of a bus, attend well-equipped, well-maintained schools, without hesitation, without question.

On the morning of January 29, 1962, having put on a warm sweater and my ski jacket, I emerged from my father’s still-frigid Buick, my brother beside me, and walked up the slushy sidewalk to school. Do I remember police cars parked in front?

Of the two of us, Paul was far more likely to actually meet and to share classes with Owen Cardwell and Lynda Woodruff, who, at fourteen and thirteen, respectively, were to begin ninth grade at Glass that day. A senior, I saw no sign of “the two Negroes” walking through Glass’s commodious hallways that morning, nor, thankfully, did I see any attendant violence.

It was at lunch that day that I first saw Owen Cardwell, tall and thin, just as he emerged from the food-serving area and, carrying a laden tray, walked slowly toward the cafeteria’s long tables. The way I remember it, Owen approached one table and the two or three boys who’d been sitting there immediately jumped up and moved away. Owen sat down to eat alone.

Yankee transplant, sneered at for being “tacky,” I knew what it felt like to be a reviled and despised outsider. From Mrs. Mulfinger’s Reader’s Digest, I knew what had happened when German citizens remained silent in the face of Hitler’s oppression. Indeed, sitting in my piano teacher’s living room, I’d always imagined that if the Nazis came to my German village, I’d bravely do whatever was necessary to protect my Jewish neighbors. I knew I was supposed to walk over to Owen’s table and sit beside him. But I did not.

Thirty-seven years later, during a phone call from Lynchburg, Virginia, I told that shameful lunchtime story again. My first novel, Swimming In It, had just been published by the Flower Valley Press in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Like many authors working with small

presses, I had discovered that much of the publicity and promotion for this fledgling novel were to be largely my responsibility. Because my book’s red-headed protagonist, Jewell McCormick, had been born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1962, I’d hoped Lynchburg residents might want to read her story. So I mailed a copy to a nameless “Arts Editor” of the city’s newspaper, The News and Advance. A couple of weeks later, Darrell Laurant, Yankee-born columnist for the Lynchburg paper, interviewed me over the phone.

In Swimming In It, the fictional Jewell, having been sexually abused by her mother’s tenant, flees from Lynchburg at age fifteen. Most of the novel takes place in Somerville, Massachusetts, a working-class city adjacent to Boston and Cambridge and where I have lived since 1979. Why, Darrell asked me, had I chosen to have Jewell born in Lynchburg?

“I lived in Lynchburg from 1959 until 1962,” I told him.

“GE?” the reporter asked.

“GE, indeed,” I replied.

Like Jewell’s mother, I told him, I’d attended E. C. Glass High School; several of my classmates, including five of my friends, had become pregnant our senior year. Jewell’s mother’s experiences as a pregnant high school student were written from my memory of those friends.

“Oh,” noted Darrell, who’d written a book on Lynchburg history, “then you were at E. C. Glass when it was integrated!”

Darrell’s use of the word “integrated” reminded me of a passage from Swimming In It when Jewell challenges her mother’s use of the same word:

“How can you call that ‘integration’? I [Jewell] asked. I’ve looked at your yearbook a hundred times. And all I ever saw was one skinny, frightened black kid tucked away in a corner somewhere.”

She [Jewell’s mother] looked at me like she always did: like she was contemplating hitting me hard. To my relief she merely shrugged her lovely shoulders. “All right,” she admitted. “It was only a couple of negras but it was a Big Change, Jewell. I’m telling you. A Big Change.”

Perhaps it was speaking to someone from Lynchburg that made me realize that the “skinny, frightened black kid tucked away in a corner somewhere” was not a fictitious character like Jewell or her mother but an actual, flesh-and-blood person. Maybe it was

thirty-seven years of guilt. Or perhaps my impulse to tell my humiliating high school story to Darrell Laurant, a stranger and a reporter, was divinely inspired. For whatever reason, the cotton batting of obliviousness, defensiveness, denial, and inattention which usually surrounds me in matters of race was momentarily removed and I was able to be open and honest.

Yes, I told Darrell, I had indeed been at E. C. Glass that January day in 1962 when the first two African Americans entered the school. I then told Darrell Laurant my cafeteria story. “My inaction that day has been a pivotal moment in my life,” I told him, only realizing as I said these words that they were indeed true.

“I can help you find Lynda Woodruff, at least,” the Lynchburg reporter offered. “Lynda Woodruff’s mother and stepfather still live in town.” Darrell also offered to send me a copy of his book. Months later, having read Darrell Laurant’s A City Unto Itself: Lynchburg, Virginia in the 20th Century, in which Lynda Woodruff was frequently quoted, I labored over a letter to the former “Negro desegregator” which, with trepidation, I finally mailed to her. “I hope I hear from you and understand if I don’t,” my March 2000 letter ended. For I knew that no matter how carefully I had tried to craft my letter, my words might irritate or anger this unknown woman. And Lynda Woodruff might very well resent being reminded of her experiences at E. C. Glass High School.

Six months later, in August of 2000, I received a letter on North Georgia College and State University stationery and a business card from Lynda Woodruff; Dr. Woodruff, according to her card, was a professor of physical therapy at the Dahlonega, Georgia, university.

“Over the years I have had many letters like yours,” the college professor wrote, “have met people in Lynchburg who were there but didn’t step forward, and have even worked with those who called me Nigger and threatened to kill us.” Her letter also contained Owen Cardwell’s address. I wrote to Reverend Owen Cardwell immediately.

That same summer that Dr. Woodruff’s much-welcomed, revealing letter arrived, I’d been wrestling with the sequel to Swimming In It, entitled Welling Up. Emulating Daisy Newman’s writing technique, I had brought my fictitious characters, Jewell McCormick and the other women from her Somerville homeless shelter, to meeting for worship every week.

The resulting novel had been an easeful, Spirit-led process from the first page until the end. For Welling Up, however, every word, every scene, every plot turn was uphill work. At first I thought my fears about writing a second book were holding me back. For I’d heard stories from other writers how second books are often judged more harshly than the first. But one day, while working on a scene between Jewell and her mother, which took place at a posh Lynchburg country club, I noticed something. While the scene featured the two White characters, my attention, like a wayward movie camera, kept focusing on the African American men in the background: the caddies waiting in the shade of a large pecan tree near the club’s parking lot, the attentive waiter—based on Boonsboro Country Club’s Malcolm Jefferson—in his impeccable white uniform. Who are those Black men? I wondered, staring at my computer screen. What are their stories? Could those caddies actually support families with their earnings? Who was Malcolm Jefferson? Why, I wondered, were those dark-skinned men so much more compelling to write about than the fictional Jewell and her mother?

One Saturday morning in September of 2000, the phone rang; it was Reverend Owen Cardwell, “the skinny, frightened black kid tucked away in a corner somewhere.” Dr. Cardwell, now a Baptist preacher in Richmond, Virginia, spoke with a deep, resonant, Virginia-flavored voice; the fourteen-year-old who’d sat alone in a high school cafeteria, the man I’d treated as though a fictitious character in my book spoke without anger, without rancor, without bitterness. The gentleness of Reverend Cardwell’s voice made me cry.

As it happened, I had picked up the phone that morning, car keys in hand. When Reverend Cardwell called, I was about to drive to Greenfield, Massachusetts, to celebrate poet Phil Sosis’s eighty-sixth birthday.

Phil Sosis was my first husband’s stepfather. Although technically not related to him, my daughter Melissa nevertheless considered Phil her grandfather. At Phil’s party, Melissa staged a reading of an interview she’d conducted with her grandfather. Most of the party-goers knew that Phil had spent several years of his childhood in a New York City orphanage; his well-wishers knew Phil to be a gifted poet. They remembered that his résumé included union organizer and factory worker and, later in his life, teacher and vocational counselor. Melissa’s staged interview—with her fiancé Dave Arons reading Phil’s words—revealed one of her grandfather’s lesser-known roles: as a member of Paul Robeson’s honor guard at a 1949 Peekskill, New York, concert. When the African American singer, branded “Un-American”

for his progressive views, had been threatened by American Legion members, courageous men like Phil Sosis surrounded the performer, shielding Robeson from possible attack or a sniper’s bullet.

“I was on the stage,” Dave as Phil Sosis read to the birthday party crowd. “I volunteered to give my life for him if necessary.”

Many of Phil’s birthday guests, it turned out, had either attended Robeson’s Peekskill concert or knew people who had been there; during lunch, many people told their own stories of that infamous day in 1949.

Listening to their lunchtime stories, that morning’s phone call with Reverend Cardwell very much on my mind, I was struck by how many stories, both of unspeakable oppression and of personal courage, don’t get told. Like most Americans, for example, I’d known next-to-nothing about the Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill until I heard Melissa’s interview with her grandfather. So many of the stories, I realized, center around African American history and Black people’s day-to-day experiences.

In the quiet of Quaker meeting the next day, this growing awareness, called forth by Owen Cardwell’s gentle voice and the Paul Robeson stories, deepened. As with Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, when thwarted creative expression assumes human form, stories of the African American experience pressed at me, nudged me during worship. “Tell us,” they seemed to whisper.

Is this my ministry? I asked Spirit. Is this what’s called “a leading?”

According to my journal, that same Sunday, The Boston Globe quoted a Black Muslim’s condemnation of “the white devil media.” (That I’d failed to note this man’s name but instead labeled him tells the briefest of stories.) I read this African American man’s denunciation with growing excitement. A published novelist, a columnist for the local paper, a free-lance writer for a couple of fairly prestigious publications, well-connected to other writers and film-makers, I had access to that so-called white devil media. I can use my Whiteness to tell these stories. “I feel so empowered,” I wrote in my journal.

Two days later, I received a phone call from Friends General Conference’s book-catalogue coordinator. The umbrella organization for unprogrammed meetings like Friends Meeting at Cambridge, FGC offers a number of resources to Quakers such as teaching materials, workshops, books and pamphlets, and every summer, conducts a Gathering of Friends conference for Quakers from meetings all over the country. Because Swimming In It hadn’t sold well at that summer’s Gathering, the coordinator explained, my novel would not be listed in the upcoming FGC catalogue.

Like most writers, I am no stranger to rejection. As a one-person Swimming In It promotion, distribution, and sales manager, I knew how difficult it is for a first novel, published by a tiny press and written by an unknown, to be noticed. Nevertheless, that phone call crushed me. Me! One of Daisy Newman’s writing daughters! Me! So eager to launch this fledgling writing project! After a couple of tearful days, I handed over my disappointment and hurt to Spirit. Eventually it came to me that the publishing business is just that: a business. Quaker-affiliated businesses, like any business, have to pay attention to the bottom line.

While more at peace with FGC’s decision, my faith in my just-begun leading now seemed shaky, however. Did that unexpected phone call mean that what seemed Spirit-led wasn’t? I asked Spirit. Does this news mean that I am not doing what God asks of me? “Thy will, not my will,” I prayed over and over. And waited.

Meanwhile, Dr. Woodruff, Reverend Cardwell, and I began an e-mail correspondence. Let’s write a book together, someone suggested. And like that messy little girl with her braids undone, the younger me who never walked if she could run, I responded with enthusiasm.

WHERE TO BUY IT: Quaker Books (https://www.quakerbooks.org/search/Way%20Opens)

PRICE: $15.00

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Wildwoman@Mindspring.com (Put the word “Snowflake” in the subject line.)

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

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