When I was a kid there was a very nice lady who lived down the street from me. I loved her name and I loved her. Her name was Aquilla which means Eagle in latin. Mrs. Aquilla Johnson and husbands name was William. Everybody called them Quilla and Willie. She was a nurse or a teacher, I’m not sure anymore, its been to long ago and really doesn’t matter to the story. Her husband Willie worked for the railroad. They were the friendliest and nicest people anyone could ever want to meet.
When I was very little they still had the last of their children at home and I could see them playing in their front yard from our front porch and from our kitchen window. I was about 5 years old and they were teenagers. Much to old for me to go play with but I did love to watch them play and laugh.
As I got older sometimes I would see Mrs. Aquilla’s grandchildren playing in her front yard but I was a teenager then and they were much to young for me to play with, but again I did love to watch them play.
When I was between the ages of 6 and 12 I used to go past Mrs. Aquilla’s house to go crawdad fishing. There was a place not far from her front porch that had the best and the biggest crawdads. You know the one’s with the red pincers that look like small lobsters?
Sometimes she would be sittin’ on her front porch and I would wave and say hi as I went past with my slimy bacon and twine in one hand and an old rusty coffee can in the other. Yes, this was back in the day when coffee still came in tin cans and not plastic. Sometimes we would talk a minute and sometimes one of her children and grandchildren would be there and she would introduce us all to each other.
Now one of the reasons that was my favorite crawdad fishing hole might have been I felt safe being close to her house cause I knew she was sitting on the porch watching me. Another might of been that she had homemade cookies quite often. Mostly I just liked her. I just like this woman. I didn’t know her well but there was something about her that made me feel so safe and cared for.
I remember one day I was going by her house and she was fixin to leave. She had the big gate open that led into her side yard. They at some point when I was little had put a tall fence around their whole property and also enclosed their garage with the fence. I remember standing at the kitchen window,watching as the fence was being built. They were having it built because someone had vandalized their brand new car.
Well I happened to be going by her house that day when she was opening the gate and I saw kittens, about 10 of them and cats, lots of cats. I called to her and asked if I could come in and see her kittens and she said sure. So I walked in and a lot of the cats and kittens freaked out and ran when they saw me. I thought they were just wild and not used to anybody except Aquilla and Willie.
This one little kitten had its back to me and I scooped it up. It was purring and letting me scratch it neck and ears. I rolled it over and rubbed its tummy and it purred and purred. Mrs Aquilla smiled as she watched and I smiled at her. I kissed it on its nose and it purred even louder. Then the kitten opened its eyes and went bat shit crazy. It made a horrible noise like I was killing it and started hissing and scratching and trying to get away from me. I grabbed it with both hands and held it away from me so it wouldn’t get my face. Mrs. Aquilla looked as shocked as I felt. She ran over to me and took it from me and put it down. The little thing kept looking back at me as it ran, all the while hissing and shaking like it was afraid I was coming after it.
I was afraid that Mrs Aquilla was going to be mad at me for scaring her kitten so bad, even though I didn’t know what I did and even though I knew she had been standing right there and saw that I hadn’t hurt it in any way. I was so sure she was going to be mad at me. I started to cry. I’m not sure if I cried because the kitten didn’t like me and had scared me as bad as I had it or because I was afraid that Mrs. Aquilla was mad. Or all of the above.
She came over to me and hugged me and told me it was OK and that I should go on home and get my mama to doctor my scratches because she had to get to work or she was going to be late. I hadn’t even realized that I had any scratches. But I did. On my hands, arms and face. When I got to the house my mama ask what had happened and I told her. Then I wondered out loud why the kitten had acted like that and why the other cats were afraid of me. She said probably because they weren’t used to anyone except Aquilla, Willie and her grandkids. I thought that made sense. Sometimes animals are afraid of what they don’t know.
A few weeks later I was down that way again and saw Mrs. Aquilla on her front porch. She waved and I waved. Thinking that I might get a chance to see the kitten again I walked up to the porch and sit down. I asked her if I could go in her side yard and she said she didn’t think so. I ask why. She said that she didn’t want me playing with the kittens because she didn’t want me to get hurt again. Well that made sense. So I asked why she thought her cats and kittens were afraid of me. She said she didn’t know. But that felt like she wasn’t telling me the truth. You know what I mean? Like she knew something I didn’t. So I asked if the cats just were not used to kids. She said, no, that wasn’t it, her grandkids played with them all the time. So I pushed it and asked why when it couldn’t see me it acted fine but when it opened its eyes it got really scared and I didn’t even do anything to it. She smiled and we sit for a few moments not saying anything. Then she told me in the nicest way she knew how and I could tell she didn’t want to tell me. But she told me and I’m glad she did. She told me she thought it was because I was white.
I thought about that for a minute. Would my cats be afraid of her because she was black? Maybe. I didn’t know.
She told me that she didn’t know if her cats and kittens had ever seen a white person because they rarely got out of the back yard. There was a 10 foot tall wooden fence and while I had seen a cat or two come over the fence from time to time. She was right, it rarely happened.
She said that when animals see something new that they have never seen before they don’t know if it is going to hurt them. I assured her that I would never hurt her cats. She said she knew that, but the cats didn’t know that and it scared them. She said that some people were like that too. We talked a little more and then I went home and talked to my mother about it. She told me that what Mrs. Aquilla said was true some people didn’t like other people because of the color of their skin.
I think about how my mother said “they didn’t like other people because of the color of their skin”, Mrs Aquilla said,”they were afraid or others because of the color of their skin”. It’s both really.
It was strange to me at that time and still is to this day that skin color could make such a difference in the way an animal behaves toward someone. It has helped me to a certain degree understand prejudice and bigotry in the human animal. It’s all about fear of one kind or another. Until we humans sit down and get to know each other and find out how we are more alike than not alike we will always be afraid of and judge someone who is different than us. It is a natural instinct that at one time in human history helped preserve us and keep us safe from those not like us. Those not like us who might want to take what we have or harm us in some way. But it is an outdated instinct for the most part. It is now doing more harm than good to the human race and we need to evolve past that.
Why don’t we all make a point of getting to know someone that is different than us in some way? Be it race, religion, politics, gender, sexual preference, etc…. Why don’t we see how we are more like them than not like them? You might be pleasantly surprised and just might make a new friend. Or it might turn out to be a total disaster. But don’t give up. Nothing you do in good spirit is ever in vain.
Mrs. Aquilla and Mr. Willie I want to thank you for being my friends and helping to mold my perspective about people who are different than me.