A Secret Grave 74: Color Scheme

 

What I learned about Betsy was so unexpected that I don’t even quite know where to begin. I discovered that her sister, Janet, who’d been married a few times, had a different surname from the one she’d originally provided, not Johnson, but… well, I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll just say Smith, Janet K. Smith. She invited me to be her Facebook friend the other day. When I accepted and went online to view photos, I saw she was a person of color. What?!! I thought we were talking about a Jewish family, whose name had been changed from Jablonsky to Johnson by a Lithuanian grandparent.

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Janet K. “Smith”

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Of course I immediately queried her. Here’s what she told me:

That’s the secret Betsy wanted to hide since, in her case, she could. We had a white grandfather, but his wife, our grandmother, was black and so was everyone else.

She sent me a photo of their mother, Loraine Johnson, who I’m assuming is Betsy’s fascinator hat influence.

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Loraine, Photo booth portrait of a pretty African American woman, simpleinsomnia,  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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So what was actually going on here? I’ll paraphrase what I learned from Janet so I don’t have to string together a bunch of emails. Loraine Johnson (née Wilson), a respectable churchgoing young lady, married George Johnson, car mechanic, when she was nineteen and proceeded to have her first daughter, Elizabeth, five months after the wedding. That was fine and acceptable except for one thing: Elizabeth was light-skinned while both parents were dark. There were raised brows and questions in the beginning – had Loraine, who was beautiful and had lots of boyfriends before her marriage – been with someone else, a white guy? Loraine insisted that wasn’t the case and everyone agreed Betsy’s skin color and features had been inherited from her grandfather, Beau Wilson, who had long since died. Loraine’s next baby, also pretty white, was stillborn. And then came Janet, who was quite a bit darker than Betsy. Not long after that the marriage broke up. Loraine was working as a cook/housekeeper for a Jewish family, the Radnors, in a wealthy Detroit suburb, a job she kept for years, which meant that both Betsy and Janet were to some extent brought up with the Radnor children. This was particularly true of Betsy who was the exact same age, almost to the day, as Cindy Radnor. The two became best friends, inseparable, flick and flack, as tuned into one another as twins.

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Betsy (left) & Cindy, IMG_3584, Sean Sheridan, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/

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They went to school together (Cindy’s father helped arrange scholarship money for Betsy), spent summers at the Radnor’s lake house, had sleepovers every possible weekend. When it was time for Cindy’s bat mitzvah, Betsy, who was good at languages and had learned a little Hebrew seemingly by osmosis, helped Cindy with her Torah portion. The joke was that Betsy was more Jewish than Cindy. Certainly she had experienced enough Shabbat dinners chez Radnor and she was a regular at synagogue over the high holidays every year throughout her childhood. This was hard on Janet, always left out and made to feel annoying and inferior. But then something happened that was hard on them all, but particularly hard on Betsy.

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To be continued…

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Cover photo ~ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/499407046160676640/

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