In one of those arrangements that defy explanation, Ophelia and my mother frequently ate lunch together. Usually—but not always—Ophelia would make the sandwiches or salad, serve my mother, and then fix an identical plate for herself. My mother would sit at a small, round table in the breakfast nook; and Ophelia would perch on a tall, wooden stool in front of the kitchen counter. Occasionally, my mother would prepare the meal and serve Ophelia’s plate. Yet it would never have occurred to either one of them to sit at the same table. I’m certain they would have observed the identical protocol if Ophelia had been white.
One day, as they were eating lunch and chatting, Ophelia suddenly burst into tears. My mother, alarmed, asked her what was wrong.
“I been reading about all those soldiers killed in the Far East. I’m afraid they’ll send Genavy there. If they send Genavy to the Far East, I don’t think I can live through it.”
Genavy was her only child, a tan boy with an athlete’s body and a smile that came and went quickly. We’d only seen him two or three times, when he arrived in his rattle-infested jalopy to fetch Ophelia, who was terrified to ride with him. His father, also named Genavy, had died years ago of the high blood.
My mother got up, went...