The sign over my head identified it as the Express Lane. The crowd pressing around me suggested that the designation might be a bit optimistic. I wondered for not the first time what exactly had made me think that I could not live one more day without banana bread yogurt and that, because I’d just left the gym, I was aptly armed to brave the Saturday afternoon mob of shoppers. There were, though, only two people ahead of me, so it was entirely possible that my good humor might actually survive the expedition.
The first of those two people ahead of me was an older woman, probably 75, her short white hair sculpted into layers of wide apostrophes at a weekly beauty shop appointment. Pale pink powder had collected in the wrinkles on her cheeks. She was paying with cash. There was probably a checkbook somewhere in her pocketbook, but there would never be a debit card.
Behind her was a young woman, probably 20, her shiny black hair smoothed flat against her skull, her profile making me think immediately of those Egyptian coins with the images of Nefertiti. Her cheeks were smooth, the color of rich chocolate. She was purchasing one item, a box of Lemonheads.
The clerk handed the older woman her change, some bills and quite a few coins. Her hand, deeply veined and wrinkled, shook with the involuntariness of age as she reached out to take it. With her other hand, equally contrary, she attempted to open her billfold. She struggled.
“I’m sorry,” she said to no one in particular and anyone who might be inconvenienced by her difficulty. She was embarrassed and anxious and angry at her inability to make her hands obey.
“Here,” I heard the Lemonheads girl say, “let me help you.” She gently reached forward to catch the money that was about to spill on the floor, to hold open the billfold so that it could be dropped safely inside.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you,” the woman sighed as she accepted the help.
She put the billfold back into the pocketbook, grasped the handle of the buggy with both trembling hands and turned to look at the girl again. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
Before I’d gone into the store, I’d been listening to a radio broadcast about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the racially motivated attack that killed four little girls. I was not quite 7 in September 1963. I don’t remember the bombing, but I do remember — if only vaguely — a world of separate water fountains, separate entrances to the county health department, separate schools. And I remember the first black child to ride my school bus, how the older boys tried to bully him, how it made my 9-year-old blood boil, and how I invited him, a shy and quiet little first-grader, to sit up front with me.
Maybe it was the radio broadcast. Maybe it was the memories it conjured. Probably it was both that caused me to be so aware of what I’d witnessed in the Express Lane — the old white hands and the young black ones working together.
It has been nearly 50 years since Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair went to church one Sunday morning and never went home. It has been nearly 50 years since this country and each of her citizens were forced to reexamine the meanings of equality and justice. It has been nearly 50 years, and work remains to be done, but no one can deny that 200 million Americans don’t remember “separate,” not even vaguely, because they were not even born.
The sermon that was to have been given at the 16th Street Baptist Church on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, was titled “The Love That Forgives.” I don’t know if the Rev. John Cross ever got a chance to deliver that sermon from a pulpit, but I have seen it preached over and over, most recently in the Express Lane.