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Noni was wise

Published March 29. 2014 09:00AM

When I was a young child, our family lived in an apartment on Race Street in Mauch Chunk. We lived on the third floor of the Times News building, next door to St. Mark's Episcopal Church.

The newspaper was the town's only paper, and its publisher was Mr. Boyle.

I loved our small, cozy apartment and I also learned to love the smell of printer's ink that wafted its way through the building from the presses downstairs. Sometimes Mr. Boyle would invite me to go into the pressroom to watch the paper being made. It was very exciting for a 4-year-old.

Perhaps it was that smell of printer's ink so long ago that helped me become a newspaper columnist. Early experiences certainly do shape our lives.

Another highlight of my early years was the daily walk I took with my Mommy, my baby sister Judy and our Noni (an Italian term for grandmother). We would walk down the hill on Race Street, cross Susquehanna Street and watch the trains pull into the Central Station.

Before we left our apartment, Noni always reminded me not to stare at the black porters who got off the train first and put down the metal steps to aid the passengers. Noni said, "They are nice black men."

My Noni was very sensitive to the feelings of others since she was an immigrant Italian who, at times, had felt the curiosity and negativity of the small-town folk who were not used to having real Italians in their midst.

One bright, sunny day we took our usual walk to the station and watched a train arrive. The porter stepped off the train as usual, put down the metal steps, and then walked directly over to us.

When the porter got close, he knelt down and held out his hand. He offered me a piece of hard candy. I looked at Mom, and she smiled and nodded that it was fine for me to accept it. As I took the candy, I smiled at the porter and said, "Thank you, Mr. Nice Black Man."

Well, my mother gasped and my grandmother turned a shade of red I had never seen before, but the porter grinned and said, "You're welcome, pretty little white girl."

We all smiled at each other and the porter made his way back on the train. I held on to my sister's carriage as we walked back up Race Street hill. I could tell that Mom and Noni were not happy with me.

The memory of that day remains crystal clear in my head even to this day. I never wanted to disappoint the two women I loved so much. They took turns telling me why they were upset with me. I learned that day that my mistake had been to call the porter a "black man," even though I had put the word "nice" in the sentence.

I learned quickly not to address people by using their ethnic background, color, religion or handicap. All the way home from the station that day and for a long time afterward, Noni made sure that I understood the innocent mistake I had made.

Even to this day, I am still super sensitive about making others uncomfortable. But, in 2014, life is different from 1944. No matter where you are, you can hear people lowering someone's self-esteem by calling them insensitive names or using inappropriate terms to describe them.

My Noni was a wise woman. She wanted to make sure that her young granddaughter did not hurt people on purpose. She took it upon herself to teach me respect for others. It is a lesson I never forgot.

As my Noni might say, "When you are the cause of someone else's hurt, you have stabbed him in the heart."

If you would like to contact Dr. Smith, she can be reached at her email address or in care of this newspaper.

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