Tell us about when you was a girl.
Tell us one of them stories
About the olden days
We like to hear about the times they used to be.
"It wasn't these times," that long-ago summer when Sooky was 12 years old. That year that her uncle Sunny, back from the war, chased the ghost of a nun off the Grider Street bridge. The year that Sooky and her best friend, Tassie, confronted the mysteries of death, salvation, and growing up, from the kitchens and curbsides of Cold Spring.
In her newly-reprinted 1974 children's book, "The Times They Used to Be," National Book Award-winning poet Lucille Clifton tells the story of a girl coming of age in an African-American neighborhood, just after World War II.
The new edition features intimate soft-charcoal drawings by E.B. Lewis, the illustrator of numerous picture books, including two Coretta Scott King Honor books.
The story opens with Sooky's uncle Sunny, a shell-shocked veteran of "the 92d, the all-colored division" - now known as the Tuskegee Airmen - returning from his service, able to see "spirits and things."
Sunny becomes obsessed with a ghostly nun, whom he chases every night over the bridge in town. He explains that during the war, Italian nuns cared for his division, and brought them food. "They was good to us," he says,
and I want to show
how I remember.
just like any man.
When Sunny drives his car off the bridge, Sooky and Tassie go to view his body at the funeral home. For years, the girls have made a habit of going there together. Sooky remembers:
One time we had gone over
and it was a little girl
in the coffin,
looked like she wasn't
no older than us.
They ran home to Tassie's house, and her Grandmother laughed at them, admonishing, "You better get right."
Tassie's Gran is the source of a lot of talk about salvation, and "getting right" with God. Early in the story, she threatens Tassie, who doesn't go to church:
You thirteen years old now,
old enough to know sin...
Come to God
before your body is made all unclean.
So when Tassie gets her period, she and Sooky take it as a sign of sin, and plan to run away. Tassie's dad is on a chain gang in Florida, and she is convinced that only he can help her. She confides to Sooky:
I'm an unclean sinner
And my daddy is a sinner too,
And that's why he got to help me!
In spare, free-form verse, Clifton interweaves the threads of these stories with grace and economy. As in her previous work, her sensitivity to the raw confusions of childhood, and the slow dawning in a child's life of historical details, make "The Times They Used to Be" an immensely readable and tenderly wrought work.
Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor staff.
The Times They Used to Be
By Lucille Clifton Illustrated by E.B. Lewis Delacorte Press 41 pp, $12.95 Ages 9-12
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor