Black Shoe Polish and Our Children

The Black Shoe Polish and our Children

Were our children trying to become Brazilians when we found our son Vernon plastered with black shoe polish? It is hard to guess what our two children were thinking. As parents and adults we rather imagine that we know what goes on in a child’s mind. But by and large we really have no idea. You might try looking back to your own childhood and remember some of the strange things you did and try to explain what you were thinking. I doubt it can be done. So Doris and I have never figured out what Monica and Vernon had in mind when we found them playing in the black shoe polish.

They really weren’t playing in it for obviously to us at least they had a purpose. That purpose seemed to be to change Vernon from a little blond-haired white two year old into a Brazilian. But it would have been a Brazilian much darker than the average person we’d met there in the little village in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo. Oh yes, there were children just as light skinned as ours and one of those families attended our little church. But that is another story that I shall have to put off till I share it with you over a cup of coffee.

Brazilians are proud to have a little European blood and that of course started with the Portuguese immigration. And they are proud to have mixed in some Indian blood from the indigenous tribes. Add to that the darker colour of the Africans who were brought over as slaves. So the mixture of skin shade is a coffee colour if a person roasts and brews that coffee different ways or adds milk.  And we assume that our two children felt just a bit out of place among the deeper hued children with whom they played.

But it probably was not Vernon’s idea about being black for he was just in the two year age range.  I doubt that at that age he had any great philosophical ideas about colour. So it must have been Monica who was almost four that decided to make him black, black with shoe polish.

If the maid we had at that time was doing her job she might have stopped the shoe polish from blacking Vernon’s legs, arms and other parts of his body. But we can’t blame her for she might have been working in the house while we found our children out in the car port. In any case we came home to find our little boy mostly black. We were amused…perhaps at least a little bit. Well, it was funny enough for me to go get my camera and take a picture of the two of them.

But there the fun ended for that black shoe polish had to come off of our children’s tender skin. Doris says that without doubt one scrubbing with soap and water would not have done the job. Some of that black probably stayed around for many a bath and many a day. But I don’t think that colour made much difference to our children or those with whom they played. They fit right in. We were not concerned for Monica’s safety when she would disappear in the morning and not come back till supper time. When we’d ask here where she’d been she might say, “Playing with so and so at such and such a place.” We had no idea where she had gone but assumed all was well.

The way I see it is that the folks in the village knew what was going on with the strange Canadians as much as we ourselves did. People kept close track of us. I recall another missionary couple, Murdo and Isabel saying that when they left their parrot with neighbours while they’d be away that the parrot would be arriving back at their house about the same time as they arrived home from the bus.

It was about then when Vernon was developing his vocabulary that he had difficulty pronouncing Monica’s name. He would say it as Mokada. In a year or so he got it right but once in a while for fun I still address our daughter as Mokada. It seems that Portuguese is an easier language to pick up than English so our children spoke it well, probably without the foreign accent that we must have had.

Whether it is language, home or country, children seem to adapt and do it so well. Were our children thinking about adapting when Vernon was slathered in black shoe polish? We’ll never know, but it is one little episode in Brazil that our family will not forget though our children may have tried to put it out of mind.


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