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 over to Ophelia, and put her arms around the huge woman.

“Don’t you worry,” she said.  “I read recently that only 15 to 20 percent of all the soldiers actually get into combat.  The rest either stay in this country or are stationed a long way from the fighting.  Genavy is probably as safe as we are, eating lunch in this old kitchen.”

Ophelia began wiping away the tears with her apron.

“I didn’t know that.  Thank you.  Thank you for telling me.”

My mother patted her on the shoulder and returned to her sandwich.

“Where is he stationed now?” she asked.

“He at Iwo Jima,” Ophelia said, with a smile.

“Oh,” my mother said.  “Well, I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

The battle for Iwo Jima was one of the costliest of the War.  More Americans—6,891—died on that island than the combined total of all Allied troops killed on D-Day.

Of the 21,000 Japanese stationed there, over 20,000 were killed, with only 216 taken prisoner.  After the Americans had secured the island, many Japanese troops committed suicide by leaping off high cliffs.  Films show them dropping like bombs to smash on the rocks below.  Some hid out in caves for years afterward.  The last two finally surrendered in 1951—six years after the Empire of Japan had formally surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri.

The United States gave Iwo Jima back to Japan in 1968.  During the years of occupation, the more adventurous children of U.S. servicemen stationed there would explore the caves, looking for the skeletons of Japanese soldiers, hoping to find gold-filled teeth in the skulls.

As for Genavy, he was killed on another day on another island.  Months later, his body came back to Framalopa aboard the Silver Meteor.  Ophelia was warned not to open the casket; but she opened it anyway and went wild over what she saw.  Her niece and her preacher had to pin her against the wall until she finally collapsed in their arms and sobbed for hours.  The day after the funeral—which we attended—she came back to work, vacuuming the rugs and scrubbing the toilets with a new ferocity, her heart anesthetized.  In time she regained her good humor, but she never again spoke Genavy’s name—at least not in our presence.

On the day Nazi Germany surrendered, my mother said to her, “Well, it looks like it’s almost over.”

“Yes’m,” she said, “but I don’t take any comfort from it.  That’s y’all’s war.”

Distressed, my mother told my father what Ophelia had said.  “She meant the white folks’ war.  Could she possibly believe the Japs didn’t kill colored people at Pearl Harbor?”

“That’s not the way she sees it,” my father said.  “Since white folks run the country, we’re responsible for whatever happens to it.  She’s got a point.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

“Does she think all white people—including you and me—are responsible for what happened to Genavy?”

“Of course she does.”