Ok, Ana…..my precious friend; I rise to your challenge and give you the following.
In the late 1950’s and early 60’s it was considered acceptable for middle class women to have black domestic help in the form of a nanny/housekeeper. Yes, my family had one, but there was a relationship there that went far, far beyond a ‘hired help’ status.
You see, my beloved great-grandfather made himself ‘persona non-grata’ in a neighboring state because of his habit of acquiring black persons either trapped in an indentured servitude contract or not allowed to be released into parole because no one would hire them. He’d release/acquire/buy out their contract, bring them across the State lines and free them to go on their own. A good many of them followed him to settle on his land, become sharecroppers or find employment that allowed them to buy their own piece of the American Dream. Because of this practice, we never went looking too hard to find help if we needed in home nursing care, housekeeping assistance, etc. There was always a community within gossip distance that was nearby.
When my middle brother was born in the middle of a June heat spell that withered cotton on the plant, Alvesta, our cook/housekeeper took one look at the squalling auburn haired baby and announced, “He’s gonna have trouble with his lungs. He was born too hot.” Sure enough, her words rang true and the smell of menthol and the wisps of the steam treatments infiltrated the small frame house I would come to visit twice a month. As he grew past babyhood, Alvesta told my momma, “It’s time you let little miss meet her baby brother. Or she’s gonna grow up a stranger to her own blood.” At nearly 4 ½ years of age, I came to stay with my momma and daddy; no longer in danger of my own lungs or kidneys collapsing, thanks to Alvesta’s cousin, Alberta taking care of me with my Nana and Papaw’s oversight.
Within a few months, momma and daddy bought a home of their own; it was halfway between being in town and being on the road to ‘the sticks’ as my momma would call it. The heat of that summer producing a hurricane that decided to make it into Central Texas to challenge the integrity of trees, roads and families – we lost the smaller house because of the storm damage….and Alvesta to a stroke.
I grieved in the only way a child knows, my little brother becoming a target of any item I had in my hand if I saw him. One morning, my backside sore from a spanking because yet again I waylaid into the boy child, a familiar voice called to me. “Fey child, you comin’ for your breakfast or you gonna sleep the night away?” It was the voice of Alberta, the calm and steady hands that had wiped away tears, the broad lap that held me while I learned to shell peas, the warmth that had rocked me to sleep when the pain from ear infections left me restless and unable to rest.
Baby brother was forgotten, and I even left my houseshoes and robe at the foot of my bed, forgotten in my rush to see if the voice I heard was a figment of dream. There she stood, one hand on her hip the other stirring the oatmeal made thick and spicy with clove and cinnamon; my personal angel with the dark caramel skin. I think I nearly knocked her over in the flying tackle hug I gave her, my nose almost at waist height. “Ok, baby girl. Slow down. Your mama called me and I needed the job to finish my schooling. Speaking of which, they been letting you grow wild. You’re gonna sit with me this morning and we’re gonna start learnin’ you to read. After all, isn’t that why you ran away?”
I blinked at her in near shock. How did she know that I ran away on the local school bus because I wanted to go to school? Did she also know that I refused to give my name to any one at the police station until my Nana came to claim me with a panicked mother?
A wise, sweet smile nearly split her face in two as she looked at me. “I knew you were gonna give these city folks grief untold, Fey baby. Smart little girls like you need love, and guidance and lots of learning to keep you from doing the Devil’s own mischief. Now here, sit down.” I did, and she served me a huge bowl of creamy spicy goodness in a crockery bowl with butter and sugar.
When I went to go put my bowl in the sink, Alberta quickly grabbed one of my hands to get my attention and announced, “You are going to go get yourself dressed. I need you right back in here after you’ve brushed your teeth, brushed your hair and put some shoes on those bare feet. No flip flops. Sneakers. We’re going to be doing schoolwork and you need to dress for the job.”
I remember being so serious about ‘getting it right’ – I brushed my teeth, I put on my favorite clean t-shirt (it had bunnies on it) and my corduroy pants that made whispering noises as I walked. I even remembered to put on socks before grabbing my sneakers. “Miss Alberta?” I called from the bedroom. “Yes, Fey baby?” “I don’t know how to tie my shoes.”
“Well, come on with yourself. We might as well start this right.”
We did start it right, because I still remember the stories of Jeremiah and the prophets, Joseph and his brothers (she picked that one out after a particularly bad fight with my little brother), and then Ruth. I learned to read sitting in her lap, out of her worn black Bible. I never knew that she was taking night classes for her Master’s degree in education. I never knew that she realized I had dysgraphia and taught me numerous tricks to overcome the problem. What I did know and have long realized is that Alberta was my own personal angel who taught me that education was a precious gift, shared best between kindred souls who understood each other beyond all the bounds that human ignorance can create.
I was in third grade when she matriculated with her Master’s degree. I was crushed when she told me she’d be leaving to go ‘up North’ to marry and to teach. After all these years, somewhere in my heart I know that she’s aware that but for her Grace and Goodness, I’d have been more than just a troubled child who needed her gift. Wherever you are Alberta, Thank you – and I love you.