PAKERSFIELD, GEORGIA 1958
Mama washed the last dish she ever intended to wash. I alone witnessed
the event, in silence. It was on a Friday - a school day - but instead
of sitting in a classroom, I was standing in unfamiliar surroundings,
the home of my mother's employers, stunned by the wealth around me.
As I regarded my mother through unwavering peripheral vision, something
in her glances at me seemed to say, Tangy Mae, this will be your
life. Grab an apron and enjoy it.
Domestic servitude was not what I desired for myself, but she had only
to speak and I would do anything she asked. It was my obligation to
obey her though I did not want to be like my older brothers, Harvey
and Sam, who seemed to breathe at our mother's command. They were men,
and their lack of initiative disturbed me, although I knew they could
not just leave our mother's house. Departure required consideration
of consequences and a carefully planned escape.
At the age of thirty-five, our mother was tall and slender with a head
of thick reddish-brown hair. Her face, with its cream-colored skin and
high cheekbones beneath dark gray eyes, was set off by a gleaming white
smile accented by dimples. I thought she was beautiful, despite my acquaintance
with the demon that hibernated beneath her elegant surface.
She had worked seven years cleaning house for the Munford family. Now
she stood at their kitchen sink holding a dish under running water longer
than necessary before handing it to me to wipe. She finally dried her
hands on her apron, took a seat at the table, and waited for her pain
to subside. She has spent most of the day complaining of her misery
while instructing me on the proper way to make a bed, scrub a floor,
polish silverware, use a washing machine, and on and on.
According to Mama, her pain - something like gas - had begun during
the wee hours of the morning. It balled up in her chest, rolled through
her stomach, between her thighs, and into her knees. It did a slow dribble
in her swollen ankles, then just like that - her finger - snapped -
it bounced back to her chest and started all over again, taking her
On the table, beneath a crystal saltshaker, was an envelope. She picked it up and fanned it before her face. “Fifteen dollars,” she said indignantly. “I don't care what I do round here, it's always the same fifteen dollars. Never mind that I stayed late on Tuesday evening when Mister Frederick's mother came for dinner. Never mind that I walked to the Colonial for flour that Miss Arlisa forgot to pick up. Week in, week out, always the same fifteen dollars.”
She removed the bills and tucked them inside the pocket of her dress, then slid the envelope and a pencil across the table. “Sit down,” she said, “I want you to write me a note to Miss Arlisa.”
My obedience, as always, was swift.
“Dear Miss Arlisa,” Mama started as soon as I was seated across from her. “Tangy Mae can do just as good a job as I can. She is my child and I learned her good. She can start work for you on Monday. I will be dead.”
My hand trembled slightly, but I wrote the note exactly as she dictated. She snatched the envelope from the table, scanned the words, then passed it back to me. "Sign it, Rozelle Quinn," she said. "Miss Arlisa probably won't even know who that is. All they know round here is Rosie. Rosie do this and Rosie do that."
I sat there dumbfounded. Loss traveled through my body, pulsed at my temples, and numbed my fingertips. I wanted to wail, to one-up her moans, believing my pain to be more severe than anything she could be feeling.
"You got something you wanna to say?" she asked.
"No ma'am," I answered, forcing myself to look at her. There was plenty I wanted to say. Words were choking me. I covered my mouth with my hand so that Mama could not hear the words that might seep out. Mama, you promised Mr Pace that you would let me go to school one more year. You promised me the ninth grade. You promised! Mr Pace thinks I'm smart! Please, Mama, let me go to school!