فصل 08

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Chapter eight

Two Women

For nearly a year I went around the house, the Store, the school, and the church without talking and keeping to myself. Then I met, or got to know, the lady who threw me my first lifeline.

Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the upper-class woman of Black Stamps. She had the grace to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the hot Arkansas summer days she seemed cool. She was thin, and her printed dresses and flowered hats were as right for her as jeans for a farmer. Her skin was dark black. She wore gloves, too. She was our side of town’s example of the richest woman in town.

I don’t think I ever saw Mrs. Flowers laugh, but she smiled often. When she chose to smile on me, I always wanted to thank her. The action was so graceful and kind.

She was one of the few real ladies I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.

Momma had a strange relationship with her. Most often when Mrs. Flowers passed on the road in front of the Store, she spoke to Momma in her soft voice: “Good day, Mrs. Henderson.” Momma responded with: “How you, Sister Flowers?”

Mrs. Flowers didn’t belong to our church, nor was she Momma’s good friend. Why did she insist on calling her Sister Flowers? Shame made me want to hide my face. Mrs. Flowers deserved better than to be called Sister. Then, Momma left out the verb. Why not ask, “How are you, Mrs. Flowers?” I hated her for showing her ignorance to Mrs. Flowers. It didn’t occur to me for many years that they were as alike as sisters, separated only by formal education.

Although I was upset, neither of the women was at all bothered by what I thought was an impolite greeting. Mrs. Flowers would continue her walk up the hill to her little house, and Momma kept on doing whatever had brought her to the front porch.

Occasionally, though, Mrs. Flowers would wander off the road and down to the Store and Momma would say to me, “Sister, you go on and play.” As I left I would hear the beginning of a private conversation, Momma continuing to use the wrong verb, or none at all. But they talked, and from the side of the building where I waited, I heard their voices mixing together. They were interrupted from time to time by giggles that must have come from Mrs. Flowers (Momma never giggled in her life). Then she was gone.

She attracted me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like women in English novels who walked with their dogs. Like the women who sat in front of fireplaces, drinking tea and eating cookies. It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.

She acted just as well-mannered and civilized as whitefolks in the movies and books, and she was more beautiful. None of them could have come near that warm color without looking gray by comparison.

One summer afternoon, still fresh in my memory, she stopped at the Store to buy groceries. Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, “Sister Flowers, I’ll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”

She smiled. “Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I’d prefer Marguerite, though.” My name was beautiful when she said it. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her, anyway.”

Momma said, “Well, that’s all right then. Sister, go and change your dress. You’re going with Sister Flowers.”

What did one put on to go to Mrs. Flowers’ house? I knew I shouldn’t put on a Sunday dress. It wouldn’t be right. Certainly not a house dress, since I was already wearing a clean one. I chose a school dress, naturally. It was formal without suggesting that going to Mrs. Flowers’ house was the same as attending church.

I walked back into the Store.

“Now, don’t you look nice.” I had chosen the right dress.

“Mrs. Henderson, you make most of the children’s clothes, don’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am. Sure do. Store-bought clothes ain’t hardly worth the thread it takes to stitch them.”

“You do a beautiful job, though, so neat. That dress looks professional.”

Momma was enjoying the seldom-received praise. Since everyone we knew (except Mrs. Flowers, of course) could sew well, praise was rarely handed out for the commonly practiced skill.

“I try, with the help of the Lord, Sister Flowers, to finish the inside just like I do the outside. Come here, Sister.”

She made me take off the dress. As they talked, I wouldn’t look at either of them. Momma hadn’t thought that taking off my dress in front of Mrs. Flowers would make me feel like dying. Mrs. Flowers, though, had known that I would be embarrassed and that was even worse. When Momma told me to, I put the dress back on, picked up the groceries, and went out to wait in the hot sunshine. It would be appropriate if I died before they came outside. Just dropped dead on the porch.

There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked in front, swinging her arms. She said, without turning her head, to me, “I hear you’re doing very good school work, Marguerite, but that it’s all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class.” The path widened to allow us to walk together, but I stayed behind.

“Come and walk along with me, Marguerite.” I couldn’t have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely.

“Now, no one is going to make you talk-possibly no one can. But remember, language is man’s way of communication with other people and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.

“Your grandmother says you read a lot. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is written on paper. They need the human voice to give them deeper meaning.”

I memorized the part about the human voice giving meaning to words. It seemed so true and poetic.

She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them, I must read them aloud. She suggested that I try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.

“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” I couldn’t imagine the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers’. Death would be too kind and brief.

The smells in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of ordinary people.

“I made cookies this morning. I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat.”

She took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would see.

“Have a seat, Marguerite. Over there by the table.” She carried a plate covered with a small towel. I was certain that everything about her cookies would be perfect.

Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites off the edges. She said she had made them especially for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. It was a dream come true.

As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of a lack of knowledge. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to country people’s sayings. In those sayings was wisdom collected through the years.

When I finished the cookies, she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase. I had read A Tale of Two Cities, and it met my standards as a romantic novel.

She began to read. The way her voice said the words was nearly singing. When she finished reading, I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.

“How do you like that?”

It occurred to me that she expected a response. I had to speak.

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” It was the least I could do, but it was the most also.

“There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you visit, I want you to say it for me.”

On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.

I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild or Bailey’s sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson. I didn’t question why Mrs. Flowers had chosen me to give her attention to, nor did I realize that Momma might have asked her to talk to me. All I cared about was that she had made cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.

Negro girls in small Southern towns were given as thorough and irrelevant preparations for adulthood as rich white girls shown in magazines. Admittedly the training was not the same. While white girls learned to dance and sit gracefully with a teacup balanced on their knees, we learned to sew designs on dishtowels, pillowcases, and handkerchiefs. It was understood that all girls could iron and wash, but the more skilled tasks around the home, like setting a table, baking meat, and cooking vegetables without meat, had to be learned elsewhere. Usually at the source of those habits. During my tenth year, a white woman’s kitchen became my school.

Mrs. Viola Cullinan was a fat woman who lived in a three-bedroom house. She was unattractive until she smiled. Then the lines around her eyes and mouth disappeared, and her face looked friendly. She usually saved her smile until late afternoon when her woman friends dropped in and Miss Glory, the cook, served them cold drinks on the closed-in porch.

Miss Glory was very patient with me. She explained the different kinds of dishes. It took me a week to learn the difference between a salad plate, a bread plate, and a dessert plate. There were ice-cream glasses, wine glasses, green glass coffee cups with matching saucers, and water glasses. I was fascinated with them, with Mrs. Cullinan and her wonderful house.

On our way home one evening, Miss Glory told me that Mrs. Cullinan couldn’t have children. She said that the doctor had taken out all her lady parts. If Mrs. Cullinan was walking around without those essentials, it explained why she drank alcohol out of unmarked bottles. I felt pity for her. Mrs. Cullinan didn’t know what she missed. Or maybe she did. Poor Mrs. Cullinan.

For weeks I arrived early, left late, and tried very hard to make up for her childlessness. If she had had her own children, she wouldn’t have had to ask me to run a thousand errands from her back door to the back doors of her friends. Poor old Mrs. Cullinan.

Then one evening Miss Glory told me to serve the ladies on the porch. After I set the plate down and turned toward the kitchen, one of the woman asked, “What’s your name, girl?”

Mrs. Cullinan said, “She doesn’t talk much. Her name’s Margaret. As I understand it, she can talk when she wants to but she’s usually quiet as a little mouse. Aren’t you, Margaret?”

I smiled at her. Poor thing. No lady parts and she couldn’t even pronounce my name correctly.

“She’s a sweet little thing, though.”

“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you.”

I was angry all the way to the kitchen. That terrible woman would never have the chance to call me Mary because if I was starving I’d never work for her. Giggles came in off the porch. I wondered what they could be laughing about.

Whitefolks were so strange. Could they be talking about me?

Everybody knew that they shared more information than Negroes did. It was possible that Mrs. Cullinan had friends in St. Louis who heard about a girl from Stamps being in court and wrote to tell her. Maybe she knew about Mr. Freeman.

I felt sick, and Miss Glory told me to go home. I realized how foolish I was being before I got there. Of course Mrs. Cullinan didn’t know. Otherwise she wouldn’t have given me the two nice dresses that Momma cut down, and she certainly wouldn’t have called me a “sweet little thing.” My stomach felt fine, and I didn’t mention anything to Momma.

That evening I decided to write a poem about being white, fat, old, and without children. It was going to be a tragic poem. I would have to watch her carefully to capture her loneliness and pain.

The next day, she called me by the wrong name. Miss Glory and I were washing the lunch dishes when Mrs. Cullinan came to the doorway. “Mary?”

Miss Glory asked, “Who?”

Mrs. Cullinan knew and I knew. “I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days.”

Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret, ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”

“That’s too long. She’s Mary now. Heat that soup from last night and put it in the large bowl. Mary, I want you to carry it carefully.”

Every person I knew had a horror of being “called out of his name.” Miss Glory felt sorry for me for a second. Then, as she handed me the soup bowl, she said, “Don’t you mind, don’t pay attention to that. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you. You know, I’ve been working for her for twenty years.”

She held the back door open for me. “Twenty years. I wasn’t much older than you. My name used to be Hallelujah. That’s what my momma named me, but my boss gave me ‘Glory,’ and it stuck. I like it better, too.”

I was in the little path that ran behind the houses when Miss Glory shouted, “It’s shorter too.”

For a few seconds I wasn’t sure whether I would laugh (imagine being named Hallelujah) or cry (imagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenience). I had to leave the job, but the problem was going to be how to do it. Momma wouldn’t allow me to leave for just any reason.

For a week, I looked into Mrs. Cullinan’s face as she called me Mary. She ignored my coming late and leaving early. Miss Glory was a little annoyed because I had begun to leave egg on the dishes. I hoped that she would complain to our boss, but she didn’t.

Then Bailey solved my problem. He had me describe the contents of her cupboard and the particular plates she liked best. I kept his instructions in mind. On the next day when Miss Glory was hanging out clothes and I had again been told to serve the old ladies on the porch, I dropped the empty serving plate. When I heard Mrs. Cullinan scream, “Mary!” I picked up her favorite dish and two of the green glass cups in readiness. As she entered the kitchen door, I let them fall on the floor.

She crawled around the floor and picked up pieces of the cups and cried, “Oh, Momma. Oh, dear God. It’s Momma’s dishes from Virginia. Oh, Momma, I’m sorry.”

Miss Glory came running in from the yard and the women from the porch crowded around. Miss Glory was almost as upset as her boss. “You mean to say she broke our Virginia dishes? What are we gonna do?”

Mrs. Cullinan cried louder, “That clumsy nigger. Clumsy little black nigger.”

The old woman who had first named me Mary leaned

down and asked, “Who did it, Viola? Was it Mary? Who did it?” Everything was happening so fast I can’t remember whether her action or her words came first, but I know that Mrs. Cullinan said, “Her name’s Margaret, damn it, her name’s Margaret.” And she threw a piece of the broken plate at me.

I left the door wide open so all the neighbors could hear.

Mrs. Cullinan was right about one thing. My name wasn’t Mary.

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