We had a black nanny and housekeeper briefly when I was a kid. Even writing it down makes me cringe from the white privilege. My physical impressions of Edie are clear still: the short, broad shape of her in slacks, peter pan collar, and sweater; a pair of inscrutable dark eyes; the wigs she wore that Mom called ‘fright wigs’ because they were the kind you could only buy at Halloween. What did my Mom know about black women’s wigs?
What I remember about Edie the most is an air of calm; she didn’t bustle and she never seemed frantic. This wasn’t like our family, where it seemed someone was always whipping through the room in a state of agitation. We were always running late, losing things, grabbing paper towels to sop up a spill, scrambling into socks with clumsy fingers.
Edie worked for our family from the time that I was an infant until I was perhaps four. Then she worked for us a little later, but this time just cleaning house. When I was in my teens, Edie hadn’t been cleaning for us in a number of years. But sometimes she would call my mom to talk and inevitably she would ask to speak to my sisters and I directly. Following the cues of my older siblings, I either dodged the call by frantically waving my hands and mouthing ‘no’ or I took it with a sullen expression on my face, like someone being forced into an obligation.
I think the reason we tried to avoid the call was that we didn’t remember Edie much and it felt like an awkward exchange with an elder who wasn’t family. Maybe there was a little sense that her ‘otherness’ was an excuse; we certainly were raised with a lot of racism in the family. Yet this perspective might be a distortion. I am thinking of an elderly white lady friend of the family with whom I would definitely have felt the same stilted discomfort if we were placed on the phone together.
In retrospect, it would have been a good idea if my Mom had pulled us aside at some point and made a nice movie speech about Edie and why we owed her a small degree of affection or at least respect.
“That old woman, with her cheap wig and her moth-eaten sweaters, was the closest thing to a mother you had when I had to punch the clock to get this family through the mess Carter made of the economy! And I’ll be damned if you ever, ever make her feel like spending a minute on the horn to ask her how she’s doing is anything but a pleasure! Do you hear me?”
She would have waved her finger at us as she spoke and we – sufficiently cowed by the force of her conviction – would have exchanged guilty glances. Watery music would have underscored the scene and one of us would have suggested we go out, get some ice cream, and take it to Edie’s house. The director of photography would pull away as we all spooned dessert from bowls on our housekeeper’s porch, smiling and laughing, lens flares nudging bubbles of light across the screen as the camera tilted upward through a stand of pines.
Our mom never really forced our hand like that, making us confront our attitude problem. She did sometimes say, “Poor old Edie, I don’t know why you kids…” She would trail off, distracted by the can she was opening for dinner or something she had been reading in a magazine before Edie called.
A few years ago, my mom told me she had invited Edie to come live with her. I had always known that Edie and her only child, a daughter, had a strained relationship. The daughter had become a Jehovah Witness and Edie could never come to respect that choice. With Edie’s mind and body beginning to fail, she felt she had no place to go. Mom set her up in the guest room.
Edie felt haunted, it seemed, in her dementia. She often told members of the family about the man who would come into the house when she was alone, and how she didn’t like him. He would stand at the foot of her bed and stare her down. We couldn’t imagine it was real. In our old house, back when I was a kid, where Edie had lived in for a while, she used to talk about the noises the ghost made in the basement. My father swore it was the belching of the furnace.
My mom would further dismiss the ghost theory, “No one ever even died in this house, unless you count the son of the last owner, but he was killed in a car accident at the end of the driveway, so even that doesn’t make sense.”
This time around, we were sure that Edie was just imagining things. Eventually she became so agitated by the idea of the strange man that she didn’t want to stay with Mom and Dad anymore. Her daughter was convinced to come pick her up; she put Edie in a home after that, where she stayed until her death some years later.
I wonder if Edie’s daughter visited her frequently. When her mother called, did she look at the number on caller ID and have the same desire to dodge it that we did as kids?
Edie didn’t ask for anything for herself when she spoke with you. She asked how school was going and when you said okay, she’d reply with, “Mmm-hmm.” You could hear her chewing gum, which she always did. Then the silence would stretch for a while and she would say, “And how you behaving?” When you’d say you were being good, she’d give another ‘mmm-hmm’ but this one sounded more doubtful. More gum chewing. Then Mom would take mercy on both of us and take the receiver back, getting Edie to chat about people they both knew.
I have a strong sense of myself. I know what I want and how to ask for help when needed. I make a point of fostering only meaningful relationships, knowing I want to make room for conversation only with people who enjoy me as much as I enjoy them. I am guarded a little bit, but I never have to be at the mercy of relationships that aren’t equal. It is perhaps one of the many subtle advantages of privilege.
What choices did Edie have in life? Who would she have been if she had the same opportunities as I did? I had so many choices that I’ve been wasteful with some of them. Maybe Edie’s daughter saw how her mother’s life shaped her into someone who took what was offered and accepted it. Maybe the daughter made it a point to question everything, even her faith, and to make a study of using choice to shape herself. This difference between them would have been profound and it was perhaps what distanced them ultimately.
I have a lot of trouble separating prejudice from my musings about Edie. If we were the color-blind society that some would like to pretend we are, than my recollections about her would probably only ponder how children don’t like chit-chat with their elders. If we were more honoring of age in this country, perhaps there would be little else to consider. Because I would never have made Edie do all the heavy lifting when I got on the phone with her. Instead I would have made it equal.
“How are you doing, Edie?”
The bigger yet picture suggests that if our society wasn’t laced through with race crime, than very likely we would not have had an Edie to look out for us as children. That a white family in a small home with only middling incomes could afford to pay a black woman a very likely small going rate is in and of itself the legacy of slavery. Centuries of abhorrent, racist policies had caused our very different paths to intersect for a while.
I’ve inherited a lot of white guilt, but strangely my mother – who sides politically with so much that disenfranchises people of color – is the only one of us who never hesitated to take Edie’s calls and even gave her a place to stay when she needed it. Edie knew she could ask.
Race is as complicated as people are themselves. I hope we can solve it, but it will likely take more willingness to connect and less abstract liberalism to bridge the divide. Less expressing that we are all one from the safety of a social media bubble and more sitting at the same table and opening up about our conflicted and incomplete impressions of one another.