A LOST WOOLWORTH’S PHOTOGRAPH
I suspect the main reason I ended up writing Lavina is on account of the fact that I lost my picture of Aline. I can see it so clearly. There’s her familiar small head. She’s wearing her best wig and looking straight at the camera. I think she had it taken at the Woolworth’s upstairs, not in the machine downstairs where you put in a quarter and it took a whole line of ugly images. The upstairs claimed to have a “professional photographer” in residence. In Aline’s lost photo, she selected the background of clouds against a cerulean sky. Her arms are folded and she’s resting her head on her strong brown arms. You can see the mole on her nose and that one of her front teeth was gold. The photographer managed to capture Aline’s beatific smile, one that radiated good humor, stoicism and intelligence.
Aline was my mother’s housekeeper and she came to work for us when I was nine years old. Three of her predecessors had run away screaming. We lived in a big house in those first years of Aline’s tenure. It was the house my parents were building at the time my father suffered a massive coronary following a pig-out at a Luau he and my mother attended on a Saturday night in February in Shreveport, Louisiana. He was forty-one years old. The house had four bedrooms, a kitchen, a breakfast room, an enormous den, a bookroom we called the library, a powder room and much, much more. The house wasn’t paid for and maybe that’s one of the reason’s he kicked off in such an untimely manner: to escape having to deal with the folly of his and my mother’s excesses. My mother who had never held a job, took over my father’s store. Aline stayed home with us.
She would always tell me when she saw that big house, and listened to my mother’s long list, she didn’t know what she was going to do, and then she saw me and she knew it was all going to be just fine. It was, more or less love at first sight. I don’t remember this at all, but apparently, I took her by the arm and showed her around and told her how to do things that pleased my mother. How not to get in trouble; my mother’s my sister’s and brother’s peculiarities, and so on. It sounds an awful lot like me to this day! As my family with my mother at the helm, began our descent down the socio economic ladder, until at her death, she was broke, Aline remained a stabilizing force of kindness, good sense and calm in a planet of craziness, ill health, cigarettes and pills. She emptied the ashtrays and dusted the pill bottles with her purple feather duster. She made fried chicken, okra, tomatoes and corn, baked ham and biscuits. My mother loved games and puzzles, and Aline, I remember, used to be able to put together the genius cube no one else could. She didn’t know she was a genius; she put it together as she was tidying the living room in the morning.
On the one hand, there was my mother roiling about our poverty, the bills she had to pay, and her bad luck at being widowed before she was forty. She used to make me call my father’s brothers to ask for money. Aline, on the other hand, never complained. Five dollars was a fortune—and I guess because I never seemed very welcomed in my own family, I bonded with her in an unusual way. Her values became my values. I have never psychologically joined the middle class world to this day.
If I had three wishes, after the first one for zillions of dollars that I’d share with her and others, number two would be for Aline and me to sit down with a tuna sandwich in front of the TV and watch an old episode of Oprah. Her knowing that such a person, as Ms. Winfrey could exist in the same world, as she did would have been a source of infinite contentment to her. Aline’s grace was as natural to her, as my mother’ martyrdom and neurasthenia was to her. I’d take Aline as a role model any day. The third wish would involve another TV set and Aline. Where I’d get to see the expression on her face, on election night, when President Obama and Michelle walked the streets of
D.C. holding hands, having captured the heart of the world.
The last time I saw Aline was at my mother’s funeral. But it was the time before that I remember more. I was home in Louisiana, visiting. By this time, Mother was under full time care. Aline used to go visit her and cook for her. I was driving her home; we were passing by the big public high school the one my sister and brother had attended. We were stopped at a red light.
She quietly remarked, “Used to be, when you coming home on the bus, you looking down, don’t see black legs, but now you do.” That was her one and only comment on the massive changes that took place in her lifetime. I am also happy to report on that same ride home, she asked me if I ever heard of a school called Harvard. Her grand or great grandson had gotten a scholarship there. I thought about the genius cube then.
I’d give anything not to have lost her photo. It went with me to college, to all the different places I’ve lived. During one of our last moves, it vanished. I’d trade any of my favorite things to have that dime store photo back: silver candlesticks, a Chinese vase, my aquamarine ring. The fact that it’s a commonplace for me to think up such fantasies; ones that carry with them the passionate feelings of childhood, is just a small measure of what she meant to me, the example she set, my great gratitude to her and her presence, like the working of grace, that still beams light—even on my darkest hours.