I vividly recall images of low things: Lucretia’s pinkie toes sticking out through holes she’d cut in the sides of brown oxfords, her sturdy brown calf muscles, the concrete floor of our big Cincinnati basement. While I raced my tricycle in circles around her feet, my red Keds shoving down the pedals, she thwacked the iron against the board.
Lucretia tackled the ironing every Thursday, starting with five white, broadcloth dress shirts that Mother had washed in Fels Naptha, rinsed with blueing, fed through the ringer, then dipped in liquid starch and hung on the line to dry. In the summer the shirts billowed across the backyard, the sails of my father’s ascent to management. In the winter they crowded each other on lines strung in the basement, dried by the heat escaping from our clean up-to-date gas furnace. It was 1950, and I was five years old.
If Mother ironed, after a few laps of my personal Indie 500, she’d shoo me with her hand, “Play somewhere else. You’re making me dizzy.” I always ignored first warnings.
“Betsy Wetsy wants to play with you.” She’d point to the corner of the basement set up as a play house. Only a second warning.
If I kept going, she’d thump the iron down on its heel, “Go.”
Lucretia never shooed me, just kept up the rhythm of the iron and made like I wasn’t there. It’s not like I expected her to chirp “How’s my little Claudie today?” and pat my curls the way my visiting grandmothers would, but I couldn’t even make her mad.
Mama and Lucretia were both twenty-six years old and looked more or less alike to me, tall, smooth, athletic women with manes of thick curly hair, Lucretia’s gleaming black and Mama’s a fluffy chestnut brown. Along with the ironing, Lucretia helped with the heavy cleaning. She and Mama scrubbed the rugs on their knees, took down the draperies, moved all the furniture, laughing they were better off without Daddy’s help.
Lucretia hummed no matter what she was up to, but when she and Mama worked together, they sang hymns, Lucretia’s soprano as strong and clear as liquid amber, Mama’s soothing alto harmonizing beneath her. They sang about looking “over Jordan,” or having a “home in glory land that outshines the sun.” Just before Christmas, hanging ruffled organdy curtains in the dining room, they transfixed me in the doorway with “Silent Night,” Mama with her hand over one ear to hear herself. Mama smiled when Lucretia was with her.
Lucretia ironed and cleaned. She did not babysit, but just before lunch one day, Mother put my little sister down for a nap, then hurried into the kitchen wrestling her arms into her dark green dress coat.
“I’m sorry to leave you with the girls.” she said.
“We’ll do all right, Miz Helen. You go on.”
“Claudia,” Mama squatted down so we could come to an eye-level understanding. “I have to run an errand. While I’m gone, Lucretia is in charge and I want you to behave yourself.” She nodded her head until I nodded mine, then gave me an appreciative squeeze to seal the deal.
I wasn’t a clinging child, but had never been left in the care of anyone but a grandmother. When Mother walked out the door, I felt alone and unfettered, like someone had unlocked my cage.
For lunch, Lucretia tried to make my favorite sandwich, bologna on white bread with ketchup.
I puckered my face. “I hate ketchup,” I lied. I loved ketchup, could open a sandwich and lick its sweet red tang off the bread.
“What do you want?”
“I don’t wanna eat.”
The staircase from the second floor paused at a landing four steps from the bottom. If you followed the carpet and turned right, you arrived in the living room. If you turned left, the rubber-treaded stairs ended at the edge of the kitchen sink. They were flanked on the left side by a short tiled wall. I liked to put one hand on the end of the little wall and the other on the edge of the sink and walk backward up the stairs till I was in a tent-shaped position, or, if I felt like it, I could lock out my elbows, draw up my knees and swing my legs back and forth, finally leaping into the kitchen.
If Mother caught me, she’d grab me off the stair and deposit me in the kitchen with a painless fanny-tap. “How many times have I told you to stop doing that? You’re going to get hurt.” The punishment never discouraged the crime.
With Lucretia standing at the sink, holding the bologna side of my rejected sandwich in one hand and the ketchup side in the other, I braced my hands and started swinging.
“Get down from there. You gonna get hurt.”
“My mother lets me.”
“I know she don’t let you.”
I swung my legs as hard as I could and launched my five-year-old body off the steps, stumbling headlong into Lucretia’s thighs and the slight curve of her stomach. I was surprised by how warm she felt and how solid. She didn’t move. I wanted to press my cheek into the buttons on the front of her housedress, wrap my arms around her hips and stay there until she kneeled down to look at me, but my grasp was fleeting. I ran away wildly. Later, when I slithered back into her presence, she barely noticed. No punishment could have been worse.
Mama always sounded like she was only asking Lucretia to do things, the same way she sounded like she was asking me, but I knew that “no” wasn’t an acceptable answer, and that while I might attempt such insouciance, Lucretia would not. I didn’t know that Lucretia was born in a sharecropper’s shack in Alabama and Mama in the home of her prominent grandparents, that my mother had a husband and that Lucretia’s was dead, that she’d killed him, or so I was told later, with a skillet, when he came after her in a drunken rage, or that she’d left her three baby boys behind when she came up north to find work.
Mother had developed her muscles in red tasseled boots as the majorette for her high school band and lifting heavy trays in her parents’ restaurant. Lucretia developed hers picking cotton and carrying firewood. Mother had graduated from high school. Lucretia hadn’t started. It never dawned on me that Lucretia’s River Jordan might have been the muddy Ohio, that she had crossed it, in her early twenties, with nothing but a cousin or an aunt who had gone before her. How could I realize that Cincinnati, if not the Promised Land, was, at least, a land of more promise? Important as I imagined myself to be, to Lucretia, I was simply working conditions, less difficult to tolerate than the heat in a cotton field or the mosquitoes breeding in an irrigation ditch or an abusive husband.
At school, as we lined up outside the classroom, preparing to march in behind the teacher, a boy already missing his front teeth pointed to a dark brown, silver dollar-sized birthmark on my left arm. “Look,” he hissed, “You’re a nigger, and it never all warshed off.” I knew he meant to be rude, but in an age before television or preschool I was too sheltered to understand the nature of such a taunt. The teacher’s face flared.
“Young man,” she scolded, “We do not use that word.”
At home I had been taught to say colored or negro. Perhaps that wasn’t the first time I’d heard it the word nigger, but it was the first time it made an impression on me. I felt curious about such a powerful word. I suspected it was meant to describe undesirable people, not Lucretia, but I wasn’t sure.
I pedaled my tricycle in counter-clockwise circles around Lucretia, feeling cranky that she wouldn’t acknowledge me. I studied the sway of her weight from one leg to the other as she moved back and forth over a shirt. The word came into my brain. I stopped my tricycle near the wide end of the board and looked up. “Lucretia, are you a nigger?”
Heat rose, not just from the shirt. She sat the iron on its heel and folded her arms across her chest, trained a quizzical gaze and her complete attention on me. I squirmed.
“Well, lemme ask you this, child.”
I glanced away from the censure on her face. She waited till I looked back at her.
“You white trash?”
Trash was nasty stuff. I guessed not. “No.” I said, rolling the trike back and forth.
“Okay then. I’m no nigger.”
I stared at the floor, ashamed but satisfied. Lucretia had shared a part of herself with me: her pride, her authority — things I could feel but not name. I wanted to say, sorry, but Lucretia picked up her iron, and I pedaled away, watching my red tennies move up and down.
Claudia Geagan has degrees in English and finance. She spent most of her life working in financial services in cold and crowded places like New York and Detroit. Now she writes and plays golf in the mountains of north west South Carolina.