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A tale of two families
By NORMA WATKINS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000
I got the call at my summer hideout on the northern coast of California. Marie, our 89-year-old nurse, was sick down in Oakland. My younger daughter said, "Drive down there and make her well."
Relationships between black and white people in the South are thick with complications. "They're servants," my mother told us, the word meant to be a wall. We were not to get involved, not to ask questions about what they did when they weren't with us. Why? Because, involvement invited complications -- requests for money, family squabbles -- and complications were messy.
I knew the rules, but I loved Marie. She came to work for us when I was 3 weeks old. She was my real mother, the one who was there. While my own mother played tennis, Marie crawled down a muddy bank and pulled me out of the creek the day I slipped into the ravine.
Every afternoon, when she was done with the housework and I woke from my nap, we walked to Shady Nook and had NuGrape sodas. The highlight of both our days.
"I clean, but I don't cook," she told Mama. The only thing she made were carrots, sliced into rounds and boiled with sugar and butter. At night, while my parents danced at the Club, we ate her wonderful carrots, sitting together on the couch listening to the big Philco. "Heh, heh, heh, the Shadow knows. . . ." We stared at the yellow light from the tubes and shivered.
She slept in the twin bed next to mine, and I stared into the dark trying to see her undress. She was able to pull a long white nightshirt on over her clothes without showing more than her ankles. Then she got on her knees and prayed.
Marie believed in discipline. We were not allowed to talk back or to get "too big for our britches." We were neither too old nor too young for our wants to hurt us. She preferred tiny children. My middle sister after me, then my youngest sister, my children, theirs. It hurt to grow out of her affections, to cross a line at age 12 and be called "Miss."
My children settled in cities up and down the east coast. "I didn't quit," Marie said. "I never stopped taking care of babies. You all moved away."
We thought Marie was ours. We knew nothing of her California brother, Leon, and his wife, Hareen. Or their daughter, Linette, whose daughter attends University of California Davis. We knew Marie had a baby brother, Earl, but he lived in Michigan. We never met him. That was fine. Marie belonged to us. These other people were shadows; she didn't talk about them and we didn't ask.
Earl retired to Mississippi, back to his family house in Morton, and Marie began having trouble. She wrecked her car and lost her license. She caught pneumonia every winter. Earl and his wife, Iris, put her in Methodist Hospital until she got better, then moved her to Morton with them. She wouldn't stay long. "I've been doing for myself for 80 years," and she'd go home.
This summer, Earl got it into his head to take Marie on a road trip. In his big white Buick, he, Iris and Marie headed west to see niece Janice in Los Angeles, then up to Oakland to stay with Leon and Hareen. By the time they got to Oakland, Marie was sick. "Talking like a little child," Linette told me, "from not getting enough oxygen to her brain." The doctor at Kaiser put her on a portable breathing machine, gave her four units of blood and said she suffered from severe emphysema.
"Second-hand smoke," Linette said. "Auntie never smoked a day in her life."
I thought of my parents, puffing away on their Luckies and Camels, me with my Winstons, my sisters and their brands. Not only had we underpaid and overworked Marie, we'd given her a fatal disease.
After the call, I drove four hours south to Oakland. Marie lay propped in a recliner in Hareen's living room, dressed in a blue bathrobe and long white socks. She looked like a small brown bird. "Won't eat," Iris said. "A little breakfast, a few pieces of cucumber and lettuce for supper." I took her a pair of flannel pajamas and wrote a $500 check for the first month's rental on the breathing machine. Blood money.
I spoke to Marie about using the machine the way the doctor ordered. "I'll do my best," she said, but she wouldn't promise. Brothers Leon and Earl were nowhere to be seen. Gone to run an errand, Hareen said. Half an hour into my visit, the big white car pulled up. "Here they are now." I was glad. I wanted to meet these brothers who had left the South. Marie wasn't a servant anymore, and she was the only mother I had. I was ready to make the connections.
The white car took off. "Now where's he going?" Hareen said. "Must have forgotten something at the store."
Earl never came back. I gave up and left. The next week, with permission from the doctor, he headed home with Marie and the breathing machine riding in back.
My Mississippi sisters took up the cause. Marie used a Dr. Smith, a man none of us had met, but whom we suspected of being incompetent. How come he'd put her in the hospital all those times for pneumonia and never diagnosed the emphysema? My sisters made an appointment with a pulmonary specialist and drove her there.
"Was Earl home when you picked her up?"
"No, Iris said he was off somewhere."
"Have either one of you ever met Earl?" They hadn't.
The specialist said Marie had a touch of emphysema, but that most 89-year-old women did. She didn't have the black lung the Kaiser doctor found. He'd gotten her heart in the X-ray. She didn't need the breathing machine. She should eat more, but Dr. Smith's prescription for heart medicine was correct for her condition.
It began to look as if Mississippi medicine wasn't so bad, and California medicine not so superior. We hadn't killed her, no more than time and hard work kills us all.
"We've always been friends, haven't we?" Marie said. We have; we are. It's complicated, but not to Earl and Leon. They want nothing to do with us.
Norma Watkins is a writer living in Miami.
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