Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I grew up where people had maids. That's what we called them, anyway. Rose came to our family in 1961, two years before I was born. She would ride the bus in the morning and be at our house by seven or so. Then we would take her home sometime in the late afternoon, often after she had prepared our supper. She would occasionally show up on Saturdays, but never, ever on Sundays.

Rose was an immense woman, and her dark, heavy, almost 6 foot, 250 lb. frame loomed large over my life. And she was strong. I would go to school and come home to find an entire bedroom rearranged or furniture transferred from my grandmother's house next door down to our house and she had done this. Alone. There wasn't a jar she couldn't open or hair she couldn't braid or a chicken she couldn't fry. She could iron for hours, watch soap operas for hours, and rock a sick kid for hours.

The first day she came to work she wanted to make my mother a banana cream pie to show off her handiwork. Rose had never used an electric mixer before but she set to work anyway with my mom's Mixmaster. Somewhere along the way she wanted to stop the thing but didn't know how so she did what seemed logical, she stuck her fingers in the beaters to stop them from turning. Best I can tell, her fingers were tangled and twisted and caught up in the beaters like spaghetti around a fork. And then Rose panicked. Her lofty frame grew wobbly and her face turned white. My mom was able to get her on the ground and called the fire department. They weren't able to do a thing for the poor woman but my father came home and, with some wire cutters, freed her strong, meaty fingers. Not a one of them was broken. Rose came back the next day and the next and the next for decades to come but never again used the electric mixer. Or any other electrical appliance.

Rose had a funny predisposition for kleptomania. It was as if, being part of the family in so many ways, she was free to make use of our possessions as she saw fit. One time my mother took her some food after she had surgery and there was Rose, on her bed with her head upon one of my mother's monogrammed pillowcases. My mother wisely didn't say a word. After the occasional visit to her home we would come out exclaiming "So THAT'S where that went!". I doubt she ever took anything of any real value, except for perhaps the Beatles dolls, but even if she had, we really didn't care. She was one of us.

Rose continued to work for my mother and my grandmother until 1991, when my grandmother went into a nursing home. Thirty years of love and loyalty, with some laundry and dusting thrown in for good measure. Even after that my mother kept in regular contact with her and I and my own family would go by and visit when we came in town. The last time I saw Rose she had shrunk a good six inches or so and I could see her eye to eye and I noticed something for the first time, she had the most beautiful eyes. Deep, dark BLUE eyes.

We never knew very much about Rose's history. Somewhere along the way I heard that her mother was born in the 1867 in Louisville, KY. Rose had to come to Chattanooga via New Orleans. Her husband had been killed in WWII. She had a son in St. Louis. But we were really her family.

A couple of years before she died my mother finally found a copy of Rose's birth certificate. She was born in April 2, 1896. She had come to work for us, to begin her almost 40 years as part of our family, at the age of 65. Rose died in February 2000, two months before her 104th birthday. At her funeral, in front of the urn full of her ashes, I got up and spoke about Rose and, with a voice full of longing and sadness and joy, told stories of growing up with Rose as a fixture in my life. My second mother.

Rose had made her burial wishes clear to my mother. Rose wanted to be buried in a dress that my mother had bought her, but Rose's son preferred cremation, seeing how it was less expensive. So cremation it was. About a year later the news story broke about the crematorium in Noble, GA that had not been cremating the bodies but was stockpiling them around the property. Lo and behold, Rose was there. I can't remember if they found her under a tree or if I just picture her sitting there, enjoying the shade, but there she was, toe tag and all. That urn at her funeral was nothing but a vase of Quickrete. I think she would have chuckled. So this time Rose got her wish and was buried. And her son got his wish. He never paid for anything other than a cremation.

Some people assume that those of us from the South, those of us who grew up with black maids, were prejudiced. I don't know. I guess we were, in some ways. Who isn't, if you get right down to it and are really honest? But we loved Rose and she loved us. And that is all that matters.

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