I Had to Leave a Little Girl

Published in the collection of memoirs, Like A Second Mother, Trio Press, Halifax, Canada, 1999.


     I thought about Celeste yesterday, after many years. She was our “live-in
maid,” as we called her then--when I was a child. From 1955 into the early
sixties, she took care of me: she gave me my bath, prepared my meals, and every
morning before school, as I sat on the tall yellow chair by the kitchen stove,
she brushed out my hair, twisting it into a ponytail with a thick colorful
garter. I don't recall any real affection between us--Celeste's heart, I would
learn, was with her own three children, living with their grandmother in
Georgia. She had a son named Papa--the nickname was given to him because he was
the only male child of a fatherless family; yet the name of the man who
fathered her children was Sonny. It was a great ironic twist. All of
us--Celeste, my family, even her children when they eventually came to New York
to visit--would joke about the reversal of names.

     I remember the day I met her children, who had come for a holiday visit.
Sitting in our living room on our elaborate crushed-velvet furniture, they
appeared awkward. Yet they seemed to be filled with a sense of joy that I
longed to touch. How exciting and special it was to have these people in the
house. It was as if ambassadors had come from another land, yes, royalty! I
was attracted to the rich, smooth darkness of their skin, and wondered how they
perceived me and my dull white family. I also wondered whether they felt badly
that their mother lived so far away from them, taking care of another woman's
children.

     I recall a song Celeste used to sing, while she did the laundry, down in the
basement:

I'm sad to say, I'm on my way
Won't be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town.

     I would follow her around downstairs, helping with the laundry, singing along.
I thought it strange that a girl should be singing about the sadness of leaving
another girl. Now I can see that her sadness concerned her own children she had
left behind. I too felt grief, though whether for her, for her children, or
myself who would also be abandoned--none of this was clear.

     But grief there was when Celeste finally left. Actually, my parents fired her
a couple of months after her children had come up north to live permanently with
their grandmother in Queens, not far from our house. She had been pilfering
groceries and liquor, bringing them to her family's apartment. Finally, after
my mother had caught her “red handed,” as she put it, bagging up steak, tuna,
coffee--she was ordered to leave. There were some violent words between Celeste
and my mother before Celeste ran down the basement steps to her room to pack. I
followed her, saying, “I want you to know I don't care what's happened. I'm
sorry you are leaving. I love you.”

     “I'm just glad to get out of this damned house!” she replied.

     I was crushed--for although I had never felt real love from her, she had been
the only person to attend to my needs. Maybe she never even liked me; perhaps
it was impossible, given the circumstances and her alienation from her own
children and culture. There was, however, an even deeper seed of bitterness
between us, planted early on, a year after she had first come into my family.

     It was 1956. I was in the tub for my nightly bath. I was never comfortable in
the tub, having to view my own six year old body with its soft rolls of fat:
stomach, belly, thighs. I liked to gaze into the water, astonished at the tiny
bubbles that played upon the surface. Celeste washed my hair as I lay back with
my head under the faucet, my hair hanging down toward the drain. She told me to
sit up and washed my body with a soapy cloth: right arm, left arm, legs, back,
front. Then she laughed, “Look at the water! Look at how dirty you are!” And
yes, the surface of the water seemed to have a darkish film. When I responded,
“Well, look at your skin! Look at how dark it is! I'm no dirtier than you
are,” she ran out of the room in a rage. There was an exchange between Celeste
and my mother, until my mother stormed into the bathroom. While Celeste waited
in the hallway, my mother slapped me, over and over until my arms and face
turned crimson. Later, my legs and back would turn black and blue.

That was 40 years ago. I don't often think of Celeste or the beating in the
tub, but was forced to remember--and to begin to heal--yesterday. I had treated
myself to one of the famous mineral baths in Saratoga Springs Park in New York,
the evening prior to presenting a paper on Sylvia Plath and giving a poetry
reading of my own at the National Women's Studies Association Convention. At
the Saratoga baths, the attendant assigned to me was a striking black woman.
When she told me to remove my robe, when she took me by the hand to walk me
naked into the tub, I panicked. She gave me a questioning look, but continued,
“You'll see a lot of dirt in the water. Don't worry, that's good dirt. The
minerals pull it out of the body.”

“That's good dirt?” I asked, wide-eyed and childlike, when she returned to take
me out, wrapping me gently in moist, warm sheets.

“Yes,” she smiled, “that's good dirt.”