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
sixties, she took care of me: she gave me my bath, prepared my meals,
morning before school, as I sat on the tall yellow chair by the kitchen
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,
learn, was with her own three children, living with their grandmother
Georgia. She had a son named Papa--the nickname was given to him because
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
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,
appeared awkward. Yet they seemed to be filled with a sense of joy that
longed to touch. How exciting and special it was to have these people
house. It was as if ambassadors had come from another land, yes, royalty!
was attracted to the rich, smooth darkness of their skin, and wondered
perceived me and my dull white family. I also wondered whether they felt
that their mother lived so far away from them, taking care of another
I recall a song Celeste used to sing, while she did the laundry, down
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
I thought it strange that a girl should be singing about the sadness of
another girl. Now I can see that her sadness concerned her own children
left behind. I too felt grief, though whether for her, for her children,
myself who would also be abandoned--none of this was clear.
But grief there was when Celeste finally left. Actually, my parents fired
a couple of months after her children had come up north to live permanently
their grandmother in Queens, not far from our house. She had been pilfering
groceries and liquor, bringing them to her family's apartment. Finally,
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
and my mother before Celeste ran down the basement steps to her room to
followed her, saying, “I want you to know I don't care what's happened.
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
the only person to attend to my needs. Maybe she never even liked me;
it was impossible, given the circumstances and her alienation from her
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
It was 1956. I was in the tub for my nightly bath. I was never comfortable
the tub, having to view my own six year old body with its soft rolls of
stomach, belly, thighs. I liked to gaze into the water, astonished at
bubbles that played upon the surface. Celeste washed my hair as I lay
my head under the faucet, my hair hanging down toward the drain. She told
sit up and washed my body with a soapy cloth: right arm, left arm, legs,
front. Then she laughed, “Look at the water! Look at how dirty you
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
are,” she ran out of the room in a rage. There was an exchange between
and my mother, until my mother stormed into the bathroom. While Celeste
in the hallway, my mother slapped me, over and over until my arms and
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
tub, but was forced to remember--and to begin to heal--yesterday. I had
myself to one of the famous mineral baths in Saratoga Springs Park in
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.
the Saratoga baths, the attendant assigned to me was a striking black
When she told me to remove my robe, when she took me by the hand to walk
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
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.”