I once worked for a woman who was a former slave. She was a slave because her mother was a slave, and her mother before her. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed about a decade before she was born. In reality, it had little effect on her life. From what I gathered, the actual changes wrought by the Proclamation were slow to come to the deep South. While her mother was declared “free,” she stayed in service with the family that claimed her. Her daughter escaped freedom only by moving North. I met her at the end of her life. She was in her late nineties, she had dementia, and, for the most part, her vision was gone. I cared for her during the summer of 1976 when I worked for the Visiting Nurses’ Association of Martha’s Vineyard.
She was a petite woman with roasted almond skin coloring. Her hair, cut close to her head was mostly white, but even at her age, it was laced with black. She used a cane, but showed amazing dexterity mounting and descending a steep, turning set of stairs several times each day. Beyond some basic duties of personal care, I sat with her.
Her favorite spot was out on the small porch off of her bedroom. From our perch, it felt like we were nestled in the trees. We settled into two chairs and rocked. We’d chat sometimes, but we would often sit in companionable silence. After some time, I’d see her chin dip, then rest on her chest. Sometimes I would sneak downstairs to do some dishes while she slept. One day, I went downstairs to do just that and when I returned, her seat was empty. My stomach lurched. I raced to look over the porch rail. I felt adrenalin pumping though me even after I had convinced myself she hadn’t taken a header. I found her in a back bedroom, kneeling alongside of a twin bed.
She was smoothing the cover, smoothing the cover, her hands stretched out like small, flat irons. I asked her what on earth she was doing. She said, “Missus likes the beds smooth,” she said. I took both of her hands between mine and helped her up. “I’ll do it, later,” I said. “Let’s get you settled in your chair for now.”
In five minutes, she had forgotten the entire episode. About an hour later, when her daughter came home to relieve me, I went upstairs to get my book bag. I paused in the small, dark bedroom that housed two twin beds. I ran my hand over the coverlets of each. Just to make sure they were smooth.