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Authors: Eleanora E. Tate

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Celeste's Harlem Renaissance (22 page)

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
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“I know. What can I give you as a special little gift of how much I’ve loved having you here?”

Come back with me,
I thought. “That’s so nice. You are — well, you’re like Momma and not like Momma at the same time. You know what I mean? I guess that’s why I want to be around you and have you back home, so it’ll be a little bit like having Momma again. But you’re not like Momma because you do so many exciting things, or you did. Being with you has been an experience that I’ll never ever forget. I won’t want to leave you, anyway. You’re fun, now that we’re not scrubbing floors. And — and so is New York. I just want to go home. I think.” I stopped. “I don’t know what I think.” I was about to cry.

When Aunti kept quiet, I tried again. “Aunt Valentina, you’ve taught me so much. You — I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into the exact words.”

“I know, I know,” she said softly. “So much is going on right now. But we’ll always have each other, even though we won’t always be together. And I will try to get down there, I swear I will. I can’t say exactly when right now.”

“All right.” I thought hard. “I wouldn’t mind having some of that lemonade and cherries cologne. Wasn’t that what you dabbed behind my ears when
Shuffle Along
opened? Aunt Society wouldn’t ever let me wear anything that smelled good, not even real talcum powder. She didn’t want boys sniffing after me. All she ever gave me was baking soda to dust under my arms.”

“That woman’s so country. You can have the whole bottle. It’s from Paris. You don’t need to dab much to make your presence known. Your momma’s favorite was Tunisian Dreams. I only have a tiny bit left, so I’m saving it until I can buy some more. It’s a very old Parisian perfume and hard to find.” She slipped out of bed, opened a tiny bottle in her top drawer, and held it to my nose. I almost fainted. It smelled like Momma’s neck. Tears came to my eyes. I wanted to wrap myself around that smell.

“I’ll put some on a handkerchief for you to keep back home, and I’ll get you some if I ever run across more. Society still probably won’t like you wearing cologne, but she won’t be able to do anything about it, in her condition.”

With Tunisian Dreams dazzling my nostrils and my memories, I snuggled against Aunti one last time. It was like sleeping with Momma again, almost.

And then it was time to go. I stood in the hot late-July air of the Harlem train station with Aunti’s pretty red and black valises, my schoolbag, and Dede. Miss D was by me with her bags and our food. I had tucked the Tunisian Dreams–soaked handkerchief into my blouse, and I’d put some French soap, a box of real talcum powder, my Statue of Liberty statue, the autographed
Shuffle Along
programs, and Walker hair jars into my schoolbag. Aunti wanted me to put them in a valise, but I wasn’t taking another chance. Losing my valise before meant I lost my Raleigh keepsakes. I didn’t want to lose my little New York treasures.

Aunti hugged and kissed me with tears standing in her eyes. She bit her lip and glanced from me to Miss D. “I told you last night I’d come down. I will, say, the last of August.”

“You will? You promise?” She nodded. “Oh, good!” I hugged her again, hard. I could stand Aunt Society by myself for a month, I guessed. She and Miss D stared at each other, then they fell on each other’s necks, jabbering and crying. The porter hurried us onto the train to our seats, and the next thing I knew, I was on my way back to North Carolina.

I wore my blue skirt, white waist, and good ole Buster Browns, but Miss D was dressed fit to kill. “Because a Colored woman should always dress in her best when traveling,” she explained when I asked. “If you go in trifling clothes, they’ll treat you in a trifling way. My, you smell good. Don’t wear too much of that to church else you’ll make the preacher come out the pulpit and beg forgiveness for his sinful thoughts.”

I laughed until I thought about Aunt Society. “She was a mean ole bat when she was healthy. What am I gonna do with her now? I can’t pop her upside the snout. I
get low-down right back, like not feed her or give her the wrong medicine if she makes things difficult for me.”

“Celeste, behave and ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ She’s probably scared that this same child she’s been so ornery to is now supposed to keep her from death’s door,” said Miss D. I nodded.

The hours flew by. But when we entered Virginia, I began to dread reaching Raleigh. “Sister, your face is wrinkled up worse than a crunch of paper.” Miss D must have been watching me. “What’s wrong? Miss your Aunti Val and Harlem already?”

“I’m thinking about how I’m gonna miss you when you leave me in Richmond,” I whispered, trying to keep my fear from seeping into my voice. All I could think about was being cooped up in the train alone and then cooped up in the house alone with a crotchety, sick aunt.

“Surprise! My ticket’ll allow me to come right along into Raleigh with you. I plan to stay overnight with you-all, if that’s all right, and go on to Gertie from there. Have another piece of sweet potato pie and quit fretting.”

“Miss D!” I hugged her arm in grateful relief, then settled back to eat my pie.

The farther south we went, the sunnier everything seemed. Virginia tobacco and cotton spreads stretched wider and wider on both sides of the train tracks. I saw workers bent over in the fields, where I knew it had to be over one hundred degrees. We chugged into North Carolina, then Wake County, and finally into Raleigh! Home!

Every street, house, building, and tree looked like an old friend. Miss D didn’t have to remind me to get my things ready when we pulled into the train station. Maybe I could call Mr. Bivens at the Stackhouse to carry us home with all our bags. He and ole white Lissa hung around there sometimes. After all, I knew how to use a telephone now, and I had some money.

“Welcome home, welcome home!” Mr. Smithfield in his porter’s uniform was on the train before it had completely stopped. “And you must be Mrs. Dillahunt. I’m Mr. Smithfield, Celeste’s neighbor. Pleased to make your acquaintance, and thank you for taking such good care of this little lady.”

“T’would be the same done for my own kin,” Miss D said, looking him up and down like she was inspecting Aunti’s quilt for more egg stain. I knew what she was thinking —
This is the man who let Celeste get robbed.

When I got off the train, the hot, humid Raleigh air almost smacked me out of my Buster Browns. Mr. Smithfield made sure we had all our bags and valises. Mr. Shepperson, one of Mr. Stackhouse’s dapper employees, sat in Mr. Stackhouse’s Model T parked nearby. He’d drive us home, Mr. Smithfield said. “Your poppa thought you’d like that.”

Miss D told him that she was staying the night and wouldn’t need a ride back to the station this evening. “T’would be nice to stretch my legs a bit and meet Aunt Society and your lovely wife. I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Well, good! I’ll be free in the morning, so I can drive you back to the station.” Mr. Smithfield touched her elbow.

Miss D’s ostrich plumes swayed as she looked down at his hand. “I’d be much obliged if you talk to that driver man there about him picking me up. I can’t let you take time away from your wife, since Cece says you travel so much and don’t get to see her often, enty.” Mr. Smithfield kept smiling, but he let loose of Miss D’s arm.

We sat in the back of that Model T like two queens. As we drove through Raleigh, I pointed out St. Paul AME Church, the capitol building, Saint Augustine’s School, and Shaw University. “This next part is our Colored business district. Coloreds own most of these businesses. There’s Hamlin’s Drug,” I told her proudly.

Lightner’s Office Building had doctors’ and dentists’ offices, real estate offices, shoe-shine shops, and a North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company branch. There was our Odd Fellows Building, and the
newspaper, one of our Colored newspapers. “And here, of course, is the Stackhouse Hotel, where Poppa, Mr. Shepperson, and I work. It’s the biggest Colored hotel in the state. This car belongs to Mr. Stackhouse, the hotel owner.”

“You’re a little historian,” Miss D said. “Down home you’d be what the old folks call a griot. A griot over in Africa calls down history from way back. Most people today just gossip.”

I leaned out the window as we passed the metal fence and tombstones of the City Cemetery. “My momma and baby brother’s buried here.” I sniffed down toward my blouse where I’d stuck my handkerchief scented with Momma’s perfume. As soon as I could, I’d visit their graves. Probably nobody’d cleaned them off on Decoration Day in May.

“Miss D, just so you’ll know, Aunt Society can be really cranky sometimes,” I said as we neared my house. “She might say some awful things.”

“You won’t have to worry about her saying anything,” Mr. Shepperson broke in. “She hasn’t been able to speak a word since she had that last stroke.”

What? I was tempted to shout, “Praise God for another blessing,” but “Oh, my goodness gracious” is what came out. On one hand, she wouldn’t be able to criticize. On the other, how could I tell when she needed help? Pass messages back and forth? But with her being paralyzed, she probably couldn’t write.

Mr. Shepperson, who looked like Mr. Ellington and who was around Poppa’s age, pulled up in front of our house. Though the grass was high, the house otherwise looked the same. Home, sweet home! And there was Mrs. Smithfield first sitting in the porch swing, then standing up, smiling.

She met us at the car, crying, “Cece, welcome home! My, you’ve grown!” She hugged me as I got out of the car. I introduced her to Miss D and they exchanged pleasantries.

“We moved her into your house because the church ladies said going into hers was like walking into a spider’s lair,” Mrs. Smithfield said. Her warm gray eyes held mine. “They thought they’d get bit, or ate up, it was so dark in there. Well, it’s been hard on her, not able to get around. She can be, uh, irritable. Her apoplexy took away her speech, but she can make sounds that you’ll come to recognize.”

“She was grumpy and irritable when she
talk and get around,” I said. “That’s all I need, to have her grunting at me, too.”

Mrs. Smithfield gasped. “Listen to you! Gone to New York and got loud and mouthy!”

“You make her turn those sour grumpy grunts into sweet ones,” Miss D told me as we came into my house. Other than a slightly moldy fragrance, it smelled just like home. I went straight to my room and bounced on my bed, enjoying the familiar squeaks. It looked just as neat as when I’d left it.

Miss D and Mrs. Smithfield followed. “So this is where you write your poems, play your violin, and lay your head,” said Miss D, glancing around. “It feels and looks just like you.”

“I’ll sure be glad to be back in my bed,” I said. “You can sleep in here. I —” The loud clangs of a cowbell made me stop. “What in the world was that?”

“I meant to tell you about her bell.” Mrs. Smithfield seemed embarrassed. “The church ladies didn’t care for it, either.”

The bell clanged again. “T’were me living here, I’d hide that thing first chance I got,” Miss D murmured.

“Grumpy and clanging and grunts, oh joy,” I whispered to Miss D and Mrs. Smithfield, and my shoulders sagged. “Where’d she get it from?”

“Alton. He found it someplace and thought it’d help. Of course it didn’t. Let’s go,” said Mrs. Smithfield, and headed for my parents’ room.

Slumped forward in her wheelchair — the chair she hadn’t needed to use till now — Aunt Society sat by my parents’ bed, smiling. When I saw her right arm lying crooked on a pillow in her lap, I realized she wasn’t smiling at all. The stroke had twisted her mouth and her arm. She was skinnier, more wrinkled, and completely white-haired. I’d never seen her look so frail, so ancient, so silent. Poor Aunt Society!

“Here’s your niece Celeste, back to take care of you,” said Mrs. Smithfield loudly.

Was she deaf, too?
I sat down on the bed. “Hello, Aunt Society.” I tried to keep my voice from quivering as she gazed at me with piercing eyes. “You’re wearing your favorite apron dress, aren’t you?”

“And this is Mrs. Dillahunt from New York, who came with her. Wasn’t that nice? She’s going on to South Carolina. She’s one of your sister-in-law Valentina’s friends.”

At the mention of Aunt Valentina’s name, Aunt Society, who’d been staring at Miss D, swung her eyes back to me, frowning fiercely. I pulled back. Uh-oh.

“Hello, Miss Massey,” said Miss D. “You’re blessed to have Celeste here. Miss Massey? You can hear me, can’t you?” Aunt Society’s eyes shot over to Miss D. “Yes, I thought you could. Celeste has said so much about you. You’ve raised her well.”

Aunt Society’s streetlight glower softened a notch after Miss D’s compliment. She raised her good left hand and let it hang in the air, waving at Miss D. But then she pointed her forefinger at me, grunted twice loudly, and slapped the bed! Bewildered, I jumped up. “What does she want, Mrs. Smithfield? What’d I do?”

“I don’t know, Cece. Society, you want water? Hungry? Need to use the lavatory?”

“Celeste was sitting on her bed,” Miss D said. “Some old people don’t like folks on their bed without permission.”

“It’s Poppa’s bed, not hers.” I sat back down. Aunt Society smacked the bed again, but I didn’t move. She could have slept on the daybed in the hallway, where she’d slept after Momma was sick and where she’d slept when she first moved in.

sleeps in it now,” Mrs. Smithfield reminded me. “So to keep the peace, why don’t you get up.”

Folding my arms over my bosom, I left the bed and leaned against the wall, staring at the floor so I wouldn’t have to look at anybody. If that ole bat was going to have spasms and ring that thing every time she disapproved of something, I faced terrible times.


ou-all must be thirsty,” Mrs. Smithfield said quickly. “Let’s sit in the parlor, where it’s cooler. I’ll bring you some sweet tea. Society, you want to come, too? No? Well, ring if you need anything.”

Miss D settled herself on the parlor divan, then whispered, “Cece, don’t let your ole aunt make you hang your head ever again. The shoe’s on the other foot now.”

BOOK: Celeste's Harlem Renaissance
13.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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