Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Forever my E
In my life, I have had two great loves, both known to me by the endearment of “E”.
There is my husband, who I love very much – nicknamed “Big E” as a child by his brothers, and then shortened into just “E” when he topped six feet. I’ve known him since August of 1981; we’ve been together since 1997. We celebrated our commitment with our families and friends in 1999 and then we tied the knot in 2008.
But today marks the 38th year that I have been without the first great love of my life, my first “E” – the one I named so because I was too young to say her named, Leatrice, or Lee when I learned how to talk, and the name stuck.
I was a late in life baby for both my parents. When I was born, my mother went into a pretty serious post partum depression. My father, an attorney decided that she needed someone around to take some of the pressure off and help around the house, and allow her some space so she could also take care of father’s two sons by his first marriage. He got a name from someone, and Leatrice Thomas came to our house a couple days a week with the understanding that her place was temporary – once mother was back up to taking care of everything in about six months, the position would end.
At first E helped with me, allowing my mother to shop, run errands and ferry my brothers to Hebrew School, friends and music lessons. Along the way while I napped, she did the laundry, helped with the ironing, made sure the dog was walked and that I was fed, changed and happy as a baby can be.
As I transitioned from newborn to infant to toddler, E became a fixture in our home. She became so important to me that as a sign of my love and security with her, I stood for the first time for her, not my mother. "I was getting your bath water ready and Leatrice called out 'Mrs. K - get the camera. He's standing!'" as my mother tells the story. I still have that picture of me in the crib, E’s arms ready to catch me if I fell, as my mother took the picture.
But as I grew older, the relationship between my parents disintegrated. My father wanted to be the one who was right all the time and my mother wanted something where she wasn’t bothered by everything. Its hard to be in relationship when one person isn't at their best and another one who doesn't understand why they just don't snap out of it. They never should have married, I don't remember them ever talking. Even with a toddler and two teenage boys, my parents couldn’t sustain civility towards one and other; soon hostilities broke out, and the yelling and screaming turned to punches and slaps and calls to the police. My brothers took our father’s side - who could can blame them, he was their only living parent, and she was the odd person out. I took my mothers side. I remember during one fight – I must have been two or three – my mother at her bedroom door and my father in the hall and physical hatred between them being expressed and somehow I got in the middle and started hitting my father’s legs. He was in his underwear and I remember quite clearly how the shins on his legs had the skin pulled tight – the hair had gone from them years ago as happens with some men. I remember how razor sharp the bone was as I started hitting him, screaming at him, wanting him to die for hurting my mother. The police would come – I thought they came to everyone’s house in Shaker Heights, and things would calm down until the next night when it would all start all over again. God, how I hated him then for it, and I hate still hate him for it all these years later.
But when E was in the house, everyone behaved. The “employee” who wasn't supposed to see what was going on, saw everything. She saw the black and blue marks on my mother. She was no stupid woman, and she did not suffer fools wisely. She knew what was up and who was at dishing it out. Moreover, she didn’t take any guff from anyone. My father tried to get rid of her, but she announced that she wasn’t going. He ordered her from the house, but it was he who ended up moving out.
All I knew was that when E pulled up to our house in powder blue Falcon, I was safe. No one yelling; no one screaming. And I knew that there were expectations of me and I understood that. And this let me know that I was loved, that there were sane people in the world. And in return, I loved E.
And her daughters also became my protectors – babysitting for me when my parents went out. I loved them - and still do - to this day. They are both warm and wise women. They got those traits from both E and Tommy, her husband.
And if I was really good, as a treat I got to go to E’s house for a day. E lived with her husband and their two daughters on Dundee Drive in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood, which by that time had become a predominantly African American community. E had beautiful skin – clear and smooth, to me, she was beautiful. But I had no idea that she was African American, nor did I understand that her husband – Tommy – was either. For that matter, it never hit me until years later that there was any difference in people just because their skin color was different. But this was Cleveland in the 1960s – before the Glenville riots and before Hough rioted as well. Things were simmering below the surface. I wasn’t allow to play out on the sidewalk, but there were plenty of things to do inside.
The family gathered in the basement, which had the makings of a second kitchen and laundry room. E’s parents lived in the upstairs apartment, and E and her family in the downstairs, and the basement was the space that could hold everyone. Granny and Grandpa were wonderful to me – everyone was. I was in fact a spoiled and scared little kid – but here I felt normal here because they too expected things of me and that there were limits. And those expectations were the things that made me feel secure. I knew my limits, and therefore I knew I had a place. I knew I fit in. I knew I was safe.
My parents divorced, and then had second thoughts – their marriage was plagued by bad decisions and this was the one that proved to be a nightmare for all of us. By 1968 they had their divorce remanded, and we moved to big house on South Woodland for a fresh start. E stayed with us, and would bring me corn bread – a great delicacy - and we would listen to AM radio while she ironed or straightened up after I came home from school. Because this house was really big – my father hired actual cleaning women to come work and tried to get rid of E. But my mother held her ground – E’s job was watch me, and on the sly keep my father in line. On several occasions I remember him trying to tell her off only to have her flip the tables with her reading him the riot act. He hated her until his dying day because she she never put up with BS. And she did it without a foul word ever escaped her lips. He knew she was right and he knew he had met his match in her.
I do remember that once E spent the night at our house, and that it was a Wednesday night. She went upstairs and came back down in her house coat, she flipped on the TV and we commenced to watch The Tom Jones Show. No sooner than Tom was three bars into Delilah, that E started with her audience particpation.
"Sing it Tom!" she cried. "Lucky girl, that Deliah! Oh I'm getting warm - oooh Tom, Oh, my!" She started fanning her face. "Its getting warm in here - Sing IT!" she cried. She turned to me and said "Get E some water!" Which I did. I got her lots of water that night, because the more Tom sang, the more involved she became - as if she was in the audience and Tom was singing just for her. Everytime I tried to speak she said "I don't ask for much, honey. Let Tom sing - That's right, its not unusual to be loved by anyONE! Oh, dear!" It was a different side to her; even though she had pinned up her hair, she was letting it down, so to speak.
E stayed with us until just before Christmas 1971. She was going to have some surgery and then she would be taking it easy and wouldn't be working for us. But she said that she would visit. I was nine, and preoccupied with my toys - she had left before and returned, she would come back again.
That February we were out – my cousin Phyllis was with us - and the car broke down in the snow and the ice. My parents were separated again and somehow my mother managed to get us all home when the phone rang. Mother told us to go to the family room, and I remember her crying as she talked on the phone. E died, and her daughter had called to tell us. E had come through her operation and hospital recovery and had been home, seated at the kitchen table, laughing and talking when her heart gave out.
My E was gone. The only person who expected something from me, the only person who didn’t use me as a bartering chip, the only person who made my days shine, was gone. I had no one that I could talk to, no way to express my grief. I was young and they thought I would get over it.
At every chance my father would say something mean about in the coming years. And each time he did my hatred for him grew. I now understand that he did because he wanted my to love him as I had loved her. But what he didn't understand was that I loved him because he was my father, but maligning her wouldn't undo all that he had done. And maligning her only pushed me that much further from him. It wasn't until died that my life finally found the normalcy that I expirience when she had me under her care.
Twenty years later I figured out what her husband’s real first name was – “Tommy” was an endearment – and found him still living in the house on Dundee Drive. Granny and grandpa were gone, and he updated me on Ceil and Donna. I asked him if he had a picture of E that I could copy – I didn’t have one, except the one with me standing naked as a jay bird in my crib and it was just her out stretched arms. I longed to see her face and he obliged, telling me to keep the small photo that he found. A year or so later her daughters greeted me with open arms as well, and they provided me with the image above, from New Years Eve 1970.
One of her daughters once tried to convey to me that it was just a job, that her mother was an employee, but I know that she stayed as long as she did because she loved me, and because she wanted me to have as much time as possible with someone strong enough to guide me in the right direction. I understand that she was an employee - she had to do what she needed to do. Yes, she received a check with each visit, but no check buys the type of love that she lavished on me and for the right reasons, and accepted mine in return without any hesitation. The love she gave me was structure and limits and support and kindness and praise, with an unending supply of hugs. Not every child gets these things, in that order, even on a part time basis from their parents. I am blessed for E's role in my life.
The rational part of me knows that when a person dies, they’re gone, except in the memories that we hold for them. But the emotional and spiritual side of me knows that she is up there watching over me – watching over all the children that she sat or took care of. Of all the people that I know I will find in heaven when my time comes, its Leatrice Thomas that I know I'll see first, with her arms outstretched, welcoming me.
Years later someone asked me if I found it strange that the two greatest loves of my life were both named “E”. I do. Yet I know that both E and my husband love me, expect good things from me and accept me. If there is a God in his heaven, I believe that there is, this was possibly his way of letting me know that life has a way of working things out. That the cosmic dance that goes on beyond our comprehension has a rhythm and cadance, and that the rhythms are part of a plan, and that the plan interconnects all in a in way too great for mans comprehension.
On this date that she left me behind on this earth I take time to remember the woman who gave a mother’s love to child in need, even when it wasn’t part of the job description. And now I understand that the arms in the picture of naked baby Stu standing for the first time are still there for me. She is still there when I need them to help me get back up and keep going when I lose my way. She is in my heart, she is part of me. I am a stronger person for it.
So for me, she will never be Lee – she is forever my first love, my E.