When I was a little girl, I didn’t know any better; I asked her if her blood was brown.
Looking back, it wasn’t a fair question – my blood wasn’t white for heaven’s sakes. It wasn’t that I judged her skin color, either; I simply noticed it was different. I got in trouble for asking, but not from Callie. She understood and appreciated my curious heart and just chuckled the way she did, with every bit of herself.
Callie worked for my grandmother as housekeeper and cook from before my childhood memories began. Her husband, Kephus, was gardener and handyman, but he died when I was four and I don’t remember him, except for that one picture…black and old and tattered, the man and the ancient image.
Callie was one of the most consistent fixtures in my life. During my mother’s wicked five-year battle with cancer, we stayed with my grandmother a lot; Callie was always there. In a cruel succession of events, my grandmother died the year after my mother, and rather than relieve Callie of her duties, my father continued to employ her. When my brother got married, he hired her, too.
She mostly sat in the kitchen or watched her stories by then, but they were offering her backpay for years of service.
All the money in the world couldn’t compensate her for what she gave us.
What Callie lacked in cleaning finess she more than made up for in the kitchen. Though I have her recipes for Chewies and tea cakes, I’ve never been able to duplicate them; her feathered rice, though, is one of my children’s favorites. And then there were those “Callie Biscuits”…you’d have to grow up on them to fully appreciate: punched the size of a 50-cent piece, they were hard and dry but oh-my-lanta, we begged for more.
Once she tried to teach me how to cut up a whole chicken.
Graceful hands cut through bone and sinew like counter-soft butter and it was then I realized I was witnessing something special: she was an artist, creating.
Later when I would attempt a try, I’d end up throwing the damn mutilated bird in a pot of boiling water, and settle for a second-rate casserole instead of Callie’s fried chicken.
It was never about the fried chicken, though. I was trying to conjure home.
Callie taught me beyond the kitchen. She never spoke ill of another person. She’d look to the bright side if I voiced complaint. She was loyal to her friends and family, doing for them whatever she could with the little she had. She went to church every Sunday and believed that God was good and knew what He was doing.
Her life was an offering, a liberal outpouring of kindness to others.
Years later when I began reading The Shack, it’s not surprising I saw Young’s Aunt Jemima God with Callie’s face.
But soon enough I would learn something that would break my heart and make me wish I had the power to reverse time and right at least one injustice.
* * * * *
Years after Callie’s death, my brother bought my grandmother’s house. Built in the 40s or 50s, it needed a lot of work. I was startled to learn about one of the renovations–
“We fixed up Callie’s bathroom.”
I didn’t know Callie had a bathroom.
Take a trip with me….
Linoleum-covered stairs to the basement sat atop a huge fan–we called it an attic fan but it spun in the basement and I can’t quite figure that part out right now. To the right of the stairs was the door to the concrete-floored laundry room, illuminated by a single, exposed lightbulb.
Walking past the washer and dryer, on the other side of the attic fan was the door to the furnace room. In it sat the oil furnace, which somehow heated the radiators that warmed the house. I never went beyond the furnace room because it was dark and cold and scary to me.
I never knew there was a room on the other side of it.
Callie’s tiny bathroom.
A toilet, a sink, and a single exposed lightbulb overhead.
How did I not know?
When I read The Help and later saw the movie, I grieved the injustices and prejudices Callie must have faced. My God, WE HAD A MAID’S BATHROOM; there was little solace that at least it was indoors.
When I married, Callie sat in the second pew, the one behind the parents’ favored position.
When she died, I morned, grateful my siblings lived close enough to honor her by attending her funeral.
My blood is the same color as Callie’s and in all the ways that matter, we’re family.