For nearly a year (after I was raped), I sopped around the house, the store, the school and the church, like an old biscuit, dirty and inedible. Then I met, or rather got to know, the lady who threw me my first life line. I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence escapes but its aura remains. To be allowed, no, invited, into the private lives of strangers, and to share their joys and fears, was a chance to exchange the southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf, or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist.
When I said aloud, ‘’ it is a far, far better thing that I do, than have ever done. Tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness. On that first day, I ran down the hill and into the road (few cars ever came along it) and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the store. Childhood’s logic never asks to be proved (all conclusions are absolute). I didn’t question why Mrs. Flower had singled me out for attention, nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to.
All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she like me. Mrs. Bertha flower was the aristocrat of black stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her. She was thin without the taut look of wiry people, and her printed voile dresses and flowered hats were-as right for her as denim overalls for a farmer.
She was our side’s answer to the richest white woman in town. She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Liked the moors (Whatever they were) with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance. Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces, drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. Women who walked over the ‘heath’’ and read morocco- bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen. It would be safe to say that she made me pound to be Negro, just by being herself.
The odors in the house surprised me. Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of common people . there must have been an outhouse, too, but my mind never recorded it. ‘’ I made tea cookies this morning. You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox. ’’ She took the bags from me and disappeared through the kitchen door. I looked around the room that I had never in my wildest fantasies imagined I would see.
Browned photographs leered or threatened from the walls and the white, freshly done curtains pushed against themselves and against the wind. I wanted to gobble up the room entire and take it bailey, which would help me analyze and enjoy it. They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood’s lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little lady-like bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother.
So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn’t had to swallow, it would have been a dream comes true. ‘’ it was the best of times and the worst of times. ’’ Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing. I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read? Or were there notes, music, lined on the pages, as in a hymn book? Her sounds began cascading gently, inked from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading, and I hadn’t really heard, heard to understand, a single word.