08 November 2011

Bessie

In front of her old house — the new one is fancier.
Goliad, Texas, 1983.
Photo by WVM of a photo by WVM
*Retouched by Linc Madison*


It’s not so much a surprise that she has died — she was 92, after all — as the surprise of discovering she’s not there. Is it a coincidence that I woke with a start this morning, just as she died? I’ve known Elizabeth Pullam for longer than I’ve known anyone else. She started working for my family 74 years ago, when my mother was barely a year old, and she stopped — well, I guess she won’t be coming around on Friday morning.

She really didn’t want to stop. She was stubborn about it, and it’s only quite recently that my mother and aunt have been able to persuade her to join a party instead of serving. Bessie was old-fashioned in many ways, and her estimation of her place in society wasn’t exactly revolutionary. It took no less an occasion than the Bicentennial to compel her to sit down to a meal with me and my family; we had to wait decades before she’d do it again.


Bessie in 2006, with WVM and a platter of her famous fried chicken.
Photo by Letitia Robinson Barnhill


I call her my grandmother’s “housekeeper,” but the job description used by most people in Goliad is simply “maid.” She was valedictorian of her high-school class, and in another generation, she might have excelled in any of a number of careers. But she was who she was, in her own place and time, and the work she had, sustained her.

She’s always been there, more reliable than Minute Rice. I can’t imagine, much less remember, a world without her, and indeed one of my earliest memories is of Bessie. Yet it is, in its way, a memory of her absence.

Bessie and little David Dye, just as she and I used to walk.
Photo by Travis Dye

I had come to my grandparents’ house, not the one I knew best and longest, where my parents live today, but the old house. Bessie wasn’t there, and my grandmother and I went “looking” for her. Where might she be hiding? It was a game, I guess, because I remember looking in the coffee pot. (Bessie was little, but she wasn’t that little.)

Other memories of her run together, because they changed so little over 50 years. Bessie in the kitchen: singing hymns, frying chicken, baking squash. She took pleasure in cooking my favorite foods, she said, because I appreciated them. How could I not?

Bessie at the dinner table: telling me to mind my manners, to sit up straight (“Do you want to turn out like Julius Caesar?”), to use the right fork. Bessie around the house: grumbling over my haircut or some other accident of contemporary society.

Sometimes I’d sit with her in the kitchen and watch her as she cooked. As a boy I was interested simply because it’s interesting to watch anybody make anything; as a man I tried (I admit it) to pick up her secrets and take them back to my own kitchen.

Scenes from a Childhood
“Animal Crackers,” from The Bumper Book
, 1952.
Illustrations by Eulalie

We’d talk while she worked, but she didn’t give away much about her own life (a discretion I intend to reflect here, as well). She asked about my life, and she took perhaps a greater interest in my girlfriends than I did. Years after I’d forgotten my second-grade crush, a girl named Anna Knott, Bessie remembered.

Sometimes I followed her around the house as she worked. Making a bed is easier with two people, she explained, and perhaps for that reason I don’t make my own bed very often. She had a way of smoothing the sheets that seemed symbolic, epic, as if she were wiping away our cares, too. And she didn’t so much clean things as arrange them more attractively: a stack here, a heap there. The place was tidier when she left it than it was before she got there, anyway. That’s how I clean house, too.

This year, there’s been a lot of talk about a movie, and the book on which it’s based, called The Help. I haven’t felt the necessity to try either, because in a sense I know the story already: I grew up with Bessie. The things I don’t know about her, I won’t learn from people who never met her.

And there are things I still don’t know. Only today, for example, did I learn that her first name was Charity.

Stories sounded better when Bessie read them.
“The Wee Kitten Who Sucked Her Thumb,” from The Bumper Book.


She’s helped to rear four generations of my family; she loved children, and we loved her. I can still hear the stories she read to me at night, and I can feel the washcloth she applied — firmly but not violently — to my little arms at bath time.

But she was good with older folks, too, and she nursed both my grandparents steadfastly. When illness made my grandfather (never an easy person) more difficult than ever, she bore his snaps and tirades — though she made a point of telling the rest of us that she did so only because she “knew he was sick and didn’t mean it.”

I understood the warning she meant to convey: Heaven forbid anybody else might speak to her that way!

She composed a song for me, a lullaby she sang when I was a tiny baby and often enough after. I had the satisfaction of hearing her sing it to my godson once, too: “You’re my friend, Bill, you’re my friend. / You’re my friend, Bill, ‘till the end.”

I can’t sing for her now, though I’m sure she’d be listening. So please allow Miss Mahalia Jackson to answer for me.



Postscript:

Here’s another rendition of the same song from Mahalia Jackson — I hesitated to post it with the entry, primarily because Bessie would never have let Miss Jackson go out looking like this. (“Fix your hair! Put on a nicer dress! Do you want Louis Armstrong to see you like that?”) But the power of her song is what I need right now, and you may need it, too.



4 comments:

TEGaskins said...

My condolence: my heart goes out to you in your time of sorrow.

Buck said...

What a wonderful tribute. And -- The Bumper Book??? Budgie would always read The Bumper Book to me when I was little. How was it you and I had the same book? Did our grandmothers find it at the same time? BTW - I still have it.

William V. Madison said...

Buck -- I still have our copy, too -- that's how I managed to get the pictures of the pictures. And if you grew up with The Bumper Book, too, then I guess we know what was on the bestseller lists in Goliad, back in the day. I'm pretty sure there's never been a bookstore in town, so where would our families have bought these things? The drugstore on the square? Victoria? San Antonio?

And wouldn't you like to hear Bessie and Budgie right now, lifting their voices in the Celestial Choir?

Anonymous said...

This is lovely.