My Aunt told us about a fire, speaking slowly to shake out the memory. I could see the row of newly built wooden houses, the smoke billowing while men struggled with hoses. She could see it too, the details stronger in each retelling, she having been a child, wrapped in a blanket, pushed in a stroller. My Aunt didn’t comment that it was wrong for her to see such destruction. But I knew. Now she feared fires.
All became quiet at the table as I focussed on the swirl of flower petals in the tablecloth, glad of the arrival of cheese and fruit, though fires flickered right there in the candles inches from my hands.
THE THINGS KIDS DO
When we were kids, we burned leaves in dusty piles in the driveway turnaround under our apple tree. We waited all week to do the raking, smell the fire, watch the smoke going up into the branches, the wind kicking the flames around. And we were kids doing this! There was a fire station on 95th Street, fire hydrants down the block. We had plastic fire hats when we ran around the yard with the garden hose, pretending. And there was that door on the furnace in our basement where you could watch the gas flames leap around, hear the motor humming heat slowly up through the registers.
Our house was grey frame, large front porch, scraggly lawn, western windows catching sunlight. It was a place of cut knees, birthday parties, fights with my brothers and my father’s death—a heart attack, he slumping over, dying in a red fabric chair that was still in our living room as I grew–my childhood fused in wood and plaster, mingling with the slope of the ceilings, the creak of floors, the air of that spiritual space.
That was the time Anna came to clean for us. She came early, clumping up the back steps in shoes that never fit. I didn’t wonder about this, it was Anna—her clothes hung on her, and she always wore three black plastic bracelets that clicked together along her thin brown arm. She wore an an old stocking over her hair, her wrinkled face warm, brown eyes full of something like child’s mischief or secrets she couldn’t tell us. She moved furniture, swept stairs, burned the trash in the backyard, her body bowed to work, so that year after year she seemed to shrink while we grew.
Mother worked in the dining room typing insurance policies. When we came in from school she’d stop to ask what we wanted for a snack or to see our school papers. Eating bananas, cookies, we watched Anna working in the kitchen, spreading old newspapers over the newly washed floor. She’d smile at us, talk to us, tell us what good children we were. On rare occasions we heard stories about her own children, her face opening as she spoke. And Anna always brought us Chuckles, five pieces of sugar-coated candy, surely a gift she couldn’t afford. Did we remember to thank her?
As we grew, became more aware of the distance between us and Anna; we began to understand. Our father was dead; our mother typed insurance policies in our dining room to care for and protect us. But Anna was Black. Anna was poor. She did not have what we had.
THE PHONE CALL
Then one autumn our phone rang, a Friday. I heard my mother say “fire.” I always listened when my mother was on the phone, worrying someone would give her news that would hurt her. But fire. Where was this fire? Could I see it? My mother was saying: “Are the fire trucks there, is everyone out?” And then she was telling me to go and find Anna.
I don’t remember where I found her—arranging my mother’s perfume bottles on a mirrored tray, cleansing our bathtub, wandering back from the trash burner, her bent body preventing her from seeing the hunks of my mother’s carbon paper sailing around the yard like curling black birds.
I told Anna she had a phone call, and then ran ahead. I could only hover at the edge of her life, watch her take the phone from my mother there in the dining room, dusk pulling away all light, her small head shaking as she talked awkwardly into the phone.
When she hung up, she had to sit down. My mother brought her a glass of water, touched her shoulder, the room transformed, Anna’s head sinking lower and lower. I could picture her things burning up, things she had told us were in her house—the picture of Abraham Lincoln, a quilt my mother had given her along with dresses, linens, dishes—things we didn’t use any more. Things Anna always accepted.
A man was coming to pick Anna up. She thought he lived in her neighborhood. We stood around the dining room table waiting while Anna trembled. It got dark against the dining room windows, my brothers running to the front door when the bell sounded. Anna had to push her hand on the top of that table to get out of that chair.
Two white men stood on the front porch. I could see behind them a long white Cadillac, gleaming under the street light. I watched them take Anna down the front walk, opening that car door for her, a door so large it swung into the street. The car swallowed her. They drove away.
LATER THAT NIGHT…
But I was glad they were gone. I was the one to slam the front door against the cold air. I was always worried about my mother. She had argued with the men about Anna, raised her voice while Anna stood frail, alone on our porch. The men had said something like “everything is under control.” But nothing felt right. Our Anna between those two white men in their heavy winter coats, my mother talking, fatherless me cowering behind her, thinking those two men might come into our house and stay.
But they were gone. I didn’t have to watch Anna sitting at the table, not moving about like she always did. I must have thought Anna liked to be always shuffling around our house. I didn’t yet know the strong desire to sit after working all day. I didn’t understand about long walks to a bus carrying other people’s cast-off things while yearning for your own four walls. Then…
Later, we were in the kitchen making dinner, pulling the shades, holding the light inside for just the four of us—and the doorbell rang. A man on our porch, a Black man, saying that he had come for Anna. He had a little blue truck parked in our driveway.
I don’t think any of us ate much that night. Anna signed some paper in that white car and lost even more money than she lost in the fire. At least that’s what my mother told me, and I think she knew what really happened.
Anna came back to work a few weeks later. She looked the same. She probably brought us Chuckles. We asked her about the fire, but she just shook her head, smiled that secret smile. We had often asked her how old she was, but she didn’t answer, except once, telling us old enough to have family who had been slaves. And because she had once showed us, we asked her why she always carried a knife in her purse. She smiled, said we didn’t need to know. And then we just forgot, forgot it all, moved back into our child-world, unable to see what Anna could show us—what it really meant to survive, to live, to endure.
Anna had also worked for my grandmother. She cared for us and we for her in a pattern that was structured by the times. Later I realized my mother should have driven Anna home the night her house was on fire. But it was dark, my mother was a widow with three children, and Anna didn’t live in our neighborhood. And I certainly didn’t understand about other neighborhoods.
Safe and secure, we were frozen behind cultural boundaries and borders. And though I didn’t have a father, I did have a mother whose strength and love allowed me and my brothers to live a childhood that danger didn’t penetrate. Mom protected us, we fearing nothing in our time of innocence. Yes, we knew that people got sick and died, like our father, like our neighbor, Mr. Carl. It was natural for us to blot out things that made us fear losing another.
Anna came to us, even when she really could not do a proper job, my mother wanting her to have work, dignity. But as Anna faded from our lives, we learned to take risks, to not hold on so tightly to a certain way of life. We saw there was room for sorrows and joy. Anna could have taught us many important lessons if we had been able to ask her, to break down barriers, talk openly of the lessons her courage and love were quietly teaching us.
But we were children, waiting for those hot summer nights when we ran through the dry grass, argued about whose peanut butter jar held the most fireflies. And waiting for winter, when dressed against the cold, we warmed our faces in the heat of fire, watching our six-foot evergreen, now dry and brittle, signal the brilliant end of our full and blessed Christmas.