As I was eating my breakfast this morning, I had noticed for the first time, in a whole lot of years, that the Aunt Jemima character on the front of the box no longer had on the head scarf. The missing scarf made think about a Black woman named Miss Dora, that had worked in our house for as long as I could remember. I remember being three or four years old when I started asking her questions about her scarf, and why her skin was darker than mine, and questions of that nature. Miss Dora always tried to be patient with me, even though that now, years later I realize that I asked some question that showed the racial ignorance of my family and of white people in general of that era. I would sit at the kitchen table while she prepared the family dinner. I loved to help her cook, which was rather strange for a boy in the early fifties. She would take the flour canister down everyday, which always pleased me to no end, because I loved to use the sifter to get all the impurities out of the powder. I’d sift the flour whether she made bread, or fried chicken. She prepared countless meals for us, and on Saturday, she would cook double, one meal for this evening, and the dinner for Sunday. During the holidays, we went to Grandma’s for dinner, except for the Thanksgiving of 1959. That was the year that my Granny passed away, it was right before Halloween.
I was a freshman in high school by then, and I thought that I could handle her death like a grown man. But I broke down and loss control, it was an embarrassing thing for me to do in front of everyone. Miss Dora took me aside and talked to me. I don’t recall all the things she said, but what I do remember is these words ” It is a debt that all must pay in full, and all of God’s creatures are born die.” In all my thinking up to that point, I had never thought of life that way, oh sure I knew of death and dying, but I had never thought about death’s inevitability. Like most of the world, I paid it no mind. Until I had an encounter with it, such as the passing of a friend or loved one. But somehow her words calmed me, and I was able to re-join the other mourners at the ceremony, without any more tears. It was unseemly for a man to cry, it lessened him in the eyes of others, and was simply not tolerated by the menfolks of that era.
I seemed to me that every year her stomach would grow huge. I asked her why it did that, she would say that she was growing one of God’s creations. Once after she been absent for about ten days, and I’d endured a week of cold corn flakes. My mother’s attempts at cooking was hurtling us quickly towards a hunger strike, it was so bad that even Dad would not eat very much of Mom’s food. (A couple of nights he took us to the drive-in for burgers.) When she finally came back to work at our house , I asked Miss Dora ” How come God couldn’t plant his creations somewhere else?” Miss Dora chuckled and said “It’s not for us to decide what God does with this world, only for us to live in it and obey his commandments. ” When she went into labor in the following years, our neighbor would have her housekeeper prepare meals for our family, while Miss Dora was away.
I was most enthralled with the head scarf that she wore everyday, while I’m sure that she got a new one from time to time, but it always seemed to me, the same red scarf with paisley symbols on it. Now Mom had scarves the she used to tie her hair at night, but all of her hers were flowered and looked nothing like Miss Dora’s. Miss Dora’s was tied like she was a soldier on duty. Miss Dora didn’t work on Sundays. and one of the very few times that she ever came to our house on Sundays, she wasn’t wearing her scarf. I remember a ring at the bell on our side door, that my father answered. Through the opened door, I saw a colored lady standing outside in a beautiful dress on, still in her church clothes. I didn’t recognize her as Miss Dora, until she said hello to me as she came in, because I had never never seen her without her scarf. Her hair was jet black. A few days after that, was when I began asking questions about the scarf. While we sat at the table cooking dinner before Miss Dora went home for the evening. I asked her why she wore the scarf all the time. She sat for a while, mixing the dough for would turn out the be beginnings of chicken and dumplings. It was as if she was considering her answer. Then she said slowly “ I wear this here scarf to protect my hair while I’m cookin’ and cleanin’……..and also cause it’s a tradition. My mammy wore one and her mammy befo’ that wore one, it goes way back a long, long time. I wouldn’t understand for many years, that my parents had insisted the she wore a bandana, while working in their home. They also carried on a tradition, of keeping Blacks in their place. I came to realize that the scarf was intended by the Whites of the Old South, to be a badge of obedience, a traditional “Black Mamie” outfit like in “Gone with the Wind”, but for Miss Dora, it was a crown, or at least that’s the way that she wore it. There was an incident that happened later, that showed that my folks were “traditionalist” whites, this I will tell you about at the end of this story.
There were many other question and answer sessions with Miss Dora in those formative years. Some days I was an endless fountain of questions, and many times she would get tired of answering one issue after another. At those times she would begin to sing tunes from her church, which I never heard in our church, well at least not like the way she sang them. Once she began to teach me to know how the hymns were sung in her church service. I would quickly lose my train of questions, and like a child’s toy soldier, she would wind me down and I’d never even realize it. Her voice was so melodious when she sang “Amazing Grace” that I could imagine myself sitting in the pews of her church, with colored people all around me, and Miss Dora would be up front singing before God himself!
I graduated high school in 1962, and went straight into college. I never gave the draft a second thought because I was considered to be still in school. Which exempted me from selection. Miss Dora’s son, Ramses, was not so lucky. He was rated 1A and chosen by selective service to serve in the U.S. Army. He lived for 10 months after he left for basic training, and was killed in Cambodia in 1963. He was a couple months younger than me and I had only met him once. The day he came by to pick up his Momma from our house. He was well-mannered and much taller than me, hell he was bigger than Bob Lilly. I remember thinking when I saw him for the first time that I hope he is never my enemy, that guy could put you in traction just by thinking about it. Miss Dora had brought the letter to me to read for her. She knew how to read, but just basic words, and the Army letter’s vocabulary was a little beyond her ken. After I read the letter to her, I broke it down to her level of understanding. She already knew of Ramses’ death, but she didn’t understand all the words in the condolence letter. She thanked me for reading it, and folded it neatly and put it away. This moment stayed with me forever because, I had never realized how being a White man of this era, had kept me from being in harm’s way. Oh, I went in the service during Vietnam, the closest I ever came to combat was a two-year posting in Hawaii, as a Finance officer. The same system of separate but equal that kept Ramses out of my all white schools, had chosen him to go and die in a far away land defending ” his” country. His death changed Miss Dora in way that cannot be measured, not toward me or my family. But something seemed to break in her, something that I or nobody else, short of Almighty God, could fix.
The years wore on, and I grew up. In my second year in college, Miss Dora died. My parents paid for all the burial expenses, the funeral and bought a family plot in the Negro cemetery. I came home for her burial service and we were talking about the arrangements for Miss Dora. I said that she was like a second mother to me, and that it would be wonderful to wake up on Resurrection Day and see her shiny face again, I asked them why they didn’t elect to bury her in one of our cemetery plots, after all we had eight spares, not including our own. They just sat there in silence, with their heads down cast. It was my mother that finally spoke, “ Now Nelson you know what has been the tradition for hundreds of years. You know that they don’t allow niggers to buried in white cemetery. Besides, if she were buried with her own kind, they wouldn’t have any trouble visiting her grave-site. We all have our place in this world and Dora knew hers. That’s why she stayed in our employ for so long. She kept her place, despite all the Negro uprisings, and civil unrest, and trouble that those Yankee agitators have stirred up here. She remained obedient, and never gave us a lick of trouble. In fact, if she were here right now, she would tell you that we are doing is the right thing. It was on that day, I realized that Miss Dora had done more than just help raise me. She opened my eyes to the bigotry that loomed over my family and because of her instruction, I learned that all people’s souls are the same color. I learned from Miss Dora one final lesson on that day, and the answer to a question that I never posed to her. I’ve come to understand that love is blind. But is ignorance a kind of blindness as well? My spirit heard her sweet voice say “Yes , but God saw through your ignorance and mine, and loved us anyway. Now that you stand in the light of understanding, you have to do the same thing as He, for all them as well……..”
After all the years that Miss Dora had been dead and long since gone, a caricature of a Negro woman on a pancake box, brought her right back to me and we were sitting at that kitchen table, in our own sort of school. With her teaching and me learning, not only about food, but also about life……