In April of 1977, Leonard Ray Teel, a journalist from Atlanta, traveled to Bluffton, S.C., to meet a 65-year-old black woman, Erma Calderon. It was a meeting we should all be grateful took place. A brilliant storyteller was hooked up with an equally brilliant listener. "She spoke nonstop that day," recalls Teel, "and I stopped to buy more tapes for my recorder and she filled them, too."
For the next four years (through tapes, letters and telephone calls) Teel gathered the fragments of Erma Calderon's astounding life and then, with great dexterity, transferred them onto paper without leaving a fingerprint of his own. His lack of marks is a mark of excellence. "Erma" is a devastatingly beautiful book, in every way.
It is history, filtered through the grief-stricken mind of a 5-year-old child who weeps over a Georgia chain gang. It is social commentary, by an adolescent girl who is thrown out of Father Divine's church in New York -- for giggling at his pomposity. It is high melodrama, as a young bride rides out a killer hurricane lashed to a tree in the winds. And, highest of praises, "Erma" is poetry. For all the shocking, soul-numbing developments in this story of a self-educated black woman born near Savannah in 1912, "Erma" is full of flowers, Octagon soap, spider webs, and dust cloths "white as the dripping snow."
"You know," observes Erma, "God moves in mysterious ways and He performs wonders to behold, and you better believe it, you better believe it." But Erma never tests the credulity of the reader in advance of the plot, which rolls with majestic ease over a great deal of ground. Savannah, the Florida Keys, New York, Philadelphia, Mexico, and Pinckney Island, Ga., where Erma finds fulfillment of a deep and lasting kind: These are the locales in which her destiny unfolds. The wonder is that Erma survived to tell the tale.
For the first nine years of her life, Erma knew something of normalcy (southern-black-child variety), as the daughter of a hard-working cook in a fancy Savannah club for whites. But even then her existence was laced with odd, memorable flavors.
Her older sister Vinnie was clairvoyant. She could predict things, like fires, burglaries, and deaths, including her own. Vinnie had a dream, when she was 15, that she was lying in a coffin with Erma's new dress on. That dream came true, overnight.
" The day after Vinnie died my mother said to me, she said, 'Erma?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am.' She said, 'You love your sister, don't you?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, I really love my sister. I love my sister and I want her to come back.' She says, 'Will you give her your dress and slip?' 'Oh no, no way, uh-uh. I love her, but not that -- that dress is going to stay for me until I can wear it.' My mother didn't pay me any mind. She took my dress and slip and she buried her in it -- just like Vinnie said she saw herself in that coffin with that dress and slip on. And I'm glad she did, because I didn't have any sense then." Erma was 6. Sense was on its way.
The following year Erma's mother got cancer and the family (including a younger sister) was grudgingly taken in by her Aunt Ida, an early villain in the book. Aunt Ida decided that she couldn't provide that kind of charity for very long and she put Erma's mother and two children out on the streets, absconding with her mother's money and leaving for New York. Erma cared for her mother until she died.
"When my mother was living," said Erma, "I was taking music lessons, violin lessons, but after she died, that was it. It was all over." And so it was. Erma was 9.
Her father, whom she had never known, was reintroduced into her life. He turned out to be a drunken brute who routinely hung Erma up by the rafters, naked, and whipped her, "like you would a side of meat." One night when he came into her room to beat her again, Erma took a brick out from beneath her pillow and brought it down on top of his head and jumped out the window. "I grew up right then," says Erma. "I grew up right then!" Erma was 10.
She ran away to the cruel safety of Miss Pearl, a vegetable seller in Savannah who took Erma to Florida and put her to work in a laundry. She was allowed no shoes and no bed. One day, in a rage, Miss Pearl sliced off the tips of Erma's fingers with a sandwich knife. Erma ran away to a neighbor who advised her to get married, "because when you're married," says the woman, "they can't do anything to you." Erma took her advice. She married. She was 11.
At the age of 12 she had her first and only child, a baby boy who was kidnaped three months later by the villainous Miss Pearl, who comes to visit, "takes the baby for a ride" and never returns. Erma was grief-stricken but powerless to get the baby back. "Those days," said Erma, "if you were born black, you were cursed the day you were born."
Yet the heart of this book does not lie in the calamities survived, although there is a certain "terrible beauty" in the advancing justice that inevitably catches up with various evildoers who crisscross Erma's life. But Erma's taste for revenge consistently gave way to compassion in the presence of pain, even with Aunt Ida, whom Erma tracked down in New York, for the express purpose of giving her a piece of her mind.
"I came here," said Erma, "to tell you just how dirty I thought you was . . . but I don't have to do that because I can see that God has taken care of that part."
"She weighed about 80 pounds," recalls Erma, "and she started to cry. And I just stood there for about, oh, a second, I think, and all the meanness and the hate that I had in my heart for her all these years, it just melted away."
Aunt Ida died in Erma's arms, not the first to do so, and not the last. For the latter part of her life, she lived among the genteel, very rich on Pinckney Island, Ga. "I'll tell you something. If you don't know it, I do. Rich people -- they have a circle around them and they don't associate with anybody else." But it was on Pinckney Island (sanctuary for the Rockefellers, Knopfs, and her employers, the Barkers) that Erma's deepest wounds were filled with balm.
"I don't think anybody in the world has ever been told that 'I love you' as much as Mrs. Barker told me. And one day when she was so sick she held her little arms out to me, she says, 'My daughter.'
"I said, 'Mrs. Barker, Cecily's all the way in California.'
" 'Uh-uh, I'm talking about my daughter -- you! You're my daughter.'
"That's the first time she said that I was her daughter. Well, you know how I felt! Well, I just went to pieces."
When Mrs. Barker died her last words were to Erma. "I went to the side of the bed, and she put her arms around me and I put my arms around her and she says to me, so weak she could hardly talk, 'Sing.' I don't know where God gave me the strength to sing that, to sing it, but I sang it. All the children -- when I got through everybody was crying. But where I got the strength to sing that song to her -- 'How Great Thou Art' -- I don't know! But I sang it."
It is difficult to imagine who could read Erma's story without suffering an involuntary enlargement of the heart, which is what suffering tends to produce under the right circumstances. The right circumstances are all here. Erma is, too. She now lives in Bluffton, S.C., with her second husband, Tony.
At first, Erma resisted marriage. "I said, 'I can't marry you because there's too much difference in our age, Tony.'
"And I . . . he wouldn't take no for an answer.
"But it worked out all right. So far."