A few months ago I proved the naysayers wrong and found a house on Capitol Hill that I, a single woman with a child in college, could afford to buy. Maybe it's not in the area I knew as Capitol Hill when I was growing up, but still ... it's on a wonderful, tree-lined street off Pennsylvania Avenue, with friendly neighbors and a subway stop nearby.
Before me, the house was owned by Elizabeth McGriff, a black woman who came to Washington to live with an aunt after her parents died, worked as a domestic at age 12, and later, when she became a widow, raised her five children alone.
When I rub my hands across the cabinets of the kitchen she had remodeled nearly 20 years ago, I imagine her tugging open the doors, lifting out pots and pans and cooking breakfast for her four sons and daughter, Syreeta. I feel as though I have inherited the legacy of a woman whose spirit of determination and survival I share.
When Elizabeth McGriff died Oct. 12, 1985, her daughter was appointed executor of her estate. "I'm looking for someone special to buy this house. Someone who will love it," Syreeta Duncan said when she showed me the house.
"I'm looking for a house I can love," I told her.
It was such a perfect union that I considered it a blessing, and I immediately knew I had to have a ceremony to mark the new beginning for myself, the house and Syreeta. So on Saturday, June 25, at 6 p.m. Syreeta and her daughter and my family and friends gathered in my small living room for the blessing of my house.
My minister, the Rev. Willie Wilson, dug up a patch of dirt from the back yard so that he could bless it. He had at first taken dirt from the front yard, but I told him I had mixed that with top soil before we planted flowers. So he decided to get dirt from the back yard, dirt that had been there for years. (I guess he didn't want to bless top soil from Hechinger's.) He mixed the back yard dirt with some dirts he had collected in his travels -- dirt from Gambia, Senegal, the pyramids of Egypt and the Wall of Jericho. He put it all in a wooden bowl and added water from the Holy Land.
"In the African world view God is everything and God is in everything," he said. As he noted that God was in the wood and bricks of my house, I thought of how I had stripped and polished, scrubbed and cleaned the wood floors and the brick wall in the living room. Already, parts of me were engrained in this house, just as parts of Elizabeth McGriff must be there, too.
"The Scripture tells us that we came from the dust and to the earth we must return," Wilson explained. "The pouring of the water is a libation that represents the reawakening of the spirits of ancestors who have gone before us."
During the blessing, Wilson implored us to "call out the names of loved ones whose spirits we want to be with us today." Syreeta and I called out the names of her mother and father. I, along with most of the members of my family, called out the names of my two grandmothers and grandfathers. My mother added names of her aunts and a cousin, and there were other names, yelled out by the relatives and friends who stood in the living room.
After a prayer, in which Wilson asked that God bless the house and give peace to those who enter and reside there, we went outside to munch on chicken and potato salad.
In the back yard is a large brick barbecue, and Syreeta already had told me how her family would gather there for cookouts that lasted into the night.
"We moved into the house on Jan. 17, 1957, the day before my birthday," she said. "I thought the house was my birthday gift. I thought it was the biggest house in the world. We had rose bushes of every color. I had a swing set and a swimming pool. It was my back yard."
Blacks were just beginning to move into the neighborhood then, she said. The street still is integrated today, but few of the old families are left. There are my next-door neighbors, Eva and John Baysmore, and across the street are two sisters, Mary Braxton and Cecilia Brown, all of whom knew Elizabeth McGriff. John Baysmore used to work with her at the Bureau of Engraving.
Mrs. McGriff came to Washington around 1934, after her mother had died. She attended school for a while but she went to work a few years later, Syreeta said.
"She never lost hope in herself, though. She had so much common sense. The last year she worked she made $42,000," Syreeta said.
In 1945, when she was 23, Elizabeth Briggs married Isaac McGriff, a truck driver for the Teamsters union. When her husband died in 1965, Elizabeth McGriff, with her children's help, painted and paneled and kept her house until the day she died.
"She loved the house," said Syreeta. "We used to paint every year. It was a ritual. We washed the windows every three months, as long as her health was good ... She spent most of her time in the back yard. She didn't socialize much. She would just close her door and say, 'This is my house.' "
I have extended to S2037540197her daughter, Peppi, an invitation to all future cookouts in the old back yard. The day of the blessing was the first time Syreeta had visited the house since I bought it. She had warned me that she might cry a little, and I was concerned about how she would handle the changes I had made.
But before she left, she said: "A good family bought this house. I know because I still feel at home here. So if early one morning I can't make it to my house, don't be surprised if you wake up and find me sitting on the porch."