WHEN MY father first saw Eunice she was sitting on a wooden bench in Dupont Circle, holding a sleeping baby and she was crying. It was 8 in the morning and she'd been up all night. My mother said that my father walked into the kitchen holding a baby and trailed by a tall black woman and said, "Anne, this is Eunice and her son Gabriel. They're going to be living with us." Mother was speechless. Eunice lived with us for 14 years.
We were living in a three-storied house on O Street in those days. We rented out the two upper stories because we needed the money. There were bills from my father's four years of medical school and two children and another baby about to make her debut. My mother calls that house her Menagerie. There was assuredly a murder on the second floor, she remains convinced of it; but the police found insufficient evidence. There was the night of the attempted rape in the back courtyard when my father ran out into the dark in his boxer shorts swinging his stethoscope as a weapon in a vain attempt to catch the culprits.
The crumbling house in the sometimes-dangerous neighborhood ceased to be worth it. Unpaid debts and all, my parents decided to return to Michigan, a state considered by them both as decent and safe and, as my father often said, "Lacking in southern belles." They asked Eunice if she wanted to go; she is said to have barely paused before declaring herself ready to leave. Black women in the earliest years of the 1950s had few variables to sort through; it may be that she feared a return to whatever it was that made her sit on a bench in Dupont Circle all night. In any case, she felt that a new city in the industrial Midwest with a white family of shaky means but bright promise was a better card to play than the known factors and future possible park-bench-sojourns of Washington.
Eunice was the only child of a widowed mother who worked for a prosperous Washington family and lived in the servants' quarters. Eunice never went to school, but like her mother before her, she learned how to read and write and she made use of the opportunities presented to her. She was a woman of intelligence and grace. She had a kind of ultimate faith in manners and the usefllness of self-discipline. "Stand up straight," she'd tell me. "It's good to be able to stand up straight -- don't forget."
IT WASN'T UNTIL my first day of school that I realized Eunice and Gabe weren't simply part of our family, that they were there by design rather than ties of blood. Eunice walked with me, telling me of the wonders of school. There were other children heading down the quiet morning streets, many with their mothers or older brothers and sisters. None were with tall black women. As we left the parameters of our tiny neighborhood and entered foreign territory, we were stared at, openly and with curiosity. I looked up at Eunice, but she only squared her shoulders, gripped my hand even tighter, and continued speaking of the magical qualities of school. When we walked into the schoolyard, people turned and watched us, and I heard the word "nigger." The teacher snubbed Eunice. I was afraid that someone would hurt Eunice and wanted to leave with her; but she bent and kissed my forehead and was gone. When the school day ended, she was waiting outside, standing near the curb, away from the knot of mothers there to fetch their children.
That night I went to her room and sat on the edge of her bed and rubbed the toes of my saddle shoes together and managed the courage to ask her about the word I'd heard in the schoolyard. I have a clear memory of her in that room. She sat in a rose-print chair: legs crossed at the ankles, hands folded in her lap, gabardine suit from the 1940s with never a wrinkle or a smudge, seed pearl broach at the base of her throat, dark hair looped into a chignon low on the back of her head. She said nothing for a few moments and then, "Nigger is a word used by people who have no manners, it means African."
I took this in stride, knowing already that the world was full of people who had no manners. I did wonder about Gabe. I asked, "Well, if people are mean to Africans, maybe Gabe shouldn't go to school. Maybe he should just stay home."
"Gabe will go to school, but not the one you go to."
"What school? The one by Grandma's?" "No, honey, a school for African children. Downtown."
"But how will he get there? Will Daddy take him on the way to the hospital?"
"No, Gabe will live downtown during the week and will come home on Saturday mornings."
I couldn't believe what she was saying. I wondered if they'd send me away too. "But," I said, "Daddy and Mom won't let any of us live somewhere else, will they?"
"Honey, Gabe isn't one of your Daddy and Mom's children. Gabe is my baby."
"But isn't Gabe one of us kids and aren't you one of Daddy's wives?"
"No, we just live here."
"But I told everyone at school that you were one of my mothers and Daddy had you and Mom for his wives."
"When you get to school tomorrow, you tell them that you made a mistake. You tell them that I'm the housekeeper."
"I can't, they'll say I lied."
"You do as I tell you to."
"What's a housekeeper?"
"Go to bed now. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Eunice, I love you to the end of the Milky Way."
"That's how much I love you too. Now go to bed."
I went to bed that night thinking that the world was about to shatter. I feared that Eunice might go away too. I swore that if she did, I would leave my father, mother, brother and sister and go with her.
I woke in the night afraid that Gabe might already be gone I went to the room that he and my brother shared and found their beds empty. I ran to my parents' room and saw Johnny and Gabe asleep across the foot of the bed. I climbed onto the bed with them and pulled the corner of the bedspread over Gabe's shoulder. I lay still, pretending to be asleep, knowing that if my father woke he might send us back to our rooms. He tossed and whispered to my mother, "Jesus loves the little children; I wish I could say the same for myself."
My mother laughed and said, "Stop that, they might think you mean it."
EUNICE and my mother were friends. They sat up late at night talking. They went for walks together. They went shopping together and ate lunch in restaurants. They went downtown because it was a more comfortable area for Eunice than the closer suburban malls. I know now that my mother did a lot to smooth the road that Eunice traveled; but as my mother recently said, "She was my friend; besides, what's the matter with shopping downtown?"
But there was a memorable occasion when Eunice did go to a local store. We wore uniforms to school, and these had to be picked up on an appointed day. My mother couldn't go with us. The uniform department was crowded with mothers and children. We stood at the counter waiting our turn. We heard someone say, "Well, will you look at this, a nigger in Crowley's Department Store." My brother swung around and, catching the evil eye of one woman, yelled, "The only niggers in here are you sons of bitches! My sister shrieked out a hateful, "Gargoyle!" and stamped her foot. I knew better; I froze. And Eunice? She grabbed the two of them and demanded that they apologize. "Say it," she hissed. They mumbled that they were sorry. Then Eunice said to the silent staring group, "You'll have to forgive these children, they've forgotten their manners."
Late that evening I heard my father roar with amusement and say, "Gargoyle! By God I'm proud of these kids."
The first violence I suffered was at Eunice's hand. I was perhaps 7 years old. I had just returned from school and we were gathered in the kitchen, except for Gabe, who was sleeping. The side door opened and my father staggered in. He wore his pale green scrub suit and was covered with blood.
His face was touched with it and his hands, usually spotless, were encrusted with it. I had never seen my father dirty (he even wore a white shirt when we went fishing). I was terrified. I know that I began to tremble. My sister started to moan with anxiety and my brother stared with the wide eyes of fear.
My father walked past us and slumped into a chair, laid his arms out onto the table and his head onto the white cloth and he began to weep. I had never felt so cut loose from the world; my terror was rampant. Without saying a word Eunice shoved my brother and sister into the hallway. She motioned for me to follow, but I stood watching my father. She grabbed me with such force that she picked me up from the floor and her nails dug into my arm and tore my skin. There was blood. She dragged me down the hallway and told the three of us to get Gabe and wait for her on the porch. We did, of course we did. She made us walk. We walked till dark and when we got home my father was clean, (white shirt and black pants, the way he was supposed to be) and snoring on the couch . . . a mode that was natural and was somehow immensely comforting to see on that particular day.
My mother sat in an armchair in the living room watching my father. She got up long enough to tell us to go to bed. We all slept in my parents' bed that night. The next day we were told that Daddy had just been "very tired" and had forgotten to change before coming home.
I found out that he had recognized an auto accident victim as a friend from high school and had refused to stop trying to save her. She had been nearly cleaved apart and finally an older doctor had slapped my father and told him to go home and come back a rational man or not come back at all. I am told that many young doctors suffer a point of hell and either come back as rational men or demons. No one said anything about the claw marks on my arm.
ON WINTER DAYS when I'd get in from school, there was always a simmering pot of cocoa on the stove. Eunice would let me sit on her lap and she'd put an arm around me while I drank my cocoa and warmed up. At night I'd visit her in her room and sit on the edge of her bed and we'd have our talks. My last act before going to bed was always to go to the head of the staircase and listen to the muffled sounds of Eunice and my mother talking, or to sneak onto the porch that adjoined my parents' room and take a peak at them sitting in the yard drinking lemonade, talking, the glow of the yellow mosquito candle glinting through unice.
I WAS 25 when I began looking for Eunice. I started by asking my mother for details that might turn into clues. That's when I learned that Eunice had never gone to school, that Eunice's husband had met an unfortunate end. My mother thought that Eunice might be found through the churches. I did all the obvious things, and when they failed I sat in my car on Sunday mornings in front of the churches where the black people went. I drove around downtown looking for her. I took to going to the department stores and pausing in the areas that sold the type of garments she'd once worn. I saw many older black women, but none of them were Eunice.
I drove slowly through the mammoth housing projects where the blacks had to live. I'd stop my car and scan the groups of women waiting at the bus stops. I walked through the African section of the museum on Saturday afternoons. I left notes saying "Eunice call Cynthia" on the bulletin boards in all the laundromats and convenience stores. I began to feel the weight of the poverty so etched on the bodies and faces of all the old women who could have been Eunice.
My mother told me that Eunice's "good job" was that of hotel maid. I walked through the noisy hopeless waiting rooms of the welfare offices. I enlisted in President Johnson's War on Poverty and between battles, when no one was looking, I read through lists of names. I went to nearly every rummage sale at every church and social center in the downtown area. I watched the old black women watching me and felt ashamed of myself.
I got the bright idea that Eunice had returned to Washington. That was the reason, I consoled myself,
that she hadn't responded to my search for her: she was busy with a new life in her old hometown. I envisioned her sitting on a wooden bench in Dupont Circle, holding no baby, but maybe crying. I guessed that her hair was now probably white. I wondered if she'd be wearing one of the gabardine suits, if the seed pearl broach was still fastened to her blouse at the base of her throat.
She was not in Dupont Circle. I had planned to run to her and say, "Look Eunice, I'm grown up. Aren't you amazed? I didn't forget. I don't wear too much jewelry. I don't fidget, and I stand up straight. You'd be proud of me, if only you knew me now." But most of all I'd tell her that I loved her and missed her, still, even after all the years. And I'd offer her, if she wanted, only if she wanted, the side bedroom, the one with the big bay window andthe fireplace. I'd say that that was the way it worked, that it was my turn to make the cocoa and cook the Sunday dinner and pay the bills. And I'd tell her that somewhere, surely somewhere, there had to be a rose- print chair.
I looked for her, not in the Washington of the tour buses and immaculate white buildings, but in the other Washington, where only those without true choice have to travel and where the medium of exchange is likely to be food stamps.
In the ladies' lounge on the fifth floor of the old Hecht's building (where sections of the walls had been torn askew and the raw spaces behind these filled with paper coffee cups and other debris), older women took refuge and sat and visited with one another. I spent some time there. When I grew tired of waiting, I stood at the tall window and smoked a cigarette and looked at the street below. Empty littered lots. Broken windows. Giant frenzied posters in yellow and white, spilling hatred of the Catholic Church. An eight-story marble-fronted building and over the mesh wire that covered its front window a paper sign that read DC ON THE GROW. An ancient black woman with gray hair shuffled by carrying what looked to be a box of Wheaties.
I had lunch in the dining room of a department store and kept an eye on who came and went. A young white girl bent sideways and slid her handbag under her table when two elderly black women took the adjoining table. One of the women saw, but pretended that she had n't. Still insecure, the girl placed her foot atop the handbag.
An old woman picked up a newspaper from the steps of the National Portrait Gallery, neatly folded it and tucked it into a worn needlepoint bag. Later I saw this woman in the ladies' lounge of Woodward & Lothrop, reading her paper with the aid of a magnifying glass, old legs properly crossed at the ankles.
I went to shoe stores filled with old women examining footwear that without exception looked marginally orthopedic, corset stores that also offered white nylon uniforms and vinyl leather-look Bibles with zippered covers, wig stores with permanently affixed signs that read: Sale/This Week Only; stores chocked with gold-tone jewelry, tiny ceramic statues, radios. I went to a waffle shop where the old meet and banter with one another. The waffles were bad, but the price was low, the coffee refills free, and there was a newspaper to pass around.
I spent an early Saturday morning at the Salvation Army resale store on F Street, probably the cheapest store in town. Women kicked cardboard boxes along the floor and used their hands to grab things before someone else did. There was an art to it. They tossed the things into the boxes and made their final selections later. For sale was the debris of closets and cupboards of people who apparently exercise little judgment. These things cost an hour or two of work at the minimum-wage level, but, I could see, were better than nothing. Eunice wasn't there.
In the chilled morning air old men stood around the apartment house steps and chatted. When they weren't smoking their Chesterfields or gesturing, they kept their hands in their pockets, shifting their weight from foot to foot. Old women lumped along the streets carrying bags of groceries or laundry. The windowsills of the apartments were lined with tiny ceramic statues and green plastic pots of blooming African violets.
A few scant blocks from Dupont Circle an elderly woman bedded down for the night in the doorway of a store that sells neon plastic jewelry and lace-patterned hose. She put one coat on the cement, wore one and used the third as a blanket. Her embarrassment was palpable; people stopped and watched anyway. I shut my eyes and prayed the typical female prayer: that Eunice lived in a pretty house with a kind and loving husband. I walked on down the street and passed an outdoor caf,e opeting at full tilt; laughter was light, you could hear the money talking.
A quiet army of old women moved along the city streets, arthritic hands, feet that hurt, dog-eared clothing mended and mended again, too little money, a hesitation away from falling through someone's fictive safety net. This was a Washington where it was not only possible to have lived a lifetime and never have set foot inside the National Gallery of Art, but where one could have gone without food and shelter and kind words.
Late one night while walking near the bus depot a cab pulled to the curb near me and the driver shouted, "You lost?" No, I told him. He rolled his eyes and said, "Then you lost your mind, get in and I'll take you home." He had kinky white hair and spoke in a melodic southern lilt about the tourist attractions we drove by. He said that Washington was the most powerful city on earth. I liked him and considered asking if he'd ever met a woman named Eunice. I thought of my brother, me, and Gabe playing in the wading pool under the trees in the back yard. I saw my mother and Eunice lying on the grass under the weeping willow, my baby sister asleep on a yellow blanket between the two of them. They fanned themselves with faded paper fans given out by a Japanese restaurant in Washington and thought so lovely and exotic by 6-year-old me. I wanted a cup of cocoa and a warm arm to hold me while I lost the lonely frosted feeling of the night. It was time to leave. I couldn't find her.
Eunice, I love you to the end of the Milky Way. Don't forget.