Broken Wingby Beth Kantz
By Beth Kantz
It wasn’t until the end of our second summer that my mother agreed to hire a colored housekeeper. My father had been urging her to bring someone in ever since we moved to Alabama more than a year before, but she’d resisted, saying she could never be comfortable ordering a colored woman around, telling her to wash our dirty clothes or clean up our mess. Maybe my father finally wore her down. Or maybe it was just the August heat and the humidity that left our whole house damp and sticky and caused pools of sweat to collect under our legs when we sat for any length of time.
My mother learned of Louetta from Mrs. Edwards, who pulled her aside one Sunday after Mass. In a voice that rose high above the after-church crowd, Mrs. Edwards said, “Your husband told me you were looking for some colored help to come in, Julia. I must say, it’s about time. There’s just so much you can handle on your own. Lucky for you I have just the person you need.” She wrote Louetta’s name and phone number on a piece of paper that she fished from her handbag. “My kitchen is never so clean as when Louetta is there, and I do believe she wouldn’t be fazed by a busload of kids,” she said, pushing the paper into my mother’s hand. “I would just love to box her up and take her with us, but of course I can’t.” She gave my mother’s arm a squeeze then turned to catch another family that was just leaving the church. My mother gave her a tight smile, one that made her look like she’d just gotten a mouthful of sour lemonade, and pushed us down the sidewalk to where my father was waiting with the car.
But still my mother did nothing, even though it was clear even to Todd and Emily and me that she was more tired than usual and could use the help. Sometimes during the afternoons she would pull the shades and sit for hours in the living room after nursing Ben, and after school started we often noticed that her hair was still uncombed when we returned home and her shirt had the same baby food stains as the day before.
Finally at dinner one evening my father asked my mother why she had not tried to reach Louetta. He was leaving the next day on another business trip and had hoped my mother would line someone up before he left. “I don’t understand why you’re so against it, Julia. Everyone here hires colored help.” This was true. On our way to school we often saw the women who worked for our neighbors walking from the bus stop, each dressed in a neat housedress and with a small felt hat pinned to her head.
My mother got up from the table and began clearing the dishes. “You can stop worrying about it, Tom. I am planning to call her tonight.” Her voice was one she used with us children when we’d come close to pushing her too far. My father seemed to know the voice, too, and said no more as my mother brought the dishes to the kitchen. Soon afterward we heard her call Louetta and make arrangements to have her stop by the house the next afternoon.
“I hope Mom doesn’t hire her,” Emily said the next day as we walked the last few blocks home. At nine, Emily was two years younger than me but had a way of saying things that left me feeling she knew more than I ever would. “Lydia Edwards told me Louetta made her clean her room every week. She said her mother liked her fine, but Lydia thought she was too bossy. I think we’re doing okay the way we are.”
“I don’t know,” said Todd. “Maybe having Louetta would make Mom a little happier.” Emily and I looked at him. We had never connected happiness – or the lack of it – with my mother. “I mean,” Todd continued, “it can’t be much fun just being home with Ben all day.”
I shifted my bookbag to my other shoulder. I didn’t see how having Louetta come into our house would make much difference to my mother’s happiness. Two of my friends had colored housekeepers. Cordelia, who worked for Martha’s family, was a big woman who was sweet as sugar to Martha’s mother, but pinched Martha and her brother whenever they started fighting or when they refused to do something Cordelia asked. The Lamberts had Essie, who was quiet as a shadow and spent most of her time in the kitchen or laundry room. I was confident my mother would never hire someone as mean as Cordelia, and I couldn’t see how hiring someone like Essie would make her happier.
When we reached home we found our mother in the kitchen, sitting at the table with Louetta. My mother was wearing a green dress that she often wore when she went out shopping and her hair was brushed so that it was soft and fine around her face. Louetta sat across from her and next to Ben, who was in his high chair eating Cheerios. Louetta’s brown eyes matched my mother’s, but her dark skin stood out against the white of my mother’s arms. Her face was thin and small-boned, though her arms were muscular and her hands were calloused like those of the men who worked at the gas station down the street. One hand rested calmly in her lap while the other held a toy that she shook in front of Ben, who was gurgling and laughing, his eyes fixed on her. “Here are the rest of them now,” my mother said as we walked in. Louetta gazed at us, sizing us up the way someone might check a melon or tomato. My mother introduced each of us by name, and then told us Louetta had agreed to start work the following week.
It took only two weeks for it to feel like Louetta had been with us always. She came to our house three days a week, arriving in the late morning while Emily, Todd, and I were still at school, and staying until we finished dinner and the dishes were cleaned and put away. From the first day, Emily seemed to think it was her job to get to know Louetta and followed her about as she moved from the kitchen to the bedrooms and bathroom, asking Louetta where she lived and how many kids she had and didn’t she think it was hot for October. Louetta seemed happy to answer all her questions, something that took Emily by surprise since we had learned long ago that the only way to get Emily to be quiet was to ignore her, something that Todd and I did quite well. By the end of the first week, Emily announced that Louetta would work out just fine, adding, “Lydia Edwards is a dope.”
Not long after Louetta started, we began to notice small changes in our mother and around the house. In the mornings on the days Louetta was scheduled to work, our mother seemed less apt to snap at us if we spilled our milk or forgot to put our dirty bowls in the sink, and when we came home, she sometimes sat with us as we had a bread and butter snack and asked us about our days and whether anything new had happened at school. The dining room table was no longer piled with clothes to be folded or papers to be put away, the stove no longer had its thin film of grease, and the tub in the bathroom was without its grey ring.
During the afternoons, my mother and Louetta often worked side-by-side in the kitchen, my mother ironing clothes or feeding Ben while Louetta washed dishes or peeled vegetables for dinner. As they worked, they talked – about us, about Louetta’s married son and her daughter who was in high school, or about our new, young president and the troubles in Birmingham. Sometimes one of them would start laughing, and before we knew it the other would join in. Their laughs blended together, Louetta’s deep and husky, my mother’s like silver.
When we got home from school, Todd and Emily and I would bring our books to the dining room table where, separated from our mother and Louetta by the swinging door that connected the two rooms, we pretended to do our homework. We knew my mother would never talk about anything interesting if she knew we were listening, so we sat quiet and hunched over arithmetic worksheets and English notebooks, all the while straining to hear what was being said in the next room.
Before Louetta arrived, we’d rarely heard my mother talk to other grownups, since my father was often away and my mother had not made friends with the ladies in the neighborhood. Other than us, the only person she really spoke with at any length was her sister, who called from Ohio every Sunday evening to talk about her children and ask about the weather down here in the South. My mother’s conversations with Louetta were different. When they talked, my mother told stories about things we’d never heard before – about my grandfather who drank too much and died at 49 when he fell from a ladder, about my aunt who ran with a wild crowd until she met her husband in her last year of high school, and about how my mother missed her family and her friends and how for some reason, she hadn’t had the energy or interest in meeting new people since we’d moved to Lawton.
It was through one of her conversations with Louetta that we learned my mother was going to have another baby. Louetta seemed to know about the baby from the start and brought it up her second week with us. “How are you feeling with that baby you’re carrying?” she asked my mother. “I know when I was pregnant with my Esther I was sick from sunup to sundown for eight weeks. You don’t seem to be bothered a bit.”
“I’m doing fine, Louetta. Just a little tired is all.”
“You be sure to let me know if you need to lay down and take a nap, Mrs. Conrad.” She never called my mother by her first name. It was always Mrs. Conrad or Ma’am. “Me and Benny are good friends now. I could keep him entertained just fine.”
It’s safe to say we were more startled by the easy way Louetta talked about my mother’s pregnancy, a word my mother never used, than by the fact that we were going to have another sister or brother. By bringing it up, Louetta seemed to break some kind of logjam, and soon afterwards my mother began mentioning the baby in conversations with us. Not in a direct way, but by saying things like, “Once the baby is born we’ll have to move Ben into Todd’s room,” and “You children will have to learn to be quiet in the afternoons once the new baby is here.”
“That baby sounds like it’s going to be loads of fun,” Emily muttered to me and Todd one afternoon.
“It’ll be just like having another Ben,” I said. “He’s not so bad now that he’s older.”
“I don’t know,” said Todd. “I was kind of getting used to there being just the four of us.” He wasn’t keen on having to share his bedroom with Ben who still woke up at night and had a baby’s habit of littering the room with small toys and bits of dry cereal and crackers.
There were other ways our lives changed after Louetta arrived. For one thing, we began to eat much better. I had never spent much time thinking about food. My mother made sure we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but didn’t seem to worry too much about what she put before us as long as we had some fruit and something green at least once a day. Mashed potatoes and meatloaf flavored with catsup, tuna casserole and jello salad, and a version of spaghetti and meatballs that her Irish mother had taught her to make formed the core of her dinner planning and she cooked each of them at least once a week. Other than birthday cakes that she made from a box mix and cut-out cookies and fudge that she made for Christmas, desserts were a rare event. Cooking wasn’t supposed to be one of the things Louetta did, but once my mother tasted her food and saw the looks on our faces as we ate a meal that Louetta had prepared, she took over all of the ironing so that Louetta could spend more time making dinners. Louetta’s mashed potatoes were nothing like our mother’s. Unlike the dry, grey potatoes our mother served us, Louetta’s were made with cream and had hidden pockets of melted butter and they melted on our tongues, and her roast chicken was covered in a crisp skin that we peeled away in strips and stuffed into our mouths when our mother’s back was turned.
In spite of all she did for us, it didn’t take us long to realize that Louetta was there to help our mother, not to be our friend. It wasn’t that she ignored us or was ever mean. When we arrived home after school, she always made sure we had something to eat and asked each of us how our day had gone. She even remembered when one of us had a test and was sure to ask us how we had done. But she never told us about her own children or her husband or where she lived and what she liked to do. She only told those things to our mother, and we knew of them only from the hours we spent listening behind the dining room door.
As the months wore on and my mother’s belly began to swell, she began mentioning the new baby less often. In her conversations with Louetta, she was often quiet and let Louetta do most of the talking. She seemed to be sliding back to how she was before Louetta had come to work for us, content to just look on and let others do the talking, so I felt a little relieved when Louetta brought the conversation back around to her and the baby one February afternoon. Louetta was fixing chicken and rice for our supper while my mother fed Ben from baby food jars of pureed meat and peas. A chilly rain had fallen through the day, but during the late afternoon the sun had broken through the clouds and cast a pale light on the dining room table where Emily and I sat with our homework. My attention was divided between the essay I had to write for English and the murmured conversation that was only slightly muffled by the kitchen door.
“It looks like Ben will be getting around fine and might even be out of diapers before your next baby comes, Mrs. Conrad,” Louetta said. “That’s a good thing. I know how hard it is on a mama to have two babies pulling on your skirts and crying for attention.” This conversation promised to be more interesting than anything I had to say about Little Women, and I strained to hear my mother’s reply. But the kitchen was quiet until my mother blew her nose and Louetta said, “I’m truly sorry, Ma’am. Lord, I didn’t mean to upset you. Sometimes my mouth takes me where I have no business going.”
“Don’t worry, Louetta,” I heard my mother reply. “I’m all right. I think you just touched a raw nerve. I’ll be fine.” She was quiet a moment, then said in a rush, “It’s just that sometimes I think about having another baby and I just can’t bear it. I’m ashamed at how little I feel like doing for the children I have now, I can’t imagine doing for another one.”
I could hear my mother’s breaths become ragged and then the kitchen was quiet again until a chair scraped against the floor and Louetta spoke, so soft I could barely hear her, “I know how you feel, Ma’am. Sometimes it can feel like all the love has just been drained out and there’s no more to give. Some women I know have got enough for a whole flock of children, but most of us get a little thin after a handful.” She paused as my mother blew her nose again. “Don’t you worry, Mrs. Conrad. Once that baby comes you’ll figure it out. We’ll be fine.”
My mother spoke, a catch in her throat. “I’ve been thinking about what to do, Louetta. I mean after this one comes. I need it to be the last one. I talked to my doctor about how to stop it from happening again, you know, having my tubes tied.” She paused. “I just need to convince Tom. On things like this he tends to pay more attention to the priests than to me.”
“Mmm, hmm. My Henry can be the same, but instead of a priest it’s his boss he always thinks is right. You should have heard some of the conversations we had about our boy and college. Henry was dead set against having him go, but I won out in the end. It’s none of my business, Mrs. Conrad, but I’d say you need to let your husband know what’s in your heart. What you need to do.”
“I know, Louetta. I know.”
I looked up to see Emily staring at me. This was more than either of us wanted to hear, and Emily pushed her chair back and headed into the living room to watch TV. I had no idea what my mother meant about having tubes tied, but I understood the part about having enough of us. I picked up my pencil to continue with my essay, but a cold space had opened up in my belly and I suddenly found I had little to say.
During the last few months before the baby was to arrive, my father went on fewer trips. He needed to spend more time at home, he told us. This didn’t seem to change things much, since he was at work all day and was only with us some evenings and for the hours on the week-end when he didn’t have errands to run or something to take care of at the office. He tried to make it home for dinner most nights, and when he did he used the time to ask us about what we were doing in school and remind us not to talk with our mouths full or argue with one another at the table.
He and my mother rarely talked at dinner. I would often watch the two of them out of the corners of my eyes, hoping they might start in on a real conversation, but there seemed to be some kind of a wall between them and I could tell by the way they looked past each other and kept their attention on us that any real talking between them was unlikely. After we went to bed, it was much the same. Sometimes they sat together in the living room, the darkness lit only by the red tip of my father’s cigarette and the black and white figures that moved ghost-like on the television screen. More often, though, my mother went to bed soon after we did, leaving my father to stay up alone.
For some reason, things between them seemed to get a little better as the time when the baby was to arrive got closer. It was like they’d both suddenly decided to go easier on each other. Occasionally, after we left the table they would sit as my father had a cigarette and talk about his job or about something Ben had done that day or about my mother’s family in Ohio.
Still, we were all more relaxed when my father wasn’t home. Then we would eat in the kitchen rather than the dining room and Louetta would join us at the table. After dinner my mother and Louetta would have a cup of tea before Louetta rose to clear the plates and my mother took Ben to the bathroom to clean him up and get him ready for bed.
One evening while my father was away, dinner was delayed by a bat that flew into the house through the front door. Emily had been on the front porch before dinner and had left the door wide open. The bat swooped in and began to fly around the living and dining rooms in panicked circles. My mother shooed us all into the kitchen and told us to sit at the table, then grabbed a broom and headed back toward the living room when Louetta darted in front of her, blocking her way. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Conrad, but you can’t do that. You give that broom to me.”
“Don’t be silly, Louetta. You stay here with the children and I’ll just chase the bat outside.”
“No, Ma’am. I can’t let you do that. Give it to me and I’ll take care of it.” She took the broom out of my mother’s hand and left the room, closing the kitchen door behind her.
My mother turned back to us. Picking Ben up from the floor, she buckled him into his highchair and then began to dish out our dinner. Once we were all seated she moved back to the door and opened it a crack. From my place at the table, I was just able to spy Louetta standing on the hassock with the broom raised above her head. I watched as she turned slowly, tracking the bat’s path with the broom and occasionally swiping the air as she tried to guide the bat toward one of the open windows or the still-open front door. A breeze blew against her skirt and scattered scraps of colored paper that Emily had peeled from her crayons earlier in the day. Every now and then I would spot the bat as it flew past the door, a flapping rush of wings that rose and dipped wildly. One of its wings seemed to be damaged, which probably accounted for a certain choppiness in its flight, and likely explained why Louetta was finally able to swat it to the ground. When it fell, the bat lay in a tiny heap, motionless except for an occasional flutter of its wings.
Louetta seemed startled that she had actually stopped the bat’s frantic flight, and waited a few moments before stepping off the hassock. Todd and I rose from the table and stood quietly behind our mother as Louetta crossed the living room, the broom held high in front of her. From where we stood, the bat looked like a smudge of brown against the wood floor, like a rag someone had dropped. As Louetta came near, its wings stopped fluttering and its only movement was a small lurching as it struggled for air.
Louetta stooped to inspect the bat more closely and nudged it gently with the broom handle. Then, standing, she placed her shoe over its tiny body and ground the bat firmly into the floor. Todd and I gasped and my mother turned around, angry at first that we were out of our chairs. As she looked at us, her face softened and she said quietly, “She had to do it. It was all but dead. You wouldn’t want it to suffer.”
Louetta came into the kitchen then to get a paper bag. “It was a young one,” she said. “Must have strayed from its flock and gotten lost.”
“Did you catch it, Louetta?” Emily asked. She had been distracted for most of the time, busy tossing Cheerios at Ben and trying to spear the noodles that swam in a pool of butter on her plate. My mother looked at Louetta and shook her head.
“Sure did, honey,” Louetta said. “I caught it and let it go.”
Todd and I said nothing as Louetta left the kitchen with the bag. After a moment we heard her leave the house through the front door and when she came back the bag was gone.
When my father came home that night Todd and I told him about the bat and how Louetta had swatted it from the air and how in the end she had to kill it. At dinner the next night, my father asked my mother if she thought Louetta needed to come so often. Perhaps she could cut back a bit, maybe not stay so long into the evening. My mother put her fork on her plate and gazed at my father and said, “She is the only thing that gets me through the day, Tom. I can’t think why you’d want her gone, but I can tell you I won’t let that happen.”
My father said he was only suggesting Louetta cut back a bit now that he was able to be home more often. But he soon realized my mother wasn’t listening to him and he shifted his attention to Todd, asking him to tell us about the basketball team he planned to try out for. My mother said nothing to my father or to us for the rest of the dinner.
Our mother went into the hospital to have the baby three weeks later. She would be in the hospital an extra day or two, we were told, because she was to have a minor operation after the delivery. She had arranged to have Louetta stay with us during the week she would be away, and shortly after my father took my mother to the hospital, he took us to get Louetta from her home. She lived several miles from us, on a dusty street a little past the center of town and just off the main road. As our car turned onto her road, the pavement suddenly ended and bits of gravel skittered out from under the wheels and pinged against the underside of the car floor. The street was lined with small brown and white houses that sat close to the road and to one another.
A group of colored children were playing kick-the-can in the middle of the road as we drove up. They parted to let us go by and as we did they stared at Todd and Emily and me and eyed our car curiously. My father pulled in front of Louetta’s house and tapped on the horn. It seemed Louetta had been waiting for us, because she quickly opened her front door and stepped out onto the porch, a small suitcase in her hand. Her husband and daughter came out, too, and walked her down to where we waited at the curb.
My father got out to put her suitcase into the trunk. “Hurry on now, Louetta,” he said as he turned to get inside the car. “I need to get back to the hospital.” Louetta nodded. She gave her daughter and husband a hug, then walked around the front of the car and climbed into the front seat next to my father. As soon as she was settled, I leaned forward and handed her Ben, who had started waving his arms and crying, “Lu, Lu” the moment he saw her.
As he drove us back to our house, my father filled Louetta in on how my mother was doing. The doctors thought my mother would deliver the baby in the next few hours, he said, and he planned to stay at the hospital until the baby arrived and my mother was settled. My father was quiet for the rest of the ride. Unlike my mother, he had never been easy around Louetta. When we got home he dropped us at the side door, then quickly backed down the driveway and headed in the direction of the hospital.
Louetta had us all go to bed at the normal time that evening, putting a damper on the excitement we felt from having her there and my mother and father away. When we got up the next morning, my father was at the kitchen table and we learned my mother had had a baby girl named Lila. “She’s a fragile little thing,” my father said. “She was born a few weeks too soon and needs a little oxygen to help her breathe, but otherwise she’s fine.” Our mother was doing fine, too, he added.
“Your mother just needs rest right now,” Louetta said as she put cereal on the table and placed a cup of coffee next to my father’s plate. My father’s face was rough with day old whiskers and he had shadows under his eyes. Although it was a Monday, he was dressed in his weekend clothes and waited calmly as we rushed to finish getting ready for school. After dropping us off, he said, he planned to come back and get cleaned up and then head into his office for the day. He would stop back at the hospital to see my mother and the baby before he came home for dinner.
My father didn’t come home again that night. The baby was having a bit of a hard time, he said, and my mother had asked him to stay with her for a while. The next day my father was still gone, but he telephoned during dinner. Todd answered and my father asked him to put Louetta on the line.
Louetta turned away from us as she took the phone in her hand. She talked quietly and several times we heard her murmur, “Yes, sir.” At the end, she said, “I understand. I’ll leave that to you, Mr. Conrad,” and before she hung up she said, “Please give my best to Mrs. Conrad. Tell her we’re all thinking about her.” When she turned back to the table, her eyes glistened wetly but the first thing she said was, “Miss Emily, you get your feet off that chair and sit right. What would your mother say.” She spooned out the potatoes and placed a pork chop on each of our plates and then said little else during the rest of dinner. Todd and Emily and I ate quietly, careful not to scrape our plates with our forks or to spill anything as we put our dishes into the sink when we were done.
My father came home before we went to bed. He slipped in the back door and went directly into the bathroom where he turned on the shower. Although it was past our bedtime, Louetta did not tell us to go to bed and the three of us sat in the living room with the TV on low, waiting for him to come out.
We all looked up as he entered the living room and bent to turn off the TV. His hair was slick and black from the shower and his face was still damp. He sat in the chair my mother usually used as he told us Lila had died that evening. “She was born too soon, you know, and her lungs weren’t ready,” he said. “She tried and tried, but she just couldn’t get enough air.” He didn’t seem to know where to look. His eyes shifted from one to the other of us and then settled on the blank television screen.
The news was slow to sink in. We hadn’t even seen this new sister and already she was dead. As I looked at my father’s face, I became distracted by a fluttering noise. Quiet at first and then louder and more insistent. I looked around expecting to see another bat circling the room. But the noise came from a branch tapping at the window and soon it stopped, leaving me with the memory of a bat flapping its wings erratically, of its tiny chest heaving as it struggled to breathe.
My mother came home the next afternoon. Todd and Emily and I watched from the living room window as my father opened the car door and helped my mother stand and climb the front steps. Emily rushed to give her a hug as she walked in, but Todd and I hung back until she reached out for us. She held Todd’s hand with one of her own; with the other, she pushed my hair back from my forehead and stroked my cheek, then gave each of us a kiss. I stayed close to her a moment longer, hoping she might just put her arms around me and pull me close.
Louetta was watching from the kitchen doorway. When my mother saw her, she raised a hand toward her and called Louetta’s name and Louetta walked quickly across the room and enfolded my mother in her arms, quietly repeating the word, “Julia.” My mother’s sobs came raw and harsh as she buried her face in Louetta’s shoulder and as Louetta stroked her hair and rocked her back and forth.
Louetta stayed with us until we moved away from Alabama, although as time went on, and my mother was feeling stronger, she came less often, dropping from three days a week to two and then just to one. My mother made one or two friends during the next year, though she never seemed to talk to them the way she talked to Louetta. During the last few months, when we knew we were going to leave Alabama and were just waiting for the school year to end, my mother would make a coffee cake on the mornings Louetta was to arrive. When we came home in the afternoon we often found them at the kitchen table, talking and laughing, sometimes wiping tears from their eyes and occasionally dabbing at the crumbs that remained on their plates.