I used to wonder if I was adopted, but my siblings love to tell the story of the day I was brought home from St. Dominic’s hospital in Jackson, MS. It was summer, 1959. They asked if I could be taken back or maybe they could sell me. Who was this creature coming into the fold of a family that functioned just fine without me? I was the runt of the family, the fourth child. There were three miscarried children between me and my closest sibling. My sister was seven years old when I was born, my brother eleven, my eldest sister was thirteen.
My siblings tell the story of how they would put me in the center of the bed, surround me and shout “I hate you; I hate you” until I cried. They thought I was cute when I cried. They would laugh and giggle as they recounted this event. My oldest sister also shared how she was in charge of me at times. She and her friends would treat like their baby doll. Probably with love at times, probably left in the crib sometimes forgotten, as baby dolls often are.
My mama was an older mom, 37 when she had me. That was an embarrassment for my siblings to have this mom walking around pregnant when she should have been done making babies. Mama must have had some inkling of the dynamic being created by having me at an older age and with such an age span between me and the others. She would tell me, “I tried to have a friend for you.” She had two miscarriages after me. The miscarriages seemed the casualties of my mother’s lifestyle. She drank, smoked, ate Southern cooking and didn’t exercise throughout her pregnancies. At birth, I was only five pounds, but I was the embryo that stuck in the middle of five miscarriages.
I often felt left out when my family recounted stories of a legendary camping trip that happened before I was born. Mama, Daddy, my two older sisters and brother drove from Mississippi to Canada. We would watch the family movies while they would delight in the bond that was created during time. As my family made their way West, certainly litter was thrown from the car, no seat belts were worn while both of my parents chain smoked their way across the US. Those habits continued after I was born. The reminders of the unsullied family landscape I never was a part of.
There was a light in my childhood, a very bright light, Woosie. Her given name was Elizabeth, which my toddler mouth couldn’t pronounce, hence Woosie stuck. She was our black maid. She took care of all the cooking, cleaning, caring for us children. When I came along, she was pretty much in charge of raising me. My older siblings did not receive the same individual care and love I got from Woosie since they were older, and she was not our maid during their younger years. Woosie was there from the beginning of my life. She’d come through the door in her spotless white uniform, a stark contrast with her beautiful dark brown skin, her round face with always smiling eyes. I felt comforted, safe from the chaos and dysfunction of our well to do, white Southern family. She’d put her things away in the laundry room next to her designated bathroom that no one in the family used, blacks and whites did not share bathrooms in private homes or public places. Our days together were ours. Once everyone left the house for work, or school or bridge club (mama didn’t work but she kept herself busy with social engagements and shopping), Woosie would swoop me up, hug me tight and look in my eyes to say, you are loved. Her honey scent permeated and freshened the cigarette smoke filled air mostly present from my parents’ chain-smoking habit. While Woosie cleaned the kitchen and prepared for our next meal, she’d plop me on the counter, serve me toast with honey and a tiny bit of coffee with lots of cream and sugar. I take my coffee with cream and sugar to this day. We’d talk and giggle. I was her shadow for the remainder of the day. Late mornings, she’d turn on As the World Turns, slip off her shoes, exposing her tri-colored feet, caramel on the top, white on the sides with shiny pink soles. She knew I loved them. They were prettier, more colorful than the white pale feet I was used to seeing around our house. I’d tickle her smooth tough soles until she had to get back to ironing our cotton sheets and pillowcases as we chatted and watched white people’s drama unfold as quickly as Woosie folded and creased our clothes into neat piles.
Woosie was the blessing in my life for the first six years of it. She raised me from infanthood. I was her baby, and she was my beautiful “mama”. Our bond was tighter than her relationship with my older siblings as they had school and friends to play with. I would ask if I could go home with Woosie. My mother would give a nervous smile and say no. One day Woosie did not come. It was sudden and her disappearance was not discussed. I don’t remember if anyone gave me a false reason such as she was sick or got another job. But it was not the truth. Not until I was an adult, did I learn from my siblings that Mama had fired Woosie, accused her of stealing. But Woosie wouldn’t have stolen anything. The truth is she probably spoke out of turn, gave her opinion on something when her role was to be quiet and take orders. My mama would have none of that, being the Southern white woman of the 50’s and 60’s where it was believed that whites were superior to blacks. I wish I knew more of the details of why she was let go.
I have since found a 2nd grade class picture that shows my disheveled hair and sullen face that exposes the sadness and abandonment, I was feeling in Woosie’s absence. I was feeling the enormity of how alone I was in my family home without even the attention of having my hair combed.
As a young adult I thought of Woosie often and wondered how she was. I asked my mama if she knew where she was, did she know how to contact her? I had since moved West from the South. On a particular visit back home, I wanted to have Woosie over, serve her lunch at our table. It took a bit of convincing for my mama to get her head wrapped around the idea, but she conceded. With some maturity, my mama could recognize the significance of Woosie in my life. I wanted my nine-year old daughter to meet the woman she heard me speak of so often. My daughter and I waited outside my parent’s home in Jackson, MS on a hot summer day for Woosie to arrive. Once she did, our eyes locked. I felt I had found the birth mother I had lost for years. As our gaze remained locked, she and I shared a knowing we had carried for years. She had protected me, loved me and nurtured me. She knew our family secrets; she knew I was neglected, and she saw my spirit. I saw hers too. The four of us, Woosie, my daughter, Mama and I sat at our kitchen table eating the sandwiches I had served while drinking a Coca Cola. My father never came out of his room.
Once I was back at home in the West, I received a thank you note from Woosie. “Dear Frances, your visit to Mississippi made my life worthwhile. I was so glad to see all of you. It made me feel young. I was so glad to see your little daughter. She looks just like you did when you were young. Call me when you are in Mississippi again. With lots of love, Elizabeth.”
I came back to Mississippi about once a year, usually my visits filled up quick with family and friend activities. I thought of Woosie each time, but time didn’t allow for me to get in touch with her. Finally, I made time. It took me ten years from the previous visit. I tracked her down. She was living with her daughter as her health was declining. She was delighted to hear from me. Woosie told me she had just been speaking to her daughter about all the white children she had cared for (she cared for a few). Her daughter had replied to that, those children probably never think of you. I called. Her daughter was gracious enough to have me over to visit with her mama. Woosie’s daughter took a photo of the two of us that still hangs on my wall.
Woosie died in 2009 at age 97. I know this from looking her up and finding her obituary. I still think of her often, wish I knew more about her. If only I had contacted her more consistently, we could have had deeper conversations.
If I could, I’d ask her a few questions;
Woosie where were you raised, how many siblings do you have?
Was that white uniform uncomfortable?
Tell me about your parents, your childhood. Is it true you and my mama used to play together while your mama cleaned for my grandmother?
Who took care of your daughter while you were taking care of me?
Where did you learn to cook all that delicious food you cook for our family? Why isn’t my floating island dessert from Joy of Cooking as good as yours?
How much did my parents pay you? How much was the bus fare to our house? Which church did you go to?
What was it like to witness all that went on in our household?
How did it feel when Mama accused you of stealing?
Can I come over to your house sometime?
Woosie, did you know I love you very much?
*Woosie pronounced woo-see