Here’s to you, sweet woman, on your 87th birthday. I couldn’t make you a cake while I’m at Roanoke, but I know you’re partying away right now. I hope you have a good decade of James Brown boogying left in you!
Elizabeth’s hands testify to more than age and arthritis. The fronts are dark chocolate, verging on charcoal. Slender and angular, they resemble a distant aerial view of small mountains – five frail boned ridges, with valleys of loose skin and knobs of enflamed knuckles. Her fingertips, after decades of shining and scrubbing, have regained some of their softness. These are hardworking hands – hands that have creased countless khaki pants, spanked several misbehaving bottoms, and rolled some of the South’s finest homemade biscuits.
When Elizabeth first began working in the Compton home some fifteen years ago, Mama’s focus was on raising four children under the age of six; keeping a clean house was secondary. Elizabeth, up in age even then, was a godsend. She has been wadding up newspaper to clean windows since she was sixteen, when she and her mother worked together in one of South Carolina’s now famous plantation homes, which was then owned by my cousins. The maintenance of the grand colonial house, once kept by slaves, did not decrease after the Civil War. For a small paycheck, Elizabeth kept it shining.
After the home was sold, she continued to work for various branches of the family tree, where she had the reputation of being stern and uncompromising. Family members from the generation above me still become being locked outside of the house while Elizabeth dusted and mopped. My siblings and I, beneficiaries of her more mellow years, were able to remain in the house, but we instinctively steered clear of Elizabeth’s migrating work zone. Today, her body belies her years; she looks twenty years younger than her actual age of eighty-seven. While four Compton children have transformed from babies and toddlers to teenagers and young adults, Elizabeth faithfully keeps up her Tuesday and Friday cleaning routine.
It may seem like a crime to hire a maid the same age as my chair-ridden grandmother. Employing Elizabeth is more like helping out a family member, though. Given her age, what she accomplishes is amazing, but it is certainly not up to maid-for-hire standards. Mama has been going back behind her for years, re-shining the front doorknob or smudges on the windows that Elizabeth’s weaker eyes can no longer see. The number of brand new clothes she has shrunk in the dryer or stained with Clorox can be frustrating, but now we are more cautious about what we once carelessly tossed in the hamper. These days, Elizabeth straightens more than deep cleans. Everything looks nice on Tuesday and Friday afternoon, and proceeds to descend back into an unkempt tornado within twenty-four hours. This job is her only income, though, and even if she folded clothes for twenty minutes and spent the next two hours eating a tomato-mayonnaise sandwich and watching TV on the couch, we would continue to pick her up for work twice a week.
Once I asked my mom if Elizabeth could really do anything well anymore. “She can iron. And she makes y’all do what you should be doing already.” I had to laugh because Mama is right. With a toothy grin and happy cackle, Elizabeth excels in two activities: ironin’ and fussin’. Once Elizabeth has thrown out the refrigerator’s perfectly good leftovers and made a little breakfast for herself, she places the ironing board in front of the TV like others set up tent, as if she may be there a while. She refuses to learn to use the remote and always yells for someone to turn on The Price is Right or a dramatic soap opera. “Up that volume for me, too, please.” With starch and steam, she irons crisp creases into the fronts of khakis and the collars of button downs. My fifteen-year-old brother, the only Compton son, takes no particular interest in his apparel or appearance, but Elizabeth wants her men looking extra sharp. While everyone’s clothes are ironed on Tuesday, only “Master Cain,” as Elizabeth affectionately calls him, has his pants ironed also on Friday.
There is a mixture of dread and entertainment when Elizabeth shows up. Dread, because we don’t like to clean the bedrooms and do chores for her. Isn’t the point of a housecleaner to clean the house? Why are we straightening everything before Elizabeth comes? In essence, Mama argues, so she doesn’t have to. We are also entertained, though, because twice a week, Elizabeth rules the house, making much ado about nothing whenever she can. “I’m gon’ fuss, now,” she always reminds us. She knows that with her age, she has earned the right to do and say what she wants, and she takes full advantage of her position in the family.
One of her favorite fussing topics is the outfits we don before leaving the house, which, according to her, never suit the weather. If it is raining and we have sandals or shorts on, she’ll rant about catching pneumonia if we don’t cover up. Once in high school, I came downstairs in a formfitting dress for a class presentation that day, and Elizabeth compared me to the voluptuous 1920s actress and singer Mae West. Though I am not that curvy and rarely wear dresses, ever since then I have been “Miss Mae West.” Sometimes I wonder if she knows my birth name anymore.
House rules don’t allow yelling up or down the stairs, but no one stops Elizabeth from hollering all the day long. She will request, question, or complain, but everything she says is really a command.
“You strip yo’ sheets yet?”
“Bring those clothes down fo’ me dahlin’. This ol’ lady’s knees can’t go up n’ dawn these stayahs all day.”
“Grab me some mo’ hangas, please.”
“Y’all keep these lights off, now.”
Without dilly-dallying, sheets are stripped, stairs climbed, hangers brought, and lights turned off. Even the dogs, who are not well-trained, obey her.
Elizabeth tells it like it is. Whenever she thinks parents are not disciplining their children enough, she asks condemningly, “You ‘fraid o’ yo’ own child?” A few months ago on the Charleston city bus, Elizabeth sat cramped between two young people, her patience dwindling with every unnecessarily loud word her preoccupied neighbor bellowed into the cell phone. She made a fuss for a bit, but the gal ignored her and continued talking, so Elizabeth moved to another seat. When the phone conversation ended, the young woman turned to her and, with a hint of attitude, asked what the problem was with talking on the phone. That day, Elizabeth happened to be taking her kitchen knives to be sharpened, and without a moment’s hesitation, she whipped one out and began ranting at the woman to leave her in peace throwing in an “I don’t play” several times. As she recounted this story, incredulous listeners retorted that this was a serious crime. It did not seem to phase her. “I don’t play,” Elizabeth repeated, and we all know it.
The only thing Elizabeth is better at than fussing is living. Her work has kept her physically active, but her friends keep her soul alive. She will never turn down a party, particularly if there is a dance floor, James Brown boogying, and good drink. One would be hard-pressed to find an eighty-six-year-old with smoother moves than Elizabeth. Her southern cooking – plates of creamy mac n’ cheese, collard greens, baked beans, country ham, homemade biscuits, and sweet potato casserole – is to die for, literally. Butter is always the secret ingredient, and no calories are skimped. While the likelihood of a physical heart attack increases with every bite of this “soul food,” the spiritual heart never felt so satisfied. Elizabeth has been singing in her AME church choir for over sixty years, and after the fiftieth year, she was honored with a plaque for her dedicated service. After her great-grandchildren, the congregation is her extended family, and along with the normal Sunday service, she rarely misses a funeral or prayer meeting. She is overwhelmed by the kind gestures of friends, but she doesn’t realize it is the natural order of things – what goes around comes around.
As for the Comptons, she often tells us that she loves us and that she prays for us every day. Then she reverts to fussing, reminding us to say our prayers, too. Every year for our birthday growing up, she gave us a card with the respective number of dollar bills for our years of life. She always signed it the same way: “I love you. -Old Lady Elizabeth.” It was repetitive and predictable, but the love and monetary sacrifice in those cards was tangible. For each of Elizabeth’s special occasions – her birthday, holidays, a visit from her son – she asks me to make her one thing: a lemon pound cake. She doesn’t share it with anyone, preserving the extra portion in the freezer to savor one slice at a time. When I place that wrapped pound cake in her weathered hands, it is as if I am signing a card to her. For all your fussing, for all your care, “I love you. –Miss Mae West.”