“A Tribute to My Willie”
She never wore a lacy cap. She never wore a ruffled white apron over a black uniform with matching shoes because she wasn’t a real maid. Instead, she wore dresses she had sewn herself from feed sacks and navy felt house shoes when her corns ‘got to botherin.’ She was a heavyset woman with a large lap and bosom to cradle my head and she always smelled of Faultless Starch–I thought it was the best smell in the world. Her name was Willie Mae. She was my best friend and I loved her.
Mama had warned her about how “active” I was before she came to us. Mama had hired several people to stay with me while she worked in Daddy’s store, but none worked out until Willie came. Today, I would be labeled ADHD and heavily dosed with Ritalin. I didn’t like to take naps. I had a very active imagination. I was always on the move.
Yet Willie knew how to handle me. She learned I loved radio shows. At my insistence, she would stop whatever she was doing to march around the breakfast table with me every 15 minutes during Don McNeill’s “ Breakfast Club.” While she put dinner on to cook we listened to Arthur Godfrey and laughed at his jokes. Sometimes she gave me a rag soaked in O’CEDAR oil to help her dust the furniture. I’d complain when I caught her using her own rag to come along behind me. “Oh, I just noticed one little speck you left, Baby,” she’d explain.
On my first day of school I was ‘dressed to the nines,’ my little puffed sleeves starched and ironed to perfection. Miss Julia, the teacher, asked how many of us could count. All hands went up whether we knew how or not. So, in order to verify the fact, she asked each of us to stand and give our name and the number of people in our family. I was called on first. I thought this was pretty silly because everyone in town knew everyone else. I humored her though.
“My name is Brenda Starks and there are seven people in my family.” I was about to sit down when she corrected me.
“No, Brenda, there are only six. You, your parents and three brothers.”
I corrected her, “No Ma’am–seven–you forgot Willie.”
I practiced for first grade long before I started. While Willie cooked, I sat at my desk she’d fixed for me and colored or played with paper dolls which we called, “getting my lessons.” My desk was a yellow kitchen stool. I stuck my feet through the top rung and, sitting on that, I used the stool seat for my desk top.
After dinner, my favorite show came on. Willie and I had a deal. She rescued an old lace curtain Mama had thrown away and pinned it on my head just before 1 p.m. That was when “Bride and Groom” came on. I would go to the living room and march down the hall to the kitchen holding a plastic flower and wearing my ‘veil’ while “The Wedding March” played on the radio. I got married five days a week. Willie and I gasped at the prizes I’d “win.”
“You like that new Maytag wringer washer, Willie? If you do, I’ll give it to you whenthey mail it to me.” She thanked me as she continued washing dishes.
Afterward, she always said the same thing…”Now, Baby, you gonna’ have to go lay down for your nap now while I mop this kitchen flo’.” Having satisfied myself with my radio wedding I would allow her to lead me to bed. I would drift off to sleep while listening to that beautiful full voice from the kitchen singing her favorite song, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There.” Many of her expressions have remained with me through the years. If I told her something she didn’t believe, she’d say, “I very doubt it!” If I needed assurance, she would give it, always ending with the phrase, “Ain’ no doubt about it!”
When my 1st tooth became loose, she was the only one I would let pull it. She bragged on her ‘good girl.’ I told her I hoped my new one came in a pretty gold like the one at the corner of her smile. She said I’d have to pay ‘extry’ for that.
I was “Baby” when she was pleased and “Chile” when I got into something I shouldn’t. Only once do I remember her being really mad. I was upset with my puppy. I looked him square in the face and declared,
“You chew on that again and I will knock the CRUD out of you!” This was a term I’d recently heard at school.
Before I knew what happened, Willie grabbed me by the arm, my feet dangling above the floor, and declared “CHILE! If I EVER hear you use that bad word again, you gonna’ know just what LUX FLAKES tastes like!” That was the end of my cussin’ career.
Willie also taught me Bible verses. I memorized the 23rd Psalm before starting second grade. Willie loved the Lord.
When I grew older, she taught me to crimp a pie crust… to soak pinto beans overnight with slab fat back…how to drop a bit of chocolate in a glass of water to see if fudge was ready. Willie was a teacher.
One Autumn afternoon in 1957, I came home from school all upset. Willie was ironing in the back hall.
“Willie, we were talking in Civics class today about everything that’s going on up in Little Rock at Central High School. I know you’ve heard about it– what do you think about this integration thing?”
She sprinkled one of my skirts, carefully placed it across the board, and smoothed it with her hands before ironing from the hem up to the gathered waist before she answered,
“Well, Baby,” she began slowly, “people is just people. You got bad people and you got good people. Don’t make no difference what color they are. When bad people mix with other bad people, nothin’ good’s gonna’ come out of it. But when good people mix with other good people, everthing’s gonna’ turn out fine.” She made two more swipes with the hot iron before she stood it on its end and hugged me to that wonderful, comforting bosom,
“Guess we know which side we’re on–right, Baby?”
Years later, tears streaming down my face, I hardly recognized the small body inside the casket. But I could still smell the comfort of Faultless Starch and hear her singing as she worked, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There.” And in my mind, her words rang out, “AIN’ NO DOUBT ABOUT IT!”