The Paid Guest

In my hometown of Birmingham, in the late 1960’s, many of the older Black women still took the bus out of their own neighborhoods to work as Domestic Help, or as many called them, maids: they would leave their own homes and neighborhoods to work in the White neighborhoods. It was a remnant of Jim Crow that lasted beyond Civil Rights and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And while things were changing by the time I was born, such as segregated public restrooms and water fountains, many things had not changed at all.  Before my family had returned to Birmingham from Camp Lejeune, the 16th ST. Baptist Church bombing had occurred, killing four young Black girls. Once I’d reached adulthood, my parents recalled seeing the news on television at the Marine base in North Carolina, and spontaneously decided they would NOT be returning to Birmingham, as they did not want to bring their children into what they felt was a war zone, nor did they want to have their children exposed to such terrorism.  My paternal grandparents convinced them that Birmingham needed good people there as a method to help combat such heinous things – thus, Birmingham, my father’s hometown, became my hometown.

By 1964,five months before the arrival of their second granddaughter,  my Grandparents Bradley had ‘stepped up’, moving from north Birmingham, an historically blue collar and ruffian neighborhood to the comparatively more genteel Crestline, Alabama. While Crestline was indeed a humongous betterment in comparison to 33rd Ave. N. in the Acipco neighborhood,  little did I know as a 3 year old that it parts of this section were  actually considered to be the Ghetto of Mountain Brook: The Poor Side of the Rich Section of Town. Nonetheless, it was a vast improvement for Durwood, Sr. and Olive, after nearly 40 years of toiling at the American Cast Iron Pipe Company.  They lived on Beech Lane, which, as a small child, I had thoroughly confused with Beach Lane – thus, for the first five years of my life, I was perpetually looking for sand and waves that did not exist, much to my disdain and disappointment.

By 1967, near my third birthday, Granddaddy had given in to one of two requests of  my Grandmother. The first request was for a face lift, which he promptly dismissed as foolish, vain, and ridiculous. The second was for a maid.

“They can come one day a week,” he said.

Olive was positively ecstatic. She turned to my mother to help locate and interview, as we had a maid, Della, who came to us two days a week, to help my mother, on Montevallo Lane, in our own corner of Crestline the Ghetto. Mother managed to locate Cleo, and took Cleo to Beech Lane to meet my grandparents. Olive loved her…….Durwood, Sr. had reservations. Maybe it was the lone tooth in her head. Maybe it was the perpetual hair net that never seemed to move….much less come out. Olive, however, loved her immediately, and that settled it. Cleo came to work for them every Wednesday’s: she was to help my grandmother with clearing the breakfast dishes, laundry and ironing.

One Wednesday, after my mother picked me up from nursery school, she asked me if I wanted to go meet Cleo. I was so excited, as my grandmother had been bragging for weeks about her….Beech Lane was our immediate destination. As soon as we walked in the door, Durwood pointed us to the kitchen. By this time, it was near noon.

“It’s lunchtime, and they just finished breakfast,” he said to my mother. We were both highly confused.

“BREAK-fast??” I asked, incredulous.

“It’s late to still be eating breakfast, isn’t it, Tadpole??” he said, with a grin on his face.

“Hi, Miss Rebecca,” Cleo said from the kitchen. I was taken aback by it…….while only three years old, I felt uneasy about an obviously much older Black woman calling an obviously much younger White woman “Miss (fill in the first name here)”.  I looked at my mother, then my grandfather, confused…….I was being raised in a home where respect for our elders was a MUST……..this appeared to break that statute.

“Cleo, it is nice to see you!! This is my youngest, Lisa!! Lisa, say hello to Cleo!!”

I immediately ran over to her and hugged her leg. She put her arm around me, and smiled grandly, exposing her single front tooth gums.

“Hello, Miss Lisa!” I told my grandmother to tell her to just call me Lisa……Miss Lisa made me nervous………..

“Cleo is making cornbread – why don’t y’all sit down and have lunch with us?”

I ran out of the kitchen to sit with Granddaddy while Mother declined the lunch invitation, as we had to pick up my sister shortly from kindergarten. I asked Granddaddy did he like Cleo. He laughed, and said, “She’s a WONDERFUL paid guest!! She sits in the kitchen with your grandmother for hours and hours, and they just have a GRAND old time!!” Mother half-heard what he said, and looked over with a concerned look in her eye.

Cleo came from the kitchen and slipped me a piece of hot cornbread on a paper napkin.

“Next week, I want to hear how you like my hot cornbread, honey!!”

“CORN-bread???” I asked….

“Yes, sug-ah….cornbread!!”

“okay….” I responded, meekly… date, I had never heard of cornbread….or, most likely I had, but was unaware, in my three year old mind…..

Granddaddy walked us out to the car, as my sister was due to let out of kindergarten.

“Durwood, what’s that on your shirt???” my mother exclaimed, her eyes bulging out of her head and her jaw falling to the sidewalk….she was behind him as he was giving me a piggyback ride to the driveway. I giggled, as I thought she was teasing me for being carried…

“Cleo burned my shirt with the iron this morning.” He put me down, and I ran behind him to see what the commotion was all about. There, in the middle of his back, was a brown imprint of the 1932 iron that my grandmother was still in possession of ….and still used….and that Cleo had used………….when he smelled the fabric burning from the bedroom upstairs, he went up and told Cleo that was good enough, and maybe go down and start thinking about what she wanted for lunch….Cleo obliged, telling him she’d finish up whatever stack of laundry that Miss Olive had for her next week……..

My mother and I looked at Granddaddy’s back .

“Well, Durwood, I’m afraid she’s ruined it…”

I stood there, curios as to why he even put the thing on…..years later, I could only figure it related back to the harsher days of 30-plus years ago, in the dark days of the Economic Collapse, although I knew he’d never be wearing that thing to work again. Church was certainly not an issue, as he’d quit going to church many ages ago (except for weddings and funerals).

When my father came home from work, my sister and I were in bed pretending to be asleep, per usual. Dad’s early career often kept him at the hospital until late at night, but he’d often times make it home in time to tune in to Mission: Impossible….we knew because we always heard the theme song floating in under the crack of the door. This night, the first thing I heard was my mother informing him of the iron print on his father’s white shirt.

“How did you see that?” he asked my mother.

“Because he was WEARING it!!!!!!!!!!!!”

His laugh was one of the quietest yet hardiest laughs I’ve ever heard in my life. My sister and I laughed while under the covers.

Cleo stayed with my grandparents for several years beyond this. My grandfather did not have the heart to fire her, and my grandmother enjoyed the female companionship. A pattern had been immediately formed……….Grandmother would cook breakfast and serve Cleo, and they would sit at the breakfast table and talk for a good 2-3 hours. Cleo would eventually help clean the breakfast dishes, and occasionally pretend to Comet the sink. Ironing was no longer an option; but she would occasionally vacuum. And move the dust around on the wooden furniture. And take a gander at the bathroom floors to determine mopping necessities. It was a fruitful relationship, in an unconventional way.

After four years of this arrangement, Cleo became too feeble and unsteady on her feet to take the bus into Crestline any longer. Grandmother was outwardly sad to see her go……even Granddaddy, in his own quite, stoic view of the world, in his own wordless way, was disappointed that his “paid guest’, as he worded it, would no longer be lingering in the house on Beech Lane on Wednesdays. For many years, even after Granddaddy passed away, we recalled his “Paid Guest”.

I am uncertain as to when Cleo passed away, but it was after Granddaddy. My grandmother was the last of the three to head to the Afterlife. I know she tried to duplicate Cleo’s cornbread, but I did not want it. I think because it was not Cleo’s cornbread. Grandmother made fabulous biscuits, which I raved over, and miss to this day…..but Cleo had my heart and mind in the cornbread department: she added just a touch of “sug-ah”, that I liked to pretend was just for me.



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