I remember Mama. She was a strikingly beautiful woman who stood four feet nine in stocking feet. Her long black hair hung down past her waist in swells of raven waves. She was small in statue encompassing the quality of feisty and sweet. I was only five when mama moved David and us into an old abandon shack on the now defunded Banard plantation. She scrubbed the walls cleaned up the place and moved us in with all of our belongings that fall. We did not have much but what we did have she took great pains to preserve.
To help care for us she took in washing that she worked on by candle light in the dead of night. While she washed loads of cloths in a bug tub in the center of the cabin’s kitchen, she kept a big kettle of cabbage stew bubbling in the hearth and a pan of hot water cornbread on the fire.
Come sun up she would send David much older than me to deliver the fresh laundry back to the people in small baskets. She never stopped moving from sun up to sun down. She served up nearly twenty plates of that good smelling cabbage and cornpone to the hungry workers for 2.00 each. The workers would stop by the back door on the way to the mill to pick up their lunch. We survived quite nicely on the money Mama took in. A big girl Mable much older than me lived in a cabin down the way. She used to come over and play teaching and dolls. I liked teaching best. She went to school until her pa died and her ma had to go to work. They left her home alone most of the time. When she got scared, she started coming round during the day to visit me.
Mable could read and she read to me all the time. I liked her stories best about the bright lights and big cities of the north. I knew I wanted to visit those places and do some of those things. I am only guessing when I say that things were hard around the world. I did not know for sure, but we had not own a television or radio to reference the events of the times. As it so happens, hard times hit everybody. We finally felt the effects when the old milled closed and Mama lost her cabbage and cornpone customers. Then Mabel’s mom died one evening of pneumonia. It was another mouth to feed, but Mama took Mable in to live with us. We ended up on the point of starvation. David got down bad sick that winter and before spring thaw, he passed away too. We buried him under the old oak tree out back near the pond. He liked it there under the tree where he would sit for hours fishing.
Thankfully, the government sent food stamps that you could get if you could prove you were starving. With a few of the stamps we could go in town to the market and buy fatback, corn meal, red beans rice and so much else. By then with three mouths to feed, we were desperate. Mama did not want to go because of she was always too proud. We always had enough to keep us going we never had to ask nobody for nothing.
In the mean time, my cousin Ruby was living in Detroit in the North. She worked for a white family that gave here their old clothes. She used to send them down here to us. The things were simply beautiful. I had never seen anything so pretty in all my life… we were glad to get them. We dressed up so fine in our new clothes and strutted around town like rich folks. Everybody that saw us wanted to know where we bought the stuff.
Mable and I by then were twelve and sixteen. We talked a lot about our good fortune. She told me about how Miss Ida Mae from church offered her a whole dollar for a felt hat with a shinny yellow ribbon. Oh, I dreamed about that purple hat that night. I remember the dream so vividly because we made a lot of money and did not have to go in town and ask the government for no stamps.
Mama Mable and I talked about my dream that next morning over grits and biscuits. They saw the possibilities of making money with my idea. No further inspiration needed we gathered up all the beautiful things. Mama washed them up all fresh and clean. Mable made al the necessary repairs pressing and hanging them on wooden hangers making them look brand new.
That next Monday morning when the government office opened we did not have to go begging for help. Instead we packed up our wears caught the bus to town. It is good that the general store was only a few blacks away… we carried our packages those few blocks to show Old Man Turner. The place was full of female customers. We laid the articles on the counter for all to see. The women loved every thing… they bought it all.
We had enough items back at home to make a deal with Old Man Turner to rent us a space in the back corner of his shop for $17.50 per month. The tree of us went into the shop early the next morning cleaned up our little cubby whole. Mable brought some frilly things to spruce up the place. Mama hung curtains for a dressing room. My contribution was a hand painted sign that read [Da’Vita’s Millinery and Boutique.]
We hung the clothes on rods Mr. Turner installed around the walls and placed the shoeboxes on the lower shelves and the hats at eye level. Our finest pieces of jewelry we neatly placed in the display case near our nice new shiny brass crash register. It was not long before we began to start sending Cousin Ruby money in exchange for the lovely items she sent us.
You can tell that our family is very industries. She took that money and bought more and newer things that she promptly shipped home to us. Before long Mama, Mable and I moved out of that old cabin and into the Melbourne Hotel in town. Ruby quit her job working as a housekeeper and partnered up with us in [Da’Vita’s Boutique]… We dropped the word millinery from the company name when we bought our own building up the street from the general store. Old Man Turner hated to see us leave; he liked having us around… besides we brought in new customers. However, he liked the idea of us opening our own store.
Finally, established Mama sent me to Detroit to visit my cousin Ruby and get an education… some real schooling. At night, I could study and in the evening, I could learn to run the buying end of the business. Mable and Mama put me on a train from the county seat in Beaton Falls, NC. I caught a train to Detroit MI. This was my first time on a train going anywhere. I was now sixteen and on my own, it was a little scary, but I would not have traded that trip for anything in the world.
The trip last all of two weeks I rode for hours… days on tracks stretched across through blankets of green grasses… stalks of corn and wheat. The sky was blue as the ocean or dark as a cave at night. I loved it all could not wait until I reached my destination. I suppose I must have made it to the North… not all the way to Detroit, but the towns grew more frequent and in size. If I did not know better I would have at least guessed had. The states broke down into towns and the towns into cities.
Two weeks to the day, I heard the conductor call out Detroit as we pulled into the train station. I grabbed my bags exited the train at the direction of a red cap. He led me t the platform where many people stood holding up signs waiting for family and friends. I had no idea what cousin Ruby even looked like. She was holding up a sign bearing my name, Da’ Vita Rosa. I smiled and ran toward her. Her face lit up like a Christmas tree arms outstretched for me. We hugged she took my bags in one had and me by the other. Walking through the biggest building, I had even seen she offered to take me to lunch. There was a cafeteria in one corner of the vast open space. We sat at the counter in the back near the kitchen where all the other colored people sat.
A beautiful sista dressed in a crisp white uniform with a tiny ruffled apron tied around her waist. Sitting down beside cousin Ruby I looked up in the face of the server. She topped her coal black hair worn tight in a bun at the nape of her neck with a hair net. On her left breast, she wore an embroidered handkerchief and a nametag that read, “Hello – I am Mary your server today!”
She spoke to me so quietly but clearly, with an accent that brought out a smile in me. She handed me a menu that listed all the things they prepared. Cousin Ruby ordered a hamburger, fries and a coke. I settled for a grilled cheese, a new pickle and a coke. That was my first ever time to have lunch in a cafeteria… it was fun… the food was good. Ruby told me about her apartment where I would be living during my stay.
After lunch, we caught a checker cab in front of the train station heading to the Waynet Hotel in downtown. We climbed out of the taxi in front of the hotel. The sights and sounds around me amazed me. My eyes cast high over my head I looked at all the tall buildings the people rushed about and the faint sounds of popular music blowing on the wind.
“Come on Da’Vita let’s go up to the room and get you settled in.”
Overwhelmed by the sights and sounds around me thoroughly amazed I followed her inside. Just inside the front door, a long desk with smiling employees dressed in navy blue suits and ties. Ruby walked right up to the counter requested her key head for a very tiny room. The man standing inside addressed cousin Ruby by name. She smiled gave him her floor and stood beside me. He closed the doors behind us threw a lever at his right. The room took moved took us up to our floor letting us off a few doors away from our room. I asked about the little room. She called it an elevator. She explained that it transported guests between floors. It was amazing I liked that form of transportation.
I would never have thunk it. Let me tell you something funny… for kicks I asked the operator to take me on second ride… he did. I went down a few floors and back up several times to our destination just for fun. Ruby understood she reassured me that she did the exact same thing the first time she entered the building.
Satisfied I followed her to our room. Man was I out done when I entered our suite. The furniture was plush…she said it was French all the way from Paris. The seat cushions three inches thick were golden brocade trimmed in carved rose wood. The curtains bronze velvet puddle on the floor beneath the windows. You had to see the place to believe it. The ceilings had to be at least ten feet high. The walls were a cream color with snow-white boarders with beautiful angels painted along the top. I sat on every chair, sofa and love seat in the place. I flicked on, off every single light … played the radio, and flopped back on my very own bed in my very own room. I was like a kid in a candy store.
For the next two weeks, a friend of hers escorted us around town… to clubs, restaurants after hour’s spots… the works. Finally, she took me on a buying spree. The experience I received on this trip made my career. We flew to New York in a plane another first for me. This excursion frightened me at first to no end. The plane was small by comparison to the ones I had seen in movies I saw at the Fox theatre. We walked up a ramp to get inside. A Stewardess escorted us to our seats. I sat by the window. What scared the hell out of me was the sound of the engines as they roared to life. Then we taxied along the runway… then oh my God the nose of the plane pointed in the direction of the heavens and we were on our flying high in the sky high above the clouds. We hit a pocket of turbulence that tossed the plane uncontrollably for a few minutes. I found myself praying aloud to God for help. He must have listened to me because we leveled off and resumed a smooth flight right into the airport.
Still alive and kicking I followed her to dozens of shops where I learned to choose fabrics for their consistency and flow of the material. I learned about the perfection of creating lines that flowed from the body. Choosing accessories from jewelry to bags, shoes and gloves was fascinating. I learned to assemble an outfit from the shoes worn on the feet to the hat on the head.
After a year of on the job, Ruby returned home with me to North Carolina and the shop back home. I spent the next few weeks elaborating on the details of my trip. I could not stop talking about my trip. I damn near ran them crazy and when it came time for Ruby to go back home I refused to let her go without me. The day she packed to return home I snatched my suitcases out of the closet threw everything possible in them. In spite of protests, I took leave with Ruby.
Mother cried, but even her tears did not stop me. I had a taste of the bright lights and the big city and had to go. On our trip back to Detroit I justified me reasons for leaving in a ten page letter that I promptly mailed upon arrival. I believe mother finally came to terms with my leaving. She never spoke on the subject again… not one time not on one of my return visits. I could tell though that she was hurting, but I could not stay.
Business went on as usual for the next ten years. I made regular trips back and forth home and back to Detroit. The business grew rapidly. I started bypassing New York for Paris a couple of times a year. Eventually we opened a string of stores across the country.
I begged Mother to move with me to Detroit, but she refused. She said that she was used to a small town and had no need to change. Then the unthinkable happened she had a stroke and before I could make it back home, she died. I was devastated that I was not by her side when she died. When I returned home for the funeral feeling as though I had failed her Mable reassured me that mother understood. She gave me a journal that mother kept over the years. She kept that journal for the express purpose of exonerating me of the crippling guilt I carried around on my back.
I sold our stores in Denton, NC and took Mable back to live with me until her death in the fall of 1969. By that time I was a thirty something year old looking for a life of my own. We did it … we made good. We sold all of our stores and traveled around the world living the good life.