Walk The Last Mile
Mama came to believe early on that the key to wealth and comfort in America was owning property. She wanted a nice house for the same reason she liked nice things. But she wanted to own a piece of earth too. Because colored people were hindered from owning property in Piedmont throughout the years of my childhood, our houses were always rented.
So Mama always wanted to buy a house. She was possessed by the subject. The funny thing, though, is that up to the very end, she would say that her first home with Daddy was her favorite. And now that I have been married for two decades, I understand how a house for four people that was as big as a postage stamp could be re-created by imagination and memory as a chateau. She loved it because she was happy, and in love, and in love with her life there. This would not always be so. But none of that stopped her from moving.
Unfortunately for Mama, the only person in the Gates family I ever heard of who didn't care for owning property was Daddy. Just Mama's luck, and ours. Daddy was terrified of debt. So even in the late sixties, when her brother Earkie established a precedent by purchasing the Coleman family house, he still wasn't interested. And the inability to own became one of Mama's great frustrations.
Where Daddy shied from debt, Mama was intrepid, at least until the change. She could leverage Daddy's two salaries like a Wall Street financier. But Miss Pauline wanted a house, and that was tantalizingly out of reach. She started buying house books and magazines. Dozens, for research. She and I would look at them, just as I would study the pages of the three or four mail order catalogues we'd regularly receive: Ward's, Sears, Roebuck, General Merchandise, Mayer's. (Almost all of our Christmas gifts came from General Merchandise.)
At one point, Mama's plan was to build a house, on land near her mother or brothers on Erin Street. The first time I ever saw Mama really angry at my father — much angrier than when she'd accuse him of flirting with Miss Noll or Miss Mary — was on the day when he killed the deal that would have let us build a sort of family complex with two or three of Mama's brothers. We had the plans, the land was picked out (just below Big Mom's, near where Miss Lizzy's dogs barked at night when the Sneakin' Deacon made his rounds visiting his parishioners), and Mama was all excited. Radiant, in fact. She loved to dream, like all the Colemans, and she loved to make things happen, which was more Gates than Coleman. (When it came to finance and risk, Daddy was more Coleman than Gates.)
"We're not going to do it," Daddy said.
"Why not?" Mama demanded.
"Because I'm not going to sign the papers."
That was it. The whole thing. I don't think Mama ever got over it. Not until they bought the old Thomas house on East Hampshire Street, if then.
Mrs. Thomas was an old white lady for whom Mama had worked when she was a little girl. I never met Mrs. Thomas, but I knew the name because Mama would mention her to Daddy once in a while. She and her husband had a son, Paul, who went off to college and became some sort of executive. He lived Elsewhere. "I used to call all colored women Dorothy," Paul told me later, "because Dorothy Coleman [Nemo's wife] was our maid, and I loved her so much." (Nemo was Mama's brother, James Coleman, Sr., the oldest of the nine Coleman siblings.)
I thought that was sweet. Racist cracker, Daddy would later say. Then he'd laugh: All niggers do kinda look alike.
Cut to 1960. I was all of ten years old and was sitting in the living room of Mrs. Thomas's house. She had just been buried, and her son was selling off their antiques. Mama knew the furniture, because she had cleaned it. She was very comfortable with Paul too. He treated her with a great deal of respect, even deference.
Mama had something on her mind, some goal in sight, and she was determined to achieve it. So we had bathed and put on our good clothes. She was dressed to kill.
I want those two bookcases, Paul, she said straightforwardly. And the desk in your room.
Paul hadn't wanted to sell that desk, I suspect. He looked sort of blankly at Mama.
They are a set, she said.
They stared at each other for a little bit, like two animals dancing for dominance.
Is twenty dollars too much? Paul finally asked. When Paul went to get the receipt book, Mama whispered that maybe we'd live in a nice house like this someday.
One case went for our reference books, the other went down to Aunt Marguerite's, and the desk went to me. Elmer Shaver — Daddy's boss at the telephone company — bought the house.
Owning furniture wasn't the same as owning a house, and as I grew up, I resolved to do something about it.
Our rented house had been plenty big enough, until Mama started collecting obsessively, canned food and bolts of cloth for a rainy day, as she'd said at first. You never know when you'll need these things, she'd said. One day next Tuesday, Daddy would mumble under his breath, by which he meant the twelfth of never. All of us, even Daddy, used to spend long hours praying that one day next Tuesday would come soon. She hoarded items like someone who was afraid of being poor again, and she was immune to reassurance. She had even taken to hiding her money in the drawer of her bureau.
From "Walk The Last Mile," a selection from The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Copyright 2012 Henry Louis Gates Jr. Excerpted by permission of Basic Civitas, a member of The Perseus Books Group.