Her multiple gold bracelets jangled like chimes as she shook the baby powder down my yellow, chiffon dress. “It’s gonna be hot today. And you know Pastor Moore likes to put on an extra show when he’s got a big audience. Don’t want you breaking out. You yallaw girls break out so easy.”
She smelled like Tabu perfume and Afro-sheen grease. She hadn’t taken the pink rollers out of her hair yet. She’d do that right before she put on her lipstick in the bathroom with the pink-flower wallpaper.
“Boy, go have yo granddaddy do somethin wit dat tie,” she ordered my cousin, Frankie, while motioning her hand toward the door.
“Lilllllll-leeeeeeeeeeee,” she bellowed. “Ya’ll ready. We gots to be going. You know how dey be talkin bout folks who is late.”
Getting us all dressed and out of Grandma’s house took detailed management. There were 5 kids, 13 grandkids and her and Granddaddy.
The coordination had started months ago, with the making of all the girls’ dresses by Aunt Ealy (now, Ealy was no one’s aunt as far as as Patrice knew — but that’s what everybody called her). Aunt Ealy couldn’t see one foot in front of her and had to be guided everywhere in town, but somehow sewed the prettiest dresses in four counties. Never one to use a measuring tape, though she couldn’t see one now if she wanted to, she measured by feel. “Come mere chile,” she’d half whisper with her hands open and extended. And then she’d move her hands up and down, saying a few “umm, hmmm’s” along her journey. Every now and then, she’d chuckle and say something like, “you built jus like yo’ daddy. He had big legs too.” Or “You sho is a Johnson.” Then she’d turn back to her sewing machine, start singing one of the 4 gospel songs she always sang, and return to working on whatever she was doing before you came.
You never knew what Aunt Ealy was going to create. It was her vision. But every year, she’d deliver dresses in various pastels with layers of chiffon that floated and billowed as the girls walked—causing Patrice to exclaim the first time she put one on, “I’m a cloud princess!”
Easter was the Oscars for church folk, and their red carpet was the center aisle at Mt. Olive Church in Tyler, Texas. And Grandma was the Queen, which made us all royalty when we visited. It was here that Patrice learned what it was too feel important, the power of a good outfit, and how to make a grand entrance. Grandma would walk in the church 1 minute before 10:00, when most folks were seated, with her sunglasses on, a magnificent hat that one of her “chillen had sent from the big city”, fanning herself as she swayed down the aisle, followed by her family—me somewhere in the middle. We always took up the first two pews on the left hand side on account that Grandmomma had bought them at the church building fundraiser — and on account that no one dared to sit in Grandmomma’s seats.
Reverend Moore delivered a two handkerchief sermon that Easter Sunday (Granddaddy said that when Reverend Moore was “feelin it” he’d have to bring out a 2nd handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat that would pop-up on his forehead and upper-lip as he rocked back and forth). And the church sang such rousing songs that even two of the choir members themselves caught the holy ghost, causing Sista Evelyn to have to sing Sista Gloria’s solo.
It was right in the middle of Sista Gloria’s solo, when the ushers were taking advantage of the generous mood that some music can conjure, and had starting passing the donation plates, that the sounds of a commotion were heard. Years of strict training by Grandma caused no one in the front two pews to look back.
Until they heard a scream—not a “I feel good church holler”—but a cry of old agony. The sound spoke of pain that had been buried, stifled, hidden but had now clawed itself free. Patrice turned, they all turned, to see Aunt Ealy standing at the back of the church in her worn thin light blue house coat and light blue slippers.
“I wanna go to church too,” she screamed she pleaded. “I’m ready now. George, I’m ready.” Her hands were clasped and they shook as she pleaded and cried.
Two ushers, elderly, but accustomed to dealing with emotional women on Sundays, quickly, but lovingly grabbed each arm and started to escort her out of the sanctuary. Several of the church women, including Grandma, bent their heads, as if they respected Aunt Ealy too much to watch her this way, and said loudly whispered prayers, “Lord, help her.” Ease her soul, Lord” Aunt Ealy allowed herself to be escorted out, but her cries of “I’m ready” still echoed.
At some point, Reverend Moore had disappeared and the assistant Reverend Howard, got up and announced that Easter dinner would be served in the Fellowship Room and the choir started singing The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” as if nothing had happened.
And that’s how the Easter dinner of deviled eggs, ham, green beans, potato salad and rolls — and the Easter egg hunt in the back lawn of the church occurred, as if nothing had happened.
Later that night, while Grandma kneeled over the bathtub pouring water on 4 of us grandkids in the bathtub, she started talking to us, as she often did at this time. This is when she often told us stories about happenings in her life or taught us lessons—with the fog of the bath water, the smell of cheap bubble bath and the soothing sounds of water bouncing and splashing against porcelain and skin.
“A long time ago, Reverend Moore and Aunt Ealy were husband and wife. Aunt Ealy come here from Mt. Pleasant and dey immediately took a liking to each other, particularly when the Reverend heard her sing. Dat girl had a voice that could make the devil change his ways. So, dey got married, started our church and soon had a baby girl—Camille—a beautiful cocoa girl wit her momma’s Indian hair and her dad’s large eyes.
Aunt Ealy would make Camille da most beautiful dresses. Folks, even White folks, would see em and ask Aunt Ealy to make them for dere kids, which she neva would do ‘though she coulda made a lot of money. Don’t know why, but back den, she would only make dresses fo Camille.
Eeerbody rocked and loved on dat baby when Reverend and Ealy were preaching and singing. She wasn’t’ just dere baby, but the church’s baby; but den one Sunday, when she was 6 years old, she didn’t wake up. Neva heard nothing like dat happening, but it just musta been her time. Heard Aunt Ealy walked in the room and Camille’s eyes were wide open like she wanted to see God when she arrived in Heaven.
Dey say dat da fanciest dress Aunt Ealy every made was da one Camille was buried in. Say she didn’t sleep or eat fo 4 days making dat dress, den went blind the minute she put in the last stitch. Seem the light didn’t jus go out in her eyes, but in her mind. She just wasn’t right in da head no mo—you know what I mean? She buried herself right along wit her baby. P ain can do dat to a person—kill you while you still alive.
Now I’ll give it to da Reverend, he tried to make it work. But we needs to remember dat preachers guides us closer to God, but in the end, dey just mens. He never let Aunt Ealy come back to church. And he never officially divorced Aunt Ealy, but married Sister Gloria. Since then, no one has ever seen much of Aunt Ealy; but every Easter she makes beautiful dresses for many of the town folks. I figure dat’s her way of letting us see her heart and letting us know dat’s she is still with us.”
Grandma pulled the stopper out of the bathtub and the water started draining out. The four grandbabbies, wrinkled and warm, stood still as she began drying each of them with the same large, green towel. No one said a word. They weren’t expected to.
“Put on your lotion and get in the bed, Grandma ordered as they walked out of the bathroom, the cool air rushing in on them as the warm fog floated out.
Patrice went into the large closet in the “kids’ room” and pulled down her cloud-princess dress that had already been hung up. She ran her hand over the yellow, chiffon layers and moved the dress back and forth so that she could watch them dance. She then slipped the dress over her head—knowing that she’d probably get a whooping for doing so. She went into the room where she and her cousins would sleep. Before she could slip into the bed beside Frankie, Grandma walked in and her eyes immediately rested on Patrice: freshly lotioned, bonnet on her head to protect her braids, and in her buttercup colored, fancy dress. Patrice didn’t move, as her Grandma walked over to her—ready to receive her tongue lashing and butt whipping. But Grandma just stood behind Patrice, and zipped the dress up.
“Good night bluebirds”, she said kissing each one of them on the forehead before walking out and closing the door.
My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more