My Aunt Susie
In grade school, most kids I knew wrote letters to Santa or prayed to God when they wanted something. I wrote to Aunt Susie, my mother’s sister in Philadelphia, assured that my wishes would be fulfilled. Aunt Susie’s influence on me has been as powerful as that of my mother. Family lore has it that she was even responsible for my name. Before my birth, she told my mother, “You’ve already got three daughters and you haven’t named any of them after our dead mother. If this one’s a girl, you’ve got to name her Sarah.” Mama did.
My first memories are of Aunt Susie’s basement. I’m almost five years old and standing at one end of a long wooden table dressing and undressing paper dolls. She is at the other end, stacking freshly ironed sheets into bundles and securing them with brown paper, held together with Kraft tape that she moistens across a shiny metal dispenser.
Every now and then, friendly greetings from passing neighbors drift down through two small windows set at street level just above the flatwork ironer Aunt Susie operates with a foot pedal. I am comforted by the contraption’s familiar hiss which I have heard from the time I was nine months old.
All the grown-ups in the family call Aunt Susie Sister -- even Uncle Will, her husband! She says she’s old enough to be my grandmother because she was 16 when my Mama was born. I wish she was my mother. Every summer, Mama comes up from South Carolina to visit us. Aunt Susie says I should be extra nice to Mama because she loves me a lot too.
Mama and Aunt Susie hardly look like they’re related, except when they smile, and Mama hardly ever smiles. She’s a head shorter than Aunt Susie, light skinned, like the watered-down-with-milk coffee Aunt Susie lets me drink, and has thick black curls that don’t come from a hot curling iron like Aunt Susie’s. Whenever I spy a gray hair in Aunt Susie’s head, she cusses, than pulls it out. Mama never cusses or even talks loud. She says it’s unladylike. She also says Aunt Susie shouldn’t be playing the numbers, because it’s illegal. Aunt Susie just laughs and says “White folks make the law and they play the numbers, so why shouldn’t I?”
Mama pinches her lips tight whenever Aunt Susie talks about white folks. Aunt Susie says its because Mama still lives down South and doesn’t understand that white folks aren’t any better than she is.
Aunt Susie’s skin is smooth and dark brown. She says it got that way because she likes to drink her coffee strong and black. She always puts plenty of milk in mine to keep me from getting black. She laughs when I say I want it black, so I can be just like her when I grow up. I love Aunt Susie more than anyone else in the whole world. She acts like the sun comes up when I wake up and run into her room. “What did you dream last night?” she asks me each morning while she mulls over her “Dream Book,” trying to divine the winning number combination that will make her a rich woman.
Aunt Susie hits the number a lot. Whenever she does, she buys me something special on our next shopping trip. Some Thursdays, the day she takes off from her laundry business, we put on our Sunday clothes and ride the green and yellow trolley downtown. After lunch at the Horn and Hardart Automat (we both love their macaroni and cheese) we walk around and look at all the pretty things in the store windows. Sometime we go to The Chapeau on Walnut street. The owner always welcomes us with smiles. “She’s so friendly,” Aunt Susie whispers to me, “because she knows I’m a sucker for her expensive hats.”
Next, we go to John Wanamaker’s, Aunt Susie’s favorite department store. We usually make a beeline for the children’s department. I show Aunt Susie the dresses I like and she fingers them, but doesn’t buy any. “They overpriced,” she says. I’m not unhappy, because I know that very soon, Mrs. Smith, the dressmaker who lives on the corner of our block, upstairs over Nix Funeral Home, will be fitting one just like them on me.
One time, Aunt Susie spotted a white fur jacket with a matching pillbox hat and muff on display in the window of a children’s store. When we went inside and she asked to see the outfit, the white sales lady told her it was too expensive. Aunt Susie glared at the lady and said she could buy anything she damn well wanted and had the money for. The lady turned beet red while Aunt Susie counted out the money for all three pieces. When we got home, I showed Uncle Will my new stuff and told him what happened. He laughed and said, “Sister’s mouth is gonna get her in trouble yet.” Aunt Susie just laughs. “The reason I moved up north was so my mouth won’t get me in trouble. And I don’t intend to let anybody, Colored or White, disrespect me.”
Aunt Susie loves hoagies, especially the cheese-steak kind, with lots of fried onions, and hot cherry peppers on the side. Sometimes she’ll send a neighborhood boy to buy one at Hoagie Heaven around the corner on 16th Street. I don’t like them. “All the more for me,” she says licking her lips and fingers, then washing everything down with root beer soda.
During the summer, men with big cameras hooked on long legs come to our block to take people’s pictures. I tell them that Aunt Susie will pay them if they take mine. She always does.
Aunt Susie seems to know everything, but she says she only went to eighth grade. After that, she worked alongside her mama washing clothes for white families. By the time she was 22, she had moved north to Philadelphia. Said she picked the City of Brotherly love because she needed some loving after all those years of bad treatment down South.
At first, she worked in a laundry downtown. After she married Uncle Will, they bought a four bedroom row house in North Philadelphia and she started her own laundry business in the basement. Aunt Susie says she never wants to touch strangers’ smelly old clothes ever again so she only takes in flat goods - sheets, pillow cases, table linen and curtains. She says I’ll never have to do this kind of work because I’m going to college.
All of Aunt Susie’s sisters and brothers stayed at her house at one time or another. Every-body except my Mama, who doesn’t like living up north because she says there are too many people all squished together, too much noise, and too many beer gardens. Aunt Susie says you can’t get the country out of some people and Mama is one of those people. Aunt Susie says she’s a city girl.
Sometimes while she’s ironing, Aunt Susie tells me the story about how I came to live with her. She says that after my Daddy ran off and left us, Mama needed to go back to her job teaching third grade. My three older sisters were school-aged, but I was only six months old and there was nobody to take care of me.
“Me and Will always dreamed of having children, but I was barren, while your Mama spit out babies like watermelon seeds. Me and Will adopted a little girl and named her Loretta.”
Loretta’s black patent leather shoes are on top of the television set in the living room. I like to try them on. Aunt Susie always gets sad when she tells me this part of the story.
“Before Loretta’s fourth birthday, she got a real bad fever. My alcohol baths couldn’t break it. We took her to the hospital and the doctor said her appendix had burst. In a few days, she was dead. I was so lonely. I begged your Mama to let you come live with me until you get old enough to start school. She said okay and I took the train to South Carolina to get you.”
Aunt Susie always stops what she’s doing and hugs me real tight when she says this: “And you’ve been my little girl ever since.”
After the sun goes down, Aunt Susie sits out front on the steps while I play with the other kids. She doesn’t talk a lot to the neighbors because she says when people know all your business, they start getting in it, and she doesn’t want anybody in her business. She’s always telling me not to repeat stuff that goes on in our house. One time after I told my friend Frankie Henderson that she was rich, Aunt Susie wouldn’t let me go out to play for a whole week. She said it was a lesson to teach me to curb my tongue.
The summer I’m five and a half, during one of Mama’s visits, I overhear her and Aunt Susie talking in loud voices.
"Sarah's getting out of hand, Sister. You're not teaching her proper respect for grown people -- she talks to them like she's their equal."
"Aww, don't be so old-fashioned. She just ain't scared of grown folks like we were."
"But that's not all. When I said her dress was pretty, she said ‘thank you, I know it!’ You and Will spoil her rotten."
"Oh, you're gittin' all upset over nothing."
“I don't want to argue with you, Sister. We never see eye-to-eye. I appreciate everything you've done to help me, but Philadelphia's not for me -- or my children. I want to take Sarah home."
What was my mother talking about? This was my home! I inched my way down the staircase. It creaked and their voices went silent. I ran back to my room, certain that Aunt Susie would never let me go.
When Mama left Philadelphia a few days later, without me, I felt relieved – until I asked Aunt Susie if the reason my sister Williette stayed behind was because she was going to live with us too.
Her eyes filled with tears. “No. She’s gonna take you home to South Carolina at the end of the month.”
“But don’t you love me anymore?” I asked.
“You’re not going home because I don’t love you, Sarah. You’re going home because your mama loves you too.”
“But I want to live here! Make her let me stay here.”
“I can’t do that. She brought you in this world, and she decides where you live.”
When I began to cry, Aunt Susie took me on her lap and tried to console me. Nothing she said eased my sorrow. It was as if I was being cast out of the Garden of Eden.
“Will you get a new little girl to keep you company after I'm gone?” I asked Aunt Susie as she tucked me in the night before my departure.
“No, honey, I don't think God intends for me to have a little girl of my own,” she said.
“Will you forget about me?”
“How could I forget you? Think of all the things we’ve done together and the places we been -- and all those pictures I’ve got of you. I'll be thinking about you all the time. When you learn to write, you can send me letters and tell me what you're doing. I bet you'll just love it down there.”
“No I won’t! I’m a city girl.”
The next day, Uncle Will and Aunt Susie took me and Williette to the North Philadelphia depot. When the train pulled in, the four of us climbed on board. Aunt Susie put three new books of paper-dolls next to me, on top of the shoe box with our lunch in it. “Now you be good and listen to your sister,” she said. “She's in charge until you get home.” Then, she bent low for a last hug.
“I don't want to go,” I whispered. “And I don't want you to go,” she answered. “But sometimes we got to do things we don't want to do. This is one of those times, so be brave and remember, I'll be thinking of you.”
“All aboard,” the conductor announced.
“We got to go now,” Aunt Susie said. “You stay in your seat, Sarah, and be a good girl.”
Aunt Susie and Uncle Will left the train. Outside, she turned and waved once, then walked away. I continued to wave -- even after I could no longer see them.
The memory of the life I shared with Aunt Susie sustained me long after I returned to South Carolina, where I chafed under my family’s poverty and the Jim Crow way of life. But no matter how degrading white people in Sumter treated my mother, my sisters or me, I knew that they were wrong in their judgement of us. My Aunt Susie had made me certain of my value, long before James Brown sang I’M Black and I’m Proud. One day, I knew that I too would escape the South and live a life like hers.
From the distance, Aunt Susie was my family’s guardian angel. When one of us was sick, she wired money for the doctor and medicine. Sometimes the money orders she tucked in her letters paid the light bill, or the rent. If my sisters or I needed something extra for school, or after-school programs, all we had to do was write to Aunt Susie. Soon, a box or letter would arrive bearing the requested item, or money for it. At Christmas, the only gifts we got came from Aunt Susie. On my birthday, she always sent a card and presents.
Most summers, my mother sent my sisters and me to Philadelphia to visit Aunt Susie. While I was always glad to see her, I kept myself aloof from the love she still tried to give me. The foster children she took in after I left made me feel that she had replaced me, as I had replaced Loretta. I never thought about how hard it must have been for her to lose me. She hid her sadness well and never stopped loving me or supporting all my dreams.
My mother’s death a few months before my high school graduation filled Aunt Susie with a sadness I had never seen before. At Mama’s funeral, she kept repeating, I was supposed to go first. Days after my graduation, I received a letter from her containing a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper, a train ticket, a twenty dollar bill, and a shiny brochure.
Dear Sarah, I got you a summer job! My friend Claudia Lee from around the corner is the cook at a fancy white girls’ camp up in Vermont. She says you can be her helper. The job pays $300 plus train fare, room and board. Wish I coulda had a chance like this when I was your age. I had to pick cotton or take care of white folks' babies. This is a real opportunity. I'm sending you a little spending money for the trip here. See you soon. Love, Aunt Susie
Once again, Aunt Susie had come to my rescue, finding me my first job. I didn’t know much about cooking, but before that summer was over, her friend had turned me into a respectable one. That summer I also learned a lot about people and life. Those lessons still serve me today. When I graduated from college, Aunt Susie was there. “See, you made it! Just like I said you would,” she said, grinning proudly.
Years later, when I self-published a book of poetry, Aunt Susie requested two dozen copies. She sold them to all her neighbors and friends, then mailed me a check for $150. “I’m so proud of you. Can’t wait until your next book comes out. One day you’ll be famous.”
During a phone call, I told her that I could never be famous because all famous people have lots of baby pictures and I had none. The next time I visited, she handed me a box. “Now, you have no reason not to be famous.” Inside, was a cache of photos taken during my years living with her. These photos buttress the memories I have of my early, formative years with Aunt Susie.
Shortly before Aunt Susie’s death, I went to Philadelphia to visit her. After preparing dinner, I insisted that we eat in the dining room, using her good china, silver and linens. “Where did you get to be so fancy, young lady?” she teased.
“I learned it from you, Aunt Susie,” I answered. “You’ve made me who I am.”
[In loving memory of Antonia (Susie) Bracey White. 1902 - 1992]