When I was a child between the ages of seven and twelve I had an Uncle who had a grocery store along Maxfield Avenue. He wasn’t exactly my blood uncle and I never did find out how he was related to me.
His name was Mr. Harry Lue and he had two sons, Charlie and Henry Lue and a wife. Charlie was eighteen when I was ten or so but it did not prevent him from expressing the desire to have me as his wife in a few short years.
Blissfully I continued to help out in the shop as often as my mother allowed me to visit. The shop was where I saw life in its true form. I saw people engaged in laughter, fights, and bartering. I heard and saw things that I would not necessarily see if I was at home in my parent’s living room listening to the radio.
One day I heard music and drumming coming up Maxfield Avenue and I jumped over the counter and ran out on to the piazza to see what spectacle was approaching. People were running from everywhere and bunching up on the piazza and the street corner to get a good view as the blare of the trombones and a colorful parade approached.
To get a better view I scrambled atop the bags of rice piled high in the front of the shop. My eyes became saucers as I witnessed the most colorful procession I had ever seen, it outranked the Jon Canoe dancers.
Flags and banners were held high by men and women decked out in clothing that looked ceremonial and quite officious to me. They marched in a strange step and shuffle way keeping time with the drums and horns.
“O lawd, is di Lodge peeple dem” someone gasped
“Is di Lodge, some baddi mussi ded an dem a go bury dem”
The Lodge. What was the Lodge? I sat atop the rice bags asking myself.
Whatever they were, their clothing was immaculate and dazzling to look at. The way they marched mesmerized me and the swords their leader twirled caught me off guard. Real swords with gemstones in the handles and along the necks of the blades.
I wanted a sword like that I thought, but I wanted to be a pirate or a knight going off to a crusade. O sure, a girl riding a great white horse named Troy, holding a flashing sword glittering with emeralds and diamonds. That could work!
I was so lost in my reverie of slaying dragons that I had no idea when the parade ended or what road they turned off onto. The crowd had dispersed and I was alone on the rice bags looking down on Miss Martha who sold ground provisions on the piazza outside the shop.
ALMOST A BRIDE.
When I turned twelve, Charlie decided that it was time that he took a wife. There I was weighing and wrapping flour when he sidled up to me and gave me a note to take to my mother. I stuck the note in the pocket on my blouse and continued to measure out one pound bags of flour.
I took great care to make sure the flour weighed one pound as I did not want any disgruntled customers to come screaming into the shop and call us thieves.
“Rass claat chiney split yeye teef” that is what they would have said. I had heard it before and I did not find it endearing nor justified because Uncle Harry was a very honest man.
Mind you, he was very clever in making an extra penny. For example, he would sell loose sticks of matches to those who could not afford to buy a whole box. So he made three times the cost of one box of matches. The customer he said must not be turned away. He even kept empty match boxes so that the person with the three sticks of matches could get a free box.
So they would buy one or two loose cigarettes named ‘Four Aces’, three sticks of matches, got a free match box and off they’d go satisfied.
But back to my impending marriage. I gave my mother the note. She read it and sat down quite abruptly on the green wing chair we had in the kitchen.
“Hope”, she said. That was my nickname. “Come and sit here beside me”
There and then I realized that the note concerned me. Was I to be made part owner of the shop? Silly me.
“Hope, have you ever gone anywhere secluded with Charlie” I knew what secluded meant and suddenly a shadow passed over my soul, for in a flash I knew that something sensual was mixed up in that note. I could hardly speak my answer. The “no mama” came out of my mouth thick and dry. Jesus!! What was happening to me? Did something happen to me and I wasn’t aware? What kind of question was that?”
“So why is Harry Lue wanting my daughter to become his daughter in law?”
This was too much now, why didn’t I faint? Instead I sat there going in and out of mini comas as the word daughter in law ravaged my psyche.
Daughter in law, could only mean one thing and that one thing would lead to one other thing which would lead to another thing.
I was going to be no body’s wife, sex partner nor baby mother. In a flash I was up on my feet and grabbed the note from her limp fingers and read it.
“Mama, I am twelve, do something, say something please”.
As I pleaded she started to get dressed, not that she couldn’t have gone as she was, for my mother was always immaculate night or day. None the less she adorned herself for the short trip and said, “Fetch my handbag”.
“I will be back, she intoned, while I am gone, please have your bath and go to your bed, do not forget your prayers.”
She swept out of the house in a wave of linen and evening in Paris perfume, her stiletto heels making light music on the veranda tiles. I have no idea what time she returned because the strain of the evening it seemed, sent me into a protective sleep.
The next day she told me that going forward, unless ‘Jesus’ called me to the shop I was no longer to go there, instead I should help my brother tend the animals. That would mean getting grass for the dozens of guinea pigs and rabbits, the one goat Molly, collecting the eggs from the hen-house, bathing the dogs, and feeding the pigeons and doves. The chickens were my only interest, so I became the egg lady.
Cutting grass was not on my agenda, though I must admit that I got a secret thrill when I saw the fresh green blades of grass glistening with moisture. I also enjoyed feeding my pet rabbit blade by blade as I held him in my lap.
I never knew what became of the offer of marriage as nothing was ever said about it, and I have no idea if it ever even came to the attention of my father. I doubt that it did. That would be a very grave mistake on my mother’s part. My father was of another kind.
I saw Charlie only in the afternoons when I came off the bus from school, because the bus stopped in front of the shop. He would stare at me but said nothing.
I had no idea what to say to him so I too said nothing. I continued to grow and fill out. By the time I was fifteen his father sent to China for another bride, and they got married.
I didn’t think she was beautiful, as a matter of fact she seemed so young, perhaps my age and quite unhappy. And so she took my place weighing and wrapping bags of flour and sugar and rice.