Meal time in my house when I was growing up centered on lunch, and the cook was not my mother, heaven forbid, or my father, though he could make an impressive breakfast, but rather our housekeeper, Lorene, a big-boned black woman who wore a white uniform to work, Monday – Friday, from 8:30 – 2:30. Lorene came to work for us when I was nine and had been preceded by Louise Love, another big woman with great skill in the kitchen.
I remember well Lorene’s first day on the job after Louise retired due to complications with diabetes. I was outside, up in the branches of the pecan tree – my usual haven from a household of four brothers – when she came out of the backdoor carrying a laundry basket. This was the era when whites and colored were separated – in laundry and in life – and Lorene was carrying an overflowing basket of whites – sheets, towels, and underwear. She looked up at me and smiled as she passed and I, accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of Louise Love, regarded her with a mixture of suspicion, curiosity, and hope.
My mother was studying to get her doctorate in Psychology and was gone more she was home. Daddy, sixteen years older than Mama, was home most of the time, except for a few hours a day when he went off to check on the Livestock Commission Company he owned, but that was run by his manager, John Daniels.
So, when Lorene joined the family, I was secure in all aspects except where it came to my mother, who seemed to have used the opportunity to go back to school as an excuse to run screaming from her responsibilities as a wife and mother of six. I, being the 5th out of those 6, was feeling abandoned, which was exacerbated by the early onset of puberty, making me overly developed and already a “woman” at nine. My budding breasts were a great embarrassment to me since they were prominent on my little girl body, and, of course, the object of much teasing by my brothers and the bolder boys in my 4th grade class.
When Lorene smiled at me with her clothes basket balanced on her ample hip, I saw that she had one gold front tooth in an otherwise perfect smile. That tooth contrasted sharply with the white of the others and gleamed in the morning sun. I secretly wished for such an impressive tooth of my own, rather than the gaping holes that currently punctuated my smile.
Once Lorene walked to the back of the garage to the clothesline, I, being a veteran of backyard espionage, scampered down the tree and slipped surreptitiously into the bushes that lined our back fence. I crawled through the soft dirt quietly to a vantage point where I could observe, undetected, Lorene’s hanging out of the laundry.
I watched as she pulled out sheets and deftly slid them over the line, the breeze lifting them slightly and the sun’s reflection already a blinding white. Then came the white towels – a whole row since we were a big family – followed by sock after sock after sock. Next came my brothers’ Fruit of the Looms. My cheeks grew warm when Lorene, at the bottom of her basket, reached in for one final item – one of my newly purchased bras straight from Woolworth’s Five and Dime. She lifted it up – a training bra with stretchy material where the cups should be – and smiled as she attached it with the last clothes pin on the line. There it hung, evidence of my changing state, and embarrassment flooded me. This newcomer now had more information about me than even my mother was privy to. After all, Mother had sent me to Woolworth’s to buy that bra on my own and had never asked to see it once I returned home.
As Lorene picked up the basket and turned to leave, she looked past the leaves I thought were hiding my presence and straight into my eyes. “We’re having chicken and dumplings for lunch,” she said as she passed by. “You could help with the dumplings if you like.” She smiled, her gold tooth again glinting in the sun, and this time, in spite of myself, I smiled back.
I followed her into the kitchen that day. Somehow I must have sensed what good friends we would become over the next ten years.