Monday, March 28, 2011

Lucky #3

Yesterday in my updates I forgot to mention #16. Yes, my parents have hired their sixteenth housekeeper/cleaning lady/ nanny person after Kimmy, who was #15, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. 

#16 is working out quite nicely so far. She's much older than Kimmy, which is good, because I think some of Kimmy's nonsense can be attributed to the follies of her youth. #16 is Hungarian and only speaks a little English. She's organized and responsible and works hard, but then again they all seem that way for the first few weeks. My mom likes this one a lot though, so let's hope she works out well because the last thing my mother needs is more stress and aggravation, what with having her identity stolen and all that.

I realized though, that #16 is actually #17. When I did my grand count of housekeepers we'd had over my lifetime -  Jill, Susan, Tammy, Nadia, Vicki, Maxine, Catherine, Wanda, Nury, Aunt Kevin, Cecelia, Idalia, Soccorro, Miriam and Kimmy - that somehow I'd forgotten Ella, and Ella was one of my very favorites, fitting in between Susan and Tammy. Ella was #3.

I can't exactly define Ella as formal hired help. I don't know what she was - a babysitter, a companion for my mother, entertainment, cake baker and fun. She was a lot of things to us. She was also, I suspect, impossibly young, terribly uneducated, deeply impoverished and without a great deal of choices.

Ella was a six foot black girl from the public housing sector behind the street where my mother and grandfather lived in Dover, Delaware. I was in the fifth grade at the time and still lived with my father and stepmother in the old farmhouse out in the country. My mother and grandfather lived on a street in a rough part of town, my mother living in a row house on one side of the street and my grandfather inhabiting a duplex on the same street but on the opposite side and down a little ways.

My grandfather's young wife had just up and left him and he was stuck with a baby. My mother was desperately trying to get custody of me and start a cosmetics business, but found herself caring for my grandfather's toddler daughter because he had to work driving trucks and wasn't home all the time. It was a hard time in all of our lives and not a period we look back at with a lot of fondness. In fact, Ella is probably the one positive thing in our lives from that time.

Lord knows where my grandfather found Ella. She lived nearby, so he could very well have found her at the bus stop or walking down the street. Maybe he sold her produce. My grandfather was like that - always bringing people home, befriending everyone in the strangest of places. He hired Ella to babysit, though I doubt she was ever formally salaried. I don't know if anyone paid her and she obviously didn't care. Ella must not have had a family because she latched right on to ours and didn't leave for at least a year. Not that we cared because she was so good natured. Ella was one of those people who brings Christmas in the middle of the muddiest, grayest March day. She was like getting flowers when it wasn't even a special occasion.

We all liked Ella because she was always happy and I'm guessing she probably didn't have all that much reason to be by our standards. Not that she cared about standards. Ella just liked to dance. She loved "Roxanne Roxanne" and that song about playing basketball (remember that song?) but she'd dance to whatever we put on, even my grandfather's country. She didn't care.

Most people would have called Ella promiscuous or said she had a problem because her other favorite thing to do was have sex, which she talked about constantly. Supposedly she had a boyfriend but he was like her Stedman. She talked about him all the time, but no one ever saw him. She didn't act particularly committed to him either, because she liked to get out at nights and pick up some "strange" as she called it. I shouldn't remember this about her because I was only ten at the time, but I wasn't particularly sheltered I suppose. I don't remember being shocked by any of her raunchy stories either. I think I liked them.

Back then I visited my mother every other weekend, so I got to see Ella twice a month and each time I came, she'd make me a cake.

In some school program for low income teens in the projects, Ella had been taught the unusual trade of cake decorating. She said as soon as they put the pastry bag in her hand she knew she was born to make icing roses and that there was no other life for her. All she wanted to do was fill the world with swoops and stars, garlands and best wishes of rainbow butter-cream, and looking at her that would definitely be the last thing you'd think she was born to do. Ella had a real talent for cake decorating though and she loved making me elaborate cakes as much as I loved eating them.

What I most loved about Ella's cakes was that they didn't follow the rules. While they were decorated as pristinely as cakes in the bakery, they were wildly colored with whatever creative combination Ella thought might be cool. Fat neon shoelaces were in style at the time and I swear Ella got some of her cake color combos from the strings of breakdancing shoes. I have a picture somewhere (I have no idea or I would scan it for you) of a cake she made that was this hideous coral with big, bright purple roses all over it, and way too many roses to ever be tasteful. Ella understood that for children you just can't have too many roses on a cake. For that alone, she was amazing. Once I asked her if it was possible to make a cake with black icing. I wanted to know because I'd never seen such a thing and it was exotic and seemed somehow forbidden to me. They didn't sell black food coloring in the Acme store you know. I didn't know it existed. I had a similar fascination with the elusive grape Jell-o but that's another story. Do you know that Ella went to the cake decorating specialty shop, found some black food coloring paste and made me a black cake? Our tongues were dark as chow-chows after eating it. It looked like pens had exploded in our mouths and we probably had black poop all weekend, but dammit, we had a black cake. A black cake. And we ate it in the penthouse of a drug dealer in a high rise building in Ocean City, Maryland. The drug dealer was my mom's friend and he let us stay in his place the winter I was ten because he wasn't using it and my mom wanted to get away from the row houses for a while. Ella came with. That's where we met CJ the first lesbian I ever knew. She and Ella became good friends.

I just can't remember what happened. I don't know where Ella went. Like so many people who've passed through our lives, it's like one day she was gone. I wonder what happened to her. I wonder what she's doing right now. Does she have kids or grandkids? Is she working the bakery at the Superfresh at this moment, piping "Happy Birthday" on a white cake with just a couple pink roses daintily clustered in one corner?



Tracey said...

I too wander what Ella is doing now. And it makes me kinda sad.

Anonymous said...

I want to know where Ella is, too. Amazing how you've made me care about someone I only know, and can ever only know, through a few paragraphs of text.

Anonymous said...

Love your writing.
But what is it about me that the most important thought in my head aafter reading this post is "Grape Jell-o" ???
Have I ever seen it? Why can't I picture it? Do they make it? And why not?

And that housekeeper sounds nice, too. I think I read something about that in your post.

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