Anna King was our “colored” maid. Before her was Viola, and before Viola, Catherine Dougherty, whom I was too young to remember, but who, by family report, would take out her false teeth and click them for me. Anna started with us at age fifty, when I was four, coming in days for a while, then moving in, wearing uniforms, and living over my room on the third floor, with that bathroom to herself. She cooked, cleaned, served meals, and looked after us (me, mainly) when Mom was busy or away. Broad‑beamed and plump, she had a moonish face and black hair, pulled back, and smooth‑complexioned upper arms as large as thighs. She complained often of aches and pains, and had Mom buy her a knee‑pad for when she kneeled, scrubbing floors. There was always a faint, burnt‑wood fragrance to her and her things, her bedspread, her ironing, even, that I loved; and her manner with me was teasing, scandalized, admiring, and ceaselessly fond. She would marvel at my craving for Velveeta cheese and peanut butter (which I exaggerated for her benefit)‑‑"Oh, no, you can't want to eat all that!"‑‑or something I'd say or draw would cause her to exclaim, "Oh, he's just so smart!" One chilly fall day during the war, Mom was down at the Red Cross, Anna and I were alone, and somehow we got locked out of the house. We were on the back porch, where there was a wood box and an axe. She bewailed and worried what to do, and I kept saying, gallantly, feeling manly and in charge, that I would take the axe and chop down the door, but she wouldn't let me, even though I told her it was my house and all right: "No, you can't do that. Put that axe down; don't you pick up that." We waited and waited, achingly, for someone to come, which was her solution; she took off her sweater and insisted I wrap it around me.
Later, at 114 Bloomingdale, while Mom and Judy were shopping Anna's room caught on fire. I smelled smoke, yelled, and she came running, charged upstairs, and suffered third degree burns before my brother Jack or the firemen, who came quickly, could pull her out. She'd been trying to get her money out of the burning mattress, which was where, from bad wiring nearby or a forgotten cigarette, the fire had begun.
That Anna had moved up from North Carolina, where she had worked all her life for the Reynolds family, even been given a brick house. That her husband had been an alcoholic, who beat her, and whom she finally divorced. That she had had no children of her own but that her sister in Philadelphia had sent down one child a year for Anna to clothe, feed, and school. That she'd grown attached to one nephew, Billy, and when unionization had changed things "for the worse" at work, she had moved North with him to live at her sister's, in the colored section behind Wayne (a steep downhill street known as “Henry Avenue,” and originally settled by workers from my great grandfather’s farm). That she continued to live there, contributing to their home and never having one of her own. That as Billy grew up, married, and had children, he proved a pride to her, but a heartache too, since she had tried, at one point, to move in with him, but it hadn't worked out...
She would confide all this to Mom, off and on, peeling potatoes, say, while I sat listening. Sometimes, too, she and Mom mentioned "race" or "her people." But I had little sense, ever, of her personal life, or of the world, apart from and foreign to ours, where she would come from and return. I did gather from her talk that at her sister's, at least, this was a world of violence, greed, squalor and want, that she was not loved or appreciated there as we loved her or felt she deserved, and those times we drove her home (mainly from our St. Davids house, when she no longer boarded with us), I didn't like sending her back ‑‑one of us‑‑ to what other life waited behind those windows, those walls. But she would snort, smile fondly, and say, "Don't you go thinking that way. This is my house, here. This is my family, understand? Don't worry about me."
She is in none of our family pictures, movies or stills.