Saving Sarah

Well, I never did finish telling you this story from the other day when I set out on an errand of mercy to deliver a large pan of cooked yams (which I detest) to the local Rec Center preparatory to the big feed following the interment of one Margaret E., a black woman of some 72 years, aka Pooh-Cat, who worked her life as a domestic, never left the town she was raised in, and functioned as the glue that held together a near endless clan of folks whose roots there went back a couple hundred years. Most have dispersed far and wide, but would be quick to call the house of Pooh-Cat “home,” as I discerned as I rode through town, slowing for the crowd of people dressed up and lining up to head out to the funeral. They nearly filled the space on the wrap-around porch.

The town she lived in, for your edification, is a quaint spot built into the side of a hill on a narrow twisting road ending at a mill from pre-Revolutionary days. It houses an international rescue organization of some repute, which, on its elegant grounds, dispenses big do-good missions around the world, dispatching shiploads of doctors and supplies and aid to various places backward and plain in need.

It houses a plethora of antique shops, upscale and down, spilling into the road, that draw tourists by the thousands bent on attempting to escape modern Chinese and Swedish production lines in the hopes of recreating the feel of old-time authenticity with an odd, dusty, retro relic, trading at sky-high prices, the remnant of timeless country auctions. It houses an old lamp shop, the Burnt Penny, that carries every lampshade and bulb imaginable, and majors in fixing the out-of-stock and unrepairable. It houses the aforesaid mill, restored at some effort, which can grind you a panful of corn every now and then, usually twice a year when it hosts the regional art show, which is of fair caliber.

Across the street from the mill is an old general store that has gone up-town to characterize itself as a deli and will sell you a cheese sandwich on pumpernickel with a slice of avocado and some bean sprouts for $7.95. It also trades in fine wine; no longer carries RC’s. There used to be a working forge complete with a leftover smithy a few doors down, but I haven’t seen it or him in action lately.

And a few doors away starting up the hill, there lies a series of old-time sprawling wooden houses that shelter the remnants of the Eubanks and the Millers. Pooh-Cat was a Miller who married a Eubanks, and lived across the street from a mail box that says “Millers.” The strands of the clans occupying the site would defy the searches of most outsiders, and insiders as well, and the begetting could be reckoned in Biblical proportions. She carried a big, beaming smile, and her gregarious, hearty laugh was, as they say, contagious. An extrovert, she had words for everyone and every occasion. The mere mention of her name would bring smiles, and the nickname came somewhere from childhood, undoubtedly from a younger sibling (Pussy-Cat>Puhdy-Cat>Pooh-Cat). She was the eldest of nine.

The original family home has long since burned, but at the bottom of the hill after Pooh-Cat’s house, I turned by the Post Office, another relic, passed by two fellows with shovels in a cemetery preparing a new resting place, found the back door to the schoolhouse that had been converted to a Rec Center (with Pooh-Cat’s leadership) and handed over my yams to Jane, who was busy and clearly in charge of the kitchen. She accepted my meager offering thankfully but not with the same beaming smile of Pooh-Cat, who often filled that role as matriarch of whatever kitchen she happened to be occupying.

On a whim, I took the other road home. Coming out of town from the Rec Center, around a couple of bends on the right is the start of a long stone fence carrying on for about half a mile. Unlike most of the pre-Civil War-era stone fences in the area, this one is tidy, shiny and unmossed, vine-free—and sniffs of money. New money. Lots of it. The fence holds the front edge of a property containing a mansion of high pretense, the kind that usually show in Sotheby’s, and is nearly obscured from the road. It sits lonely and lifeless and is known as Oakley. It awaits a new owner after the bankruptcy at the end of the last boom. The former owner was a temporarily prominent real estate developer. I always admired that he had a helipad added to the mansion so as to shorten his commute. As you probably recall, so the story goes, the family that tended Oakley through multiple generations refused to sell the place to one Sylvester Stallone because they wanted to protect it from that Hollywood “trash”. They preferred the homegrown variety. Very Virginia. Ever the one for juxtapositions, as I went by I wondered whether Margaret had once dusted a chandelier or placed a dried dish on a sideboard in its glorious presence.

At the funeral, in the church where General Lee once worshipped on his way to Gettysburg, the place was packed. The audience was too large for the companion black church where Pooh-Cat and a whole generation of determined black women celebrated their religion, dished gossip, leaned on one another’s shoulders, and fed the multitudes from a well-worn kitchen. Turning modern integration movements on their head, they also defended their separation as a place they could call their own. There’s probably no closer communion of human spirit than exists in a bunch of women working in a kitchen, and it is perhaps worth interposing that the black church served a full sit-down meal after services every Sunday, while the “high” church did not. The fried chicken was impeccably produced, the country ham biscuits mouth-watering, the deviled eggs to die for, and the calories and cholesterol beyond counting and likely to boost you along the way. I am not alone in observing that the “high” church comes across as somewhat cold and bleak and medieval, compared to the down-home, warmth and cheery atmosphere of its mission companion.

The family arrived in waves and occupied the front half, taking up fully 12 pews on both sides of the aisle. It was reassuring that Pooh-Cat’s casket was on the main floor. The day she was born, she would have been consigned to the balcony.

The service was generally uneventful. A friend spoke of her good deeds and willingness to take on the problems of whoever asked. Reverend Brown added some levity, saying that some people have a lot, and some have time, and Margaret didn’t have a lot but she always had time, time for those with troubles. He also commented on her general reputation for not being on time. Once, at the very end of a church service, when he was strolling the aisle in full priestly regalia singing the doxology and turning to utter the last benediction, whom should he encounter but Pooh-Cat, sneaking in the door, just a little late. There, they stood, surprised, face to face.

Near the end of the service, two nephews arose, moved to the front, and sang a special spiritual dedicated to Aunt Pooh-Cat. Well, one hummed while the other employed his well-trained voice to belt out a dirge of such power and eerie timbre that there was hardly, as they say, a dry eye in the house. Not to go cultural, but I’m convinced that there is not a white man alive that could have replicated that performance.

Then, there was a wailing from down front, equally eerie, emanating from the voice of a child. Soon, a tall striking woman in her early 30’s arose from her place in the family pew and moved over to console the wailer and soothe her to quiet. Post-service, she pushed a wheelchair holding a young woman up the outside aisle, found a side entrance and slid outside.

A light bulb went off.

Some years back, my wife Tina provided physical therapy to a young girl who was severely handicapped and somewhat retarded. To add to her woes, her mother was a crack addict, who was wont to forget and strand young Sarah out in the cold. They lived in the grimmest of circumstances, including cars, and in time drew the attention of social services and the court system. Whatever society’s best intentions, this is not always a blessing, and, given Sarah’s plight, she seemed headed down the path of being confined to a state institution for the rest of her natural days. Foster families are hard to find for children with special needs. No father, and mother in and out of jail. A grandmother, but a no-show. Enter this sordid drama, ta-da, stage left, Great-Aunt Pooh Cat.

She took the child in, dutifully carried her up two flights of steps nightly to her bath, and tried to keep up with her extensive medical needs. Although Sarah had been awarded the support of Social Security, which is duty bound to supply money but not wisdom, the actual funds were dispatched monthly to the account of the mother, who applied them to competing purposes. The mother always vowed to take back the child on her next exit from jail, which satisfied the bureaucracy’s codes.

One Sunday at church, Pooh-Cat confided to Tina, who then provided physical therapy to the child in school, that she was just hanging on financially, her back was killing her from the stairs, and she wasn’t sure that she could continue to care for poor Sarah. Tina, upset, brought the story home.

Simple, sez I, we’ll just give her some money. No, no. That wouldn’t do. Pride and all that, rather a social infraction. Ah, how about a special church collection. No, same. Ah, how about…So, off we hied to see Father Brown, who is the real deal when it comes to service to parishioners of the two churches he serves, one mostly white and one mostly black.

Father, sez I, I realize that the Episcopal Church is dedicated to shining the lamp of Christianity into nooks and crannies far and wide and bearing grace and succor to the far reaches of the Zambezi. I would not diminish that effort. But, is there some way we could make a donation to the church, and the church, in turn, would see that it was placed in the hands of a most appreciative and needy parishioner who is close by?

This could be construed as “laundering” in other circles, and I wondered whether Father Brown was contemplating the odds of a Rico indictment as well as eternal damnation for stretching the canons of the church. (I skipped mention of an offshore conduit with a pass-through tax shelter using the double declining method.) Finally, he said that there WAS a small revolving fund that was maintained at the parish for odds and ends, the detritus of various bereavements, occasional flowers for the shut-in, and the like. And, just perhaps…

The check was written, and in the fullness of time, Pooh-Cat confided to Tina in church that things were going better, that Father Brown had found a source of money, and someone, she had no idea who, had helped her out, and that Sarah was safe for the moment. (I speculated that black persons of a certain age were trained to silence in the presence of white folks’ business, but there was no way to test the theory without unveiling the secret.)

Time passed, and we sort of lost track of Sarah. Margaret had a back operation, replaced a hip, whipped up her dee-licious deviled eggs on demand, gossiped and joshed, and laughed, and tended to her family flock.

At the Rec Center following the funeral, Tina finally arrived on the scene after ministering to a different flock on the second day of school, and immediately encountered a girl in a wheelchair: “Sarah!” “Hi, Tina,” came the quiet reply. The tall woman behind the wheelchair jumped in: “Are you Sarah’s therapist, the one Pooh-Cat raved about, the one that saved Sarah?”

Postscript. The woman behind the wheelchair was Sarah’s sister, the one who made it “out” and managed to graduate from college. In the conversation that followed, it turned out that Sarah, now 17, was in a brand-new special home in D. C. that provides long-term care. The mother did not attend the services, but another of her sisters did, although she required special leave from the D. C. Jail to do so. The number of relatives was nigh uncountable, but of Pooh-Cat’s five sisters, four still carried the family name and lived in Washington. A brother lived with Pooh-Cat: he is schizophrenic and one wonders what will become of him.

The opportunities for nurture appear endless, and the supply side now has a huge void, though, in Tina’s mind, while one Pooh-Cat is resting eternally next to the Rec Center down the road from Oakley, her replacement has arrived.

The woman behind the wheelchair inquired of Tina whether she knew the whereabouts of another child, a 4-year-old nephew born to the mother on leave from the D. C. Jail, and left behind to social services. By chance, Tina happened to know that he had been adopted (by two white lesbian women.) He’s doing fine, she said. Well, said the sister, if you can find a way to get a message to him, I’d like to tell him that we love him.