OneThe Women in the House
511 Florida Avenue. The address conjures tropical colors and ocean views, but there was actually a certain austerity about the narrow three-story row house in Washington, D.C. In the thirties, its front windows opened to the screech of metal against metal as the streetcars lurched and sparked their way down the sooty avenue. Its rear windows looked out on a tangle of faded back-alley porches and stairways-a landscape that seemed to me even as a child to contain all the unexpressed sadness of the neighborhood. And darkness reigned in between, accentuated by my great-aunt's insistence on painting the interior walls of the house brown. We, too, were varying shades of brown, and I can still see and feel us there, each with a certain weight and substance, yet somehow suspended in the murky interior.
In 1937, there were three women in the house, four with my arrival. A litany of resentments and grudges between my grandmother and my great-aunt had been placed on hold-my birth was, after all, a joyous occasion. We women, it seems in retrospect, constituted an inner sanctum, despite the presence of my father.
My great-aunt, Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper-a staunch figure in Washington's black haute bourgeoisie-was Sister Onie to my mother and to the St. Luke's Episcopal Church Club women. She was Tant'Onie to my father (his shortened version of the Tante Onie she suggested) and just plain Onie to her brother, Leigh, and her closest women friends. But she was always Sistonie to me. More than just an aunt, she was a great-aunt, a force to be reckoned with.
My grandmother, Virginia Wheeler, by contrast, was a breezy VA or Ginnie or even Ginger to her show-business friends. My father began calling her VV, which became Be-Be to my child's tongue. Be-Be was ideally suited to a career in show business. Five feet one, she had the compressed energy, the tight, lithe body, and the shapely legs of a dancer. Her fine curly hair was cut provocatively short, setting off her aquiline nose and high cheekbones, her pointy chin and almond-shaped eyes. She loved to gamble and drink beer, and had been dismayed to find that Sistonie, having long before taken an oath that alcohol would never pass her lips, had issued a decree forbidding any form of it in her house.
My mother, Leighla Frances Whipper Lewis, was by this time a graduate student in English at Howard University, drawn to the poetry of Byron and Milton, and president of the Stylus Literary Club. A small, delicate-looking woman in her early twenties, she had prominent eyes, a heart-shaped face, and skin called café au lait by her many admirers. There is a picture of her taken around the time of her marriage in which she looks so vulnerable that I cannot bear to look at it for very long. I see in her face the dreams she had, and in retrospect I fear for her. Yet I know that my mother is tough, tenacious, a survivor.
My father was Hylan Garnet Lewis, a young instructor of economics at Howard who switched to sociology after meeting E. Franklin Frazier there in 1935. He was a handsome man, with light chestnut-gray eyes inherited from his mother. Named after the black educator Henry Highland Garnet, he shortened his name to Hylan in high school. He would sometimes say that his initials, H.G.L., stood for "Happy Go Lucky." An excellent student-and with a talent, since childhood, for what were called "declamations"-he was a champion debater and orator at Virginia Union University. It was as a research assistant at Howard that he spotted my mother on campus.
After courting Leighla for two years, my father got up the courage to ask Sistonie for her adopted daughter's hand. By that time, though, my father knew that the formidable Dr. Whipper was well disposed toward him-once she had come upon the young couple embracing in the vestibule and, to my father's amazement, discreetly turned away.
The fact that Sistonie knew my father's family helped. My father's father, Harry Wythe Lewis, had been principal of the Garfield School in Washington. His grandfather on his mother's side, William A. Wells, Sr., had worked his way from being a porter on the Pullman cars to an appointment as private secretary to George D. Meiklejohn, assistant secretary of war under President Wilson, the first person of color to hold such an office. His son, William junior, was a colleague of Sistonie's, holding degrees in medicine, pharmacy, and law from Howard.
Gratified that Leighla was joining forces not only with a personable young man but with a well-thought-of Washington family, Sistonie gave her blessings.
After a St. Luke's wedding in the fall of 1935, my father continued to teach and my mother to work toward her master's. They lived frugally so they could attend shows at the nearby Howard Theater, where they listened to the music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, and Jelly Roll Morton. My mother got a job as a reporter with the Washington Afro-American
and once landed an interview with Mary Pickford, in town to promote a film. Eventually Dr. Whipper invited my parents to live with her, both to keep her company and to help them make ends meet.
By 1937, the year of my birth, the worst of the Great Depression was over, but its aftermath lingered cloudlike over Washington and the house on Florida Avenue. It seemed to express itself in the shapes of buttons and the drape of fabrics worn by the women in the house. It seemed to lurk in the linoleum that lay beneath the rugs, and in the cheaper cuts of meat that made their way from the butcher's to the kitchen. Yet among some politically active blacks, including my mother and father, there was a sense of cautious optimism. President Roosevelt's New Deal was gathering momentum, and there was informal representation to policy makers via the so-called Black Cabinet, which operated through the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. It was the first time since Reconstruction that such a feeling of possibility existed for blacks in America.
Mine was an easy birth-my mother wrote me years later-because of her "good hips." She named me Carole because Carol meant "song of joy," and the added e evoked Carole Lombard, the glamorous blond movie star. My middle name, Ione, was a concession to family, a simpler, more modern version of Sistonie's "Ionia."
In the hectic mornings after my arrival, my grandmother would watch in astonishment, yet with a certain amount of respect, as my great-aunt made her descent from the upper floor in a mist of powder and perfume. She would be magnificently dressed and coiffed, her hat poised at a stylish angle, gloves in hand, her pocketbook containing the requisite white handkerchief, her ample bosom replete with pearls.
This daily vision was all the more distressing to Be-Be since she was doing all of the washing, cleaning, cooking, and caring for my mother and me. "Your aunt was never dressed for any kind of housework," Be-Be told me, adding with a touch of pride, "I was used to it." And Sistonie seemed to expect it of her, even though there was a hired girl who helped with the housekeeping.
My great-aunt's imperious manner with my grandmother may have owed something to the fact that she was a doctor accustomed to giving orders and seeing them carried out by a staff of nurses. She was, in fact, on her way to Freedman's Hospital on those regal mornings. She had even taken a pediatrics refresher course in order to be prepared for any eventuality concerning me. (My mother, wanting to preserve her independence, had opted not to have her aunt deliver me, but Sistonie and Be-Be were both present at my birth at nearby Carson's Hospital, and my great-aunt was the first to cradle me in her arms.) Be-Be resented the fact that Sistonie's pronouncements about my welfare seemed to come down from on high. The source of my "six-week colic" was declared to be the richness of my mother's milk, and I was put on formula. Small doses of bicarbonate of soda and cod-liver oil were dispensed with precision, according to Sistonie's instructions.
Perhaps Sistonie could not help but treat my grandmother as a wayward girl; she was used to working with unmarried mothers who didn't know how to take care of their children or themselves and who had no access to public assistance in the segregated Washington system. (The Florence Crittenden Home was limited to white women only.) Sistonie had taken some of them into her own home to teach them cooking and hygiene; the girls often did housework as repayment. Her manner with them was stern, yet her compassion was real.
Sistonie had difficulty extending the professional compassion she showed strangers to personal warmth for my grandmother. Perhaps she considered her commanding manner therapeutic. After all, even though Sistonie's beloved brother Leigh had had an equal part in the matter, Be-Be-like Leigh-had been in the theater.
Sistonie was very much a product of her times. Many middle- and upper-class blacks, emulating the Victorian mores of prosperous whites, looked askance at what they considered the immoral world of the theater. And for blacks bent on disproving whites' myths about our race-that blacks are loose, immoral, uncivilized, even animals-such distinctions were that much more important. It seemed necessary to be even more conscious of propriety than whites in order to prove good social standing-a propriety that often became confused with skin color or free birth. Many Washington professional and social organizations fostered a class snobbery based more on lightness of skin than on any particular merit. And many-Sistonie among them-spoke proudly of having descended from free families of color, families who had never been slaves.
Be-Be made it clear to me many years later that she was more bitter about the discrimination she and her fellow actors had received at the hands of other colored people than that which she had experienced from whites. "It was worse than Jim Crow," she said, still bristling with anger. Some of the better black boardinghouses in Washington turned actors away, and even at Howard, members of her touring company had been made to eat in separate room from the faculty.
Despite the animosity between them, however, my grandmother and my great-aunt had a few things in common besides those that brought them together that May-their love for my mother and the desire to be there for the birth of her first child. Both, for example, were aware of the value of charm, and neither was averse to using it to mask an underlying iron will. Both had sudden, flaring tempers, though they expressed them in different ways: Sistonie was slow to anger and usually outwardly composed-until the moment she descended on the unsuspecting like a cyclone; Be-Be was quick and impatient, proud of her mercurial nature. "When I take a notion," she would say then and for many decades to come, "I just get up and go!"
Yet as hard as it was to share a house with Dr. Whipper, Be-Be had no intention of leaving 511 Florida Avenue before she was certain my mother and I no longer needed her. Though she bristled, she put up with all Sistonie's rules and regulations. Still, there was a limit to her patience. One day, as the Washington heat grew unbearable, my grandmother, exhausted from cooking and caring for the baby, dropped everything, hurried down the street to the grocery store, and bought two bottles of ice-cold beer.
Back at the house, she sat down at the table with one of the bottles and a tall glass. She kicked her shoes off and settled back for a refreshing drink. A few minutes later Sistonie came home and stood, frozen with disapproval, in the doorway. Her eyebrows arched, her jaw tightened. She opened her mouth to speak; but my grandmother's gaze was steadfast, her expression implacable. Wisely, Sistonie held her tongue. "Good evening, Virginia," she said evenly, and turned to go up the stairs.
"Good evening, Dr. Whipper," Be-Be called after her pleasantly, refilling her glass.TwoWishing
It seems I was always looking for my mother-waiting for her return. I had started traveling among the three women in my family at an early age, accompanied and-by the time I was eight-alone, on trains, subways, and buses. Later I remembered those years by associating them with years of school: I was living with Sistonie in Washington during part of second grade, and with Be-Be in Saratoga during the rest of second and all of fourth, fifth, and seventh grades. I was with my mother in New York City for first, third, sixth, and eighth grades and through high school.
Of course, while it was all happening, it was a collage of sensations and events: a snatch of music coming from an open window (years later I identified it as the Grieg Concerto), the reassuring yellow of a banana my mother left beside my bed one morning when we were staying at someone else's house, the rush of freedom as I dashed headlong down the glorious corridor of trees at the zoo. I remember, in particular, sitting in the tub at 511 Florida Avenue, my favorite place in the old house. I was five or six years old and visiting Sistonie for a week, a month, a season. I wasn't quite sure. I was counting on the now-time of the tub to get me through. I watched, fascinated, as the water swirled down the drain, going round and round as I twisted a gold ring with a green stone on my finger, wishing and wishing and wishing for my mother.
The water was gone, and I was still wishing in the damp of the tub, when Sistonie came in. Her queenly presence seemed to precede her. In fact, there in the bathroom the scents of her sweet-smelling powders, emanating from a dresser drawer, always made her seem close by.
"What are you doing?" Sistonie asked, as she saw me sitting there in the empty tub. I told her, and her voice came lower, closer, piercing through my longing with surprising tenderness.
"Sometimes," she replied, "if you wish for something hard enough, it will come true."
What had Sistonie wished for? I find myself wondering. Had she ever wished for her own mother, only to have her suddenly appear? I never thought to ask.
Sistonie graduated from Howard Medical School in 1903, one of four women in her class; Howard was, in fact, the first American medical school to open its doors to women. In its early years, black and white women came from all over the country to study there. But unlike those of her colleagues who used their diplomas only to improve their salaries or social status, Sistonie-who had already spent ten years teaching in the segregated Washington schools-chose to practice.
Copyright © 2004 by Carole Ione. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.