the GENDER issue / FICTON
Gilda-girl, Ida, and Frankie Mae
from Black Girl in Triptych
by Dána-Ain Davis
An Elegant Girl, July 2017 © abwilliams; background illustrations, 2020 © Troy A. Lambert
Every morning at 5 am, Gilda-girl, whose real name was Gilda Michelle, and her sister were roused by their mother Ida’s kisses. Ida smooched six-year-old Gilda-girl’s coffee bean colored forehead, then puckered her lips and gently tugged at four-year-old Frankie Mae’s cheeks, whose skin was as bronze as the Scuppernong grape that grew down home. If lip-kisses did not wake them up, then her butterfly kisses were sure to do so. Ida’s eyelashes fluttered across their foreheads soft as a breeze. Their mother-daughter intimacy came easily since they all slept in the same bed in the two-room apartment at 30 Convent Avenue in Harlem.
The just-before-sunrise weekday ritual had begun three months after Gilda-girl, Ida, and Frankie Mae moved from Graniteville in Edgefield County, South Carolina in October 1963, soon after Red hit Ida. She wasn’t about to let no man take the money she made tying knots on the spindle at Dundee—the textile factory where almost everybody in Edgefield and nearby Aiken county worked—drink it up, stay out all night, and lay hands on her. So, she packed up the girls, crossed the five borders between South Carolina and New York to get to safety and away from the hurt.
All three of them moved in with Pookie, Ida’s cousin on her mother Annie’s side, who had a one-room apartment at 30 Convent. Pookie’s mother, LouBell was Annie’s older sister and they were two out of three children. When Miss Annie heard that Red had hit Ida for the umpteenth time, she gave Ida $40 and her blessings to leave Graniteville as soon as they could. Up in New York Pookie had just lost a job, so having Ida’s help for a few months was just plain lucky. Luck came to Ida and the girls, too. Just after Christmas, the South Carolina domestic worker grapevine put out a call that the Rothman family needed help; “their” Lucy, was going back down home—the cold was too much for her and after five years, city life and being a domestic had worn Lucy out.
That network was better than any employment agency. You could get a job in little time if you played it right and knew people who had come up from the same county. All you had to do was tell your people’s last name. Ida used her maiden name Griffin, not her married name of Lawrence, to answer the call that she was looking for work. By using Griffin, Ida loosened another tie that bound her to Red. And, Griffin was all she needed to be embraced by the Edgefield, Aiken, or McCormick County domestic worker grapevine.
Ida’s interview went well with the Rothmans, who lived on Central Park West. Mrs. Rothman wanted Ida to report for work every morning by 7:30 to prepare breakfast and then do the laundry, dusting, sweeping, keep the china sparkling, and prepare—but not serve—dinner. Those chores kept Ida working until 5:30 in the evening. Ida didn’t really like the job but shoot, it paid her seventy- dollars a week. That was thirty-two dollars more than she made by the time she left Dundee after working there eight years!
More luck showed up for Ida and the girls at the end of January of ’64. Old Miss Lila, who lived in apartment 2C at 30 Convent, died. Pookie knew about it first because she was “in” with the building owner, Mr. Levin. After Pookie lost her job, she started doing some caretaking of the building to offset her rent. Pookie was so strong, she could lift a garbage can full of trash over her head like she was picking up a bag of groceries. When she wasn’t doing work around the building, Pookie would hang out of her street-facing window wearing a white tee shirt under which you could sometimes see the material that bound her breasts. Pookie did not wear bras. Most often there was a cigarette hanging off her bottom lip. Don’t mess with Pookie, was the word on the block; she could hurt a body if she had the mind to. But Mr. Levin liked Pookie, so when she put in a word for Ida, the deal was as good as done.
A two-room apartment, at seventy-three dollars a month, was a good price and Ida thought she could make do just fine. Ida was no fool. She had been saving $15 dollars every month—that she put in a jar at Miss Annie’s house, for the three years, which she hid from Red: he thought she made $23 a week. You know how she learned to save? From her mama, Miss Annie. Miss Annie always said, If you got $10, save $2.50; if you got a dollar, save a quarter. Those were words to live by, so by the time Ida left Graniteville, she had nearly $600, what with the $40 her mama gave her.
Ida, Gilda-girl and Frankie Mae moved out of Pookie’s and into 2C, which still smelled like Miss Lila; stale cigarette smoke lingered in the plaster and mingled with the mustiness that accompanies aging—you know, old people’s smell.
To get to work on time, Ida had to walk from the apartment on 129th Street and Convent, one block over to Amsterdam and catch the No.104 bus directly to the building on 81st Street and Central Park West, right across from the Museum of Natural History. It took about thirty-five minutes, if she timed everything right. That meant Ida had to be out the door by 6:45 am— just to be on the safe side. Working backwards, she had to make sure the girls were up, dressed, and fed by 6:30, so she could give more kisses before leaving and ring Pookie’s bell to make sure she watched the girls before Miss Viola—the babysitter she had found, arrived to take Gilda-girl to school and bring Frankie Mae to her house to babysit until Ida got home.
Silently, Gilda-girl wished her mother didn’t have to leave so early to go to the Rothmans’ house; what Gilda-girl wanted was for her mother to take her school, like the other girls’ mothers. Ida’s departures, though, were the equivalent of repetitive motion syndrome that came with working in a factory; only now, it was time that structured the motion of her work for white people. Every day. Except Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturdays, Gilda-girl was excited to get up because she, Ida and her sister got to walk all around. Sometimes they went to Chemical Bank to make a deposit into Ida’s passbook savings account. Or, they might wander around Harlem, going uptown to Mishkin’s Drug Store, with its tin ceiling, on Amsterdam and 145th Street. Every month, they went to the Post Office on 125th Street to buy money orders to pay the rent and the Con Edison Bill that arrived in the blue and white envelope. Just over to Lenox Avenue they could buy collard greens fresh off of one of the trucks that transported produce from family farms down south to New York; bypassing the 1917 Farms and Markets Law of New York State that controlled the distribution of food. If the trucks were there, Gilda-girl, Ida, and Frankie Mae huddled with other South Carolinians and waited to make a purchase. No matter where they went Ida held on to her girls’ hands tightly the entire time. She always in the middle with one on either side of her. Gilda-girl felt safe with her hand inside of her mother’s. Frankie Mae tended to care less because she was a wanderer; but not Gilda-girl…
Now and again Ida, Frankie Mae, and Gilda-girl went to Blumstein’s Department
Store on 125th Street. Blumstein was a real person, originally from Germany, and had built that store in the 1890s. In the 1920s, after he died, his family enlarged the store from one to five floors. The problem was old man Blumstein and his family refused to hire Negroes even though they made up most of his customers. After a, “Don’t shop where you can’t work” campaign in 1934, the store finally hired some Negroes but only in the lowest positions. By the 1960s there were a few Negro girls working as clerks and if Ida had not gotten the job as a domestic with the Rothmans, she most certainly would have applied to work at Blumstein’s. Ida looked just as good as those white ladies. First off, she didn’t look twenty-six, she looked more like twenty and her figure lied—no one would have ever guessed she was a mother of two.
Gilda-girl hated Blumstein’s Department Store, even though the dresses were pretty. Whenever Gilda-girl, Ida, and Frankie Mae went in, one of the white sales ladies would approach. They always asked Ida if she needed assistance. Mostly, Ida would say, We just lookin’. Thank you kindly. Then every single time, instead of moving to the left or the right of the three— to walk around them, the sales lady would turn her body on an angle and force her way between Gilda-girl and Ida; rarely between Ida and Frankie Mae. The white sales ladies were the pole that split their family. No one could say bread and butter fast or often enough to avert the bad luck that separating them could cause.
When white people came between her and her mama, Gilda-girl’s stomach congealed into a wad that probably looked like tripe—an undifferentiated honeycomb mass breeding inside her belly—in anticipation that her mama would have to let go of her hand to accommodate the sales lady’s disruption of their kin unit. At her young age, Gilda-girl didn’t have the words to describe what it felt like to be so afraid of losing the dependability of her mama’s comfort, hugs, kisses, warm hands, and eyelashes, in a store. She was too young to have the grammar to explain what walking between them meant; what the history of shattering the familial bonds of brown bodies felt like. It might not be so different from the desperation kids feel now down on the border. Separating kids from their families has an old history. And for Negroes that history has an auction block in the foreground and an arm keeping a mother and child apart; feet flailing in the air, outstretched arms, and desperation fused with tears—a separation manufactured for profit.
However, Gilda-girl could smell the scent of separating a mother and child. Coming between her and her mama, had an odor; like rust—small bits of peeling burnt orange rust—liable to cause an infection if it punctures the skin. The scent of separation made Gilda-girl nauseous. It also made her feel like there might be nothing to adhere to. Gilda-girl had felt this familiarity in New York at Blumstein’s because it was just like being back in Edgefield County, the place from where Gilda-girl, her mother, and sister had fled. There, white ladies on the street did the same thing the sales ladies at Blumstein’s did; they walked between Negro people all the time: forcing them from the sidewalk to the curb, incessantly unsettling the links Negroes had with each other. And, they did this despite the fact that could see the desire to stay together. Nonetheless they effortlessly walked between people all while looking straight ahead.
Crossing the borders of her hatred, Gilda-girl entered an ocean of terror, unable to breathe. She could not find a place in her body to rest, which tumbled in imaginary frigid waters with nowhere for her feet to land and nothing for her hands to hold on to.
These were very twisted feelings, about which Gilda-girl could do nothing.
As she grew older these feelings made Gilda-girl hard, kind of nasty. Her emotions were immobilizing; and although she wanted them to recede to the bottom of her feet, they just stayed in her stomach. You can’t imagine. Or, maybe you can. It was like having a shopping cart at Target whose wheels lock up when you try to leave the designated area and you can’t go anywhere. But you keep pushing and pushing and pushing.
Dána-Ain Davis is an anthropologist who is the director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her research is focused on Black women's experiences, particularly on domestic violence and reproduction. Davis is also a doula.