Aunt Elsie

MISS HANNA’S MOTHER was called Aunt Elsie by practically all of the folks in Brooklyn. Calling her Aunt didn’t mean that she was related to them. It was just a friendly way of addressing some older people that lots of people practiced. Aunt Elsie was a most unusual and interesting person. She was quite the opposite in many ways from Miss Hannah. Miss Hannah was thrifty like her grandmother, but Aunt Elsie was not and gave little thought to saving for tomorrow. Even as a child, she was said to have had no desire to bother herself with books. Although school life in her day was limited, bleak and bare, whatever opportunities existed from schooling held no interest for her. She was lively, liked to hold a job, and above all, she loved people and being a part of their daily lives.
Aunt Elsie didn’t have any formal training but this anecdote illustrates her knowledge of what she considered the right thing to do. She was on a train going north to visit some of her relatives. The train was filled with students and other passengers going north, also. The newsboy came through hawking his papers and magazines. People were buying them and settling down in their seats to enjoy themselves. Aunt Elsie took note of this. She couldn’t read a word, but she stopped the newsboy and said, “I’ll take a paper, please.” She paid him for the paper, sat back and perused it with an air of importance just as if she understood every word. After she had held it for what she considered a sufficient length of time, she handed it over to a student and said, “You may read my paper if you wish. I’ve finished with it.” Miss Hannah laughed as she told this joke about her mama reading the paper and added, “Mama might have been holding it upside down.”
Aunt Elsie had loads of mother-wit, a strong sense of human and heart full of love and kindness for other people. She never failed to show it towards her neighbors and friends. If she came into possession of an extra loaf of bread or a gallon of buttermilk, it went to help some neighbor who had a large family to feed.
She was short and plump and had a round brown face with laughing eyes that beamed a smile. As I remember her, her smile was toothless, but teeth were not necessary to add charm to her face. In fact, I never thought of her as needing them because her face looked complete without them. She had a cherubic look and seemed to radiate happiness as she walked along.
I remember her in a full white apron walking with a quick step down the middle of the street. As she walked, she called back, “Goodbye everybody! Going back to my white folks now!”
Her white folks consisted of one of the city’s most aristocratic and influential white families. she was first employed to care for an infant in the home because his young mother had died. She remained at the home throughout the years to see the baby grow to manhood.
She could not have loved the child entrusted to her care more if he had been her own. I remember Miss Hannah telling of the manner in which she introduced him to school.
Aunt Elsie was the cook as well as nursemaid in the home, and most of her time was taken up with her daily duties. The little boy had not been entered in school for some reason, and she decided that he needed more care and training than she was able to give him or that he was getting. Without asking anyone about the matter, one morning she dressed him and took him down to the neighborhood school. She told the principal, “This child’s mama is dead, and I haven’t got time to look after him. Take him and keep him, and I’ll be back for him this evening when school’s out.”
When the father came home in the evening, Aunt Elsie announced to him that she had put his son in school. He merely acquiesced and accepted her decision as the correct thing to do. This was the beginning of a distinguished school career that carried the boy on through a very successful life.
This boy was the apple of Aunt Elsie’s eye. She mothered him, cared for his needs, made him study his lessons and insisted on kindred helping him when he needed assistance. If no one appeared to do this as quickly and in as delighted a manner as she thought they should, her daughter said that she would draw herself up to her full stature and importantly announce, “If Mrs. Waltham (meaning herself) could read and write, she’d help him.” Of course, this statement usually brought quick results as far as the lessons were concerned.
At one time, there was some discussion of putting some old pieces of furniture in a room for her charge. This disturbed Aunt Elsie. She had decided that her charge needed some new furniture for his room because he had grown old enough to appreciate it. She went uptown to one of the best furniture stores, made her selection and had the bedroom suite delivered to the home for him. If anyone wasn’t satisfied with her reasoning or discussed what she did in reference to this purchase, Miss Hannah quoted her as saying rather sassily, “His mama left the money.”
Aunt Elsie won a place of love and respect in the home for herself, and her decisions on many things were accepted and abided.
Her grandson related to me how she succeeded in having water installed in her home. A city law had been passed that required the homeowners of Brooklyn to install city water connections in their houses within a reasonable length of time. Aunt Elsie knew that she didn’t have the money to comply with the law, so she immediately had a conference with her employer along this line. “You folks uptown passed the law that you have to put water in, so you must go and see about putting water in my house.”
Seldom was there argument with Aunt Elsie. Her employer had great confidence in her. In a very short time, water was piped into her house and paid for by her employer.
Aunt Elsie was philosophical and a natural wit. I remember Miss Hannah relating Aunt Elsie’s experience with a sewing machine salesman. At certain times of the year, she liked to do a little sewing. She didn’t have a machine, so she contracted with a salesman for the use of one of his for a period of time. The rental time was up, and the payment for the use of the machine was due.
On this day, Aunt Elsie looked out of the window and saw the salesman approaching her house.. She knew he was coming to collect, and she also knew she didn’t have his money. The nearest thing to Aunt Elsie was her big wardrobe, so she quickly stepped into it to hide. She closed the door as she got it. Aunt Elsie was rather plump, and the wardrobe began to say and totter. She stayed inside as long as she could before she had to step out to keep the wardrobe from falling over with her inside.
The salesman was standing there looking at her as she stepped out. The two of them must have laughed, and Aunt Elsie quickly made some arrangements. No one could resist her personal charm.
Aunt Elsie was in church one Sunday with a friend who shouted. Whenever this friend felt like shouting, she would just go ahead with no reservations. This morning, she got up and was shouting vigorously up and down the aisles of the church. Aunt Elsie was enjoying her fervor, so she decided that she’d join in the shout with her. She rose from her seat, and just as they were shouting happily up and down the aisles, the friend who was quite heavy tripped. Down she fell on top of Aunt Elsie. She couldn’t move. Aunt Else leaned over the person nearest her and whispered, “Get her off me. Get her off me!” All of us laughed with Miss Hannah as she told this story.
Aunt Elsie was a bundle of joy and happiness. Wherever she went, she carried sunshine and added zest to life. The world would have missed much had she not lived.

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