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Charly Palmer - In the Presence of
In the Presence of
Charly Palmer

Ashes, Memory

By Yvonne Chism-Peace

The old white man, the very old white woman, and the brown and white terrier stand in front of the fireplace. Their eyes rest upon the visitor. Their eyes are benign, not penetrating, at most expectant. Like the eyes of the marble figures standing in the side altars of the parish church. For a few seconds time is suspended.

In the hushed early summer afternoon the living room is like a small chapel and she, the visitor, who is a Negro student, has come to the end of a doubtful pilgrimage. She has stood in this living room many times since the seventh grade. On Saturday afternoons she has come as a supplicant for the Church Improvement Fund.

Woman and girl are both proud of the parish church with its white and gold Byzantine dome, hovering like the Holy Spirit upon the roofs of a changing neighborhood. Crippled, the very old woman has not seen the dome in a long time. But she has never refused the student a donation, and for her modest generosity she has required a gift she knows the student has in abundance. The gift of time. And so it has been that on her Saturday solicitations for the church, the student has always visited this household last to spend at least thirty to forty-five minutes with the woman and her memories.

For six years the very old white woman watched the Negro student travel from the farthest edges of girlhood to the gates of young womanhood. Silently she noted when penny loafers replaced the girl's grade school black and white Oxfords and when a tortoise shell headband eclipsed grosgrain ribbons. Over a span of four years her midcalf skirts of high school shortened almost imperceptibly as if an invisible inchworm were hidden in the hemline. The student began to wear a modest shade of lipstick, clear nail polish and nylon hosiery, but she confessed neither drive-in movie excursions nor Friday night "hops" at the parish gym. The student remained bright-eyed and secretive, sharing only what she had in common with the very old woman which was their religion and their love of singing.

While attending the parish school the student had sung alto in the girls' singing club: this was the only opportunity the church allowed a girl with an excellent voice because females were banned from the choir. Both commiserated about this restriction, but in her youth the very old woman had found a solution; she had sung in the choir of a landmark church in Center City. Strangely, she had never suggested that the student should audition for this choir. Did they both think a Negro would be rejected? Catholics didn't mingle much; the parishes were ethnic enclaves. Even the old woman, a German, lived awkwardly among the Irish of West Philadelphia. She would have been less comfortable as a maid in the parish rectory had there been a position when she needed it, than in the home of this Lutheran man.

For a few seconds only, time is suspended in the old-fashioned living room of this sturdy residence along a quiet thoroughfare. The ramrod old white man, the humped-back very old white woman, and the short-legged brown and white terrier stand like a tryptich surrounded by their own solitude and the meditation of the Negro student. Then they step out of one another's thoughts and move and speak in real time.

After greetings all around (even the dog yips and dances in a small circle), the very old woman motions for the visitor to sit down. The student takes her usual seat in one of the two heavy Victorian armchairs by the large front window. Then the very old woman takes her usual place in the other armchair. Then the dog sits at her feet, his usual spot.

Only the old man remains by the fireplace. He stands as if he were about to give a speech. Under his grey v-neck cardigan, his pale shirt intones like parchment: I am the voice of probity; my Saturday afternoon tie is a balanced mark of punctuation.

"I've never met you before," the old man begins, "but Mrs. L has spoken highly of you." The student feels embarrassed as if she is about to receive an award. He speaks with the gravity of a lawyer, but she knows that he is only an insurance man on his day off.

She knows a lot about this old white man. She knows his wife died before his children were in their teens. That is why Mrs. L is his housekeeper. She knows that the son, a pilot, was killed in WW 2. She knows that the daughter converted to the housekeeper's religion and became a nun. A cloistered nun. This left the old man bereft of heirs -- like Mrs. L whose husband died before she had any children. Did she say he was killed in WW 1? He could have been. It must have been as long ago as that.

During the many years she had climbed the cement stairs to the open front porch of this three-story house on Walnut Street, the student often wondered why Mrs. L and Mr. L (their last names begin with the same letter) had never married. In her mind she held no image of the man, but she knew that behind the housekeeper's wrinkles a turn-of-the-century pretty young woman was hidden. Now and then a winsome smile betrayed her concealment. She couldn't have had that hump all her life. Of course, the student didn't really know; she was raised not to ask such questions. All she was told was that the old man and his housekeeper had lived in this capacious, well-mannered house with nobody else since his daughter took her final vows. There had always been a dog -- not this terrier, of course -- but some small short-haired breed. The student didn't know whether or not it was the housekeeper's pet or the old man's.

But now it is clear why the two never married. On this day, her last visit, the student has no more cause to speculate. Mrs. L is about twenty years older than Mr. L. That is worse than being a bit bent over and lopsided. She and the short-legged terrier make a more suitable couple than she and the old man who stands Prussian straight, his arm on the mantelpiece. In his right hand he holds a white envelope. Business size.

"Mrs. L tells me that you are going on to college. She says you won a scholarship."

The student answers yes; she will be leaving in two weeks.

"Well, it's always good to see young folks make a positive start." Then he pauses, clears his throat awkwardly before handing her the white business envelope. "This is a small token, young lady. Good luck to you in school. I am sure you will continue to do well."

He is gone before the student can thank him adequately or open the envelope which contains five new ten dollar bills.

"I see you have a ring, now," the very old woman says, smoothing the awkward moment.

"Yes. It's my high school ring. I finally got it and it's completely new. We students -- the art students -- were asked to contribute ideas, but in the end the principal chose a professional design."

"You never wore a ring before. But now you have one to wear to college."

The student looks at her own hands. She never thought that anyone really noticed them. Her fingernails are long and graceful, a source of pride, but her hands have thick veins and are weathered like an old woman's. Like the hands of her mother who isn't old. Only the best jewels would ever make her hands really pretty again.

Then the very old woman gets up and hobbles through the dining room and into the kitchen. These are rooms the student has never seen. In all the years she has come to this house, she has never been beyond the living room, has never sat in any other chair but this armchair. The very old woman and the short-legged terrier pad back from the kitchen. The dog has the pleased look of a child who has just eaten a snack. The woman places a tray of sugar cookies and a glass of milk down on the table between the two armchairs.

Then the two have their last conversation. College and singing and the parish choir. And the bishop who used to be their pastor. And the beautiful dome. And the May processions that never come to this farthest end of the parish. And the eloquent priest who visits the very old woman and brings her Holy Communion every week. And college. And singing.

And from time to time a thought arises in the student's heart, "This won't be the last time. I promise."

And from time to time, the very old woman muses within herself, "If I had had a daughter, would she have been very different from you?"

Perhaps it is the chimes of the grandfather clock or the late afternoon sun falling upon the table. Something brings their spoken and unspoken words to a halt.

"I have a little something for you, too." The very old woman smiles sweetly.

From the table between the two armchairs, she picks up a small pink package the student had not noticed before. Inside are the most unusual rosary beads. They are seeds the color of unopened rosebuds, a pale greyish pink. The simple dark wood cross supports a plain silver crucified Christ. The girl smiles a very private smile. At the end of the school year she has always received the religion prize. It is a second-place academic award. A consolation.

But the old woman would never know this.

Instead, the scholarship student, the Negro adolescent, the June graduate, the church visitor hugs the very old white woman and promises to cherish the gift forever.

And she did.


Bio: The poet Yvonne Chism-Peace writes short fiction under the name Yvonne Chism-Peace. In 2002-03 the following ezines published her stories: Muse Apprentice Guild, Melic Review, Wired Hearts, Tattoo Highway, Pindeldyboz, Moxie, ken* again, Inkburns, Word Riot, Clever Magazine, Moondance, Feminista, and In Posse Review. In hard copy her stories have appeared in Thought ("The Key", Spring 2002) and Saint Anne's Review ("The Dusk", Winter 2001).

Her books of poetry are IWILLA SOIL, IWILLA SCOURGE, and IWILLA RISE (Chameleon Productions Inc. 1985, 1986, 1999) for which she won NEA fellowships. She was the poetry editor at MS. magazine (1974-1987).


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