I own one piece of furniture that has been with me since I rented my first apartment three decades ago. The three-legged table with a scalloped edge fit flush against the entry wall in my eighteenth-floor studio. It belonged to my great aunt, who we called “Ant” Essie. I was eleven when my mother, siblings, and I stood in the entry of her Harlem apartment doorway saying our goodbyes. She started to cry.
“I’m so lonely,” she told us. Repeatedly.
We left as she stood waving to us outside the open door. I never saw Aunt Essie again.
I drop my mother off at the curb and she waits by the escalator with her twenty-one-inch upright American Tourister suitcase until I find a space in the Union Station indoor parking garage. Together we take several flights of escalators down to the street level, wind through the line at the Acela Express ticket counter and wait for the words on the blue screens to direct us to an available ticket agent. It’s not long before we’re heading to the Amtrak terminal through the short corridor sandwiched between the self-serve ticket machines and the Verizon Wireless store.
The wheels on her suitcase transition from the smooth marble with a clickety-clack onto the tiled flooring of the train concourse. Straight ahead, suited men sit with their backs pressed against black leather cushions made to fit the wooden seats. The disproportionately high-backed chairs dwarf the customers who relax in them while African American men wearing matching dark blue smocks but less identical baseball caps bend at the waist to put a shine to their customer’s leather shoes.
My mom and I make a sharp right and our destination, Concourse H, is within view. I slow my pace. It’s not because my eighty-seven-year-old mother can’t keep up with me. Even in her advanced age, she still moves with an intentional confidence in her step. It’s a holdover from her days growing up in New York City, where she was raised by her divorced mother and Aunt Essie, her mother’s older sister.
It’s the familiar tug that slows me down. The one that gingerly prods, reminding me to take a longer look at the twice-widowed woman beside me, at that bob-styled, grey-strand wig that covers her thinned-out natural hair of the same shade. I want to ignore the ever-so-slight hunch in her shoulders, disregard the leather-like wrinkles over thinning brown skin that show more on her hands than her face. But it’s impossible to pretend that she is not in her winter season and lives alone in a southern city where the closest relative or family friend is hundreds of miles away.
I don’t think my mother notices that I’ve slowed down. Or maybe she is grateful for the less hurried stride. She has arthritis that sometimes affects her legs and her lower back but she doesn’t like to let on when it does.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
But I’m not. Inwardly, I’m longing for the days when she was still driving her car the long stretch of highway from North Carolina to visit us and our young children. First, it was the last of the long-bodied Cadillacs and later it was her compact Nissan Sentra, both arriving with a trunk filled to capacity with boxes wrapped in bright-patterned birthday or Christmas paper.
Aunt Essie never learned to drive a car. She relied on city transit to take her where she needed to go. Or she’d walk, like we did when we visited her and wanted to shop among the 125th Street vendors for bangle bracelets with black power fists at each end.
I loved everything about visiting Aunt Essie, a forty-minute car ride from our home in suburban Rockland County. I felt special pushing the button next to her apartment number and waiting for the loud buzzer that unlocked the heavy glass door on the ground level. The hallways were clean and held a distinct but undistinguishable warm aroma, probably a blend of home-cooked meals by immigrant families and the African American migrants from down south, like Aunt Essie. But mostly I loved the smell of the burning trash wafting its way into the hallway when she pulled down the incinerator door as if it was a mailbox and she was shoving a letter instead of day-old garbage down the shoot.
What I remember most about Aunt Essie is that she had a tenderness about her, a vulnerability I didn’t witness or experience with any of the other older women in my family. She was married to a man we called Mr. Plummer. He had skin the color of a white man and wore a large-size, flesh pink hearing aid in one ear. When we visited, he always sat in the same spot on the sofa and smiled more than he talked. Aunt Essie liked to talk, to chatter. And with her husband it was done at a high volume. She smiled a lot. Laughed a lot. Was mellow. Spoke kindly. Drank Postum coffee. Cooked turkey wings on Sunday. Once, I told her that with the meat off the bones they looked like giant safety pins. She thought that was funny. She loved children but never had any of her own.
As a young girl I found lots to love about her apartment. Everything in her bathroom matched and her chairs were covered in plastic. Her bedroom suite—solid, shiny matching wood dresser, armoire and headboard—was her prized possession. After Mr. Plummer died, my mother invited her to move into the vacant apartment in our two-family home. But she said the master bedroom wasn’t large enough to hold her bedroom furniture.
So she returned to her lonely apartment, stood in the doorway and cried when we left. Less than a month later, she was hospitalized. Days later, she died. Alone.
After her funeral, my mother cleaned out the apartment. She sold our aunt’s beloved bedroom suite to a co-worker. She kept two of the fairly new, plastic covered arm chairs and the three-legged table, a throwback to the 1930s. My mom still has both chairs, though they are no longer protected by plastic. One is in her bedroom. The other, now reupholstered, is where she watches her favorite television programs on the big screen TV in her living room. Reruns of Bonanza, Matlock, Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons keep her company most afternoons.
Aunt Essie’s table had been stashed in my mother’s garage until I rediscovered it on a post-college visit home. Today, some thirty years later, it sits in a corner of my living room. Its dulled finish and outdated style doesn’t match my modern furniture. It never has. Still, I took it with me every time I moved.
Worn, yet still useful.
Old, but not forgotten.
I keep my gaze on the letter H, just above the double-doorway that leads to the platform where my mother will be helped onto the Amtrak Train. I’m preparing for what Shakespeare christened sweet sorrow. It’s the parting that I sang about at the end of every church service growing up in the tiny African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in my hometown. God be with you till we meet again. I didn’t learn until years later that goodbye was derived from the words, “God be with you.”
We could avoid these trips to Union Station if my mom would agree to move to Maryland and live near me and my sister. Once, we took our mother to see several newly-constructed communities for active seniors located near our neighborhood. We did such a good job convincing her it was time to live closer to us, to enjoy her latter years with her family nearby, that she agreed. She liked one community best, but the square footage of the two-bedroom unit was much less than the rambler style house she purchased with her second husband, who died three weeks after they relocated to their North Carolina retirement home. She wondered how she would fit her bedroom furniture and dining room set into the small space.
“You could put one of the dressers in the spare bedroom,” I said to her, a little too impatiently.
But it was the dining set—the table, six chairs and china cabinet—that she seemed most concerned about. It was the one furniture purchase she and her husband had bought together as a married couple.
Don’t you remember what happened to Aunt Essie? I wanted to scream out loud, but didn’t. I explained that the units were made for downsizing a life—parting with big-sized furnishings, swapping material things for new experiences.
“Give me two years to get my affairs in order,” she told us. My sister and I got our hopes up. Five years have passed since my mother made that statement. We don’t bother to bring it up anymore.
Instead, we have this ritual—a biannual round-trip car ride to and from Union Station for arrival and departure.
The two of us take our seats in the waiting area. Flat screens mounted on the walls loop a public service announcement with words like safety, law enforcement and TSA in the subtitles. But I’d rather watch the pigeons who are boldly stepping around the transients, bobbing their heads at the fallen crumbs of on-the-go, fast-food meals.
A woman’s voice blares over the broadcast system, “Now boarding at Gate H.” Senior citizens and families with small children are invited to board first. We make our way to the double doors, under the large orange Carolina banner advertising free Wi-Fi in small print.
I bend to hug her. She no longer stands five feet tall. Age has snatched away a few inches along with several pounds. We kiss each other’s cheeks.
Silently, I make promises to myself. Visit her more often. Call her more frequently. Resume talks of her moving to Maryland.
“Goodbye, Mom. I love you.”
God be with you.
“I love you too, Bay.” She uses the pet name she’s called all three of her children throughout our lives. I think it was the same one her mother used.
I never knew my biological grandmother. She died just as my mother was entering adulthood. But the square black and white pictures in Aunt Essie’s old fashioned photo albums showed two sisters, close and loving. Aunt Essie is the one whose eyes hold a bright twinkle, and a soft longing. I wonder if it was a longing for a child of her own—one that would have kept her company in her old age, forced her to move in or close by after her husband died. One who couldn’t part with the small table—the one with three legs—after she passed. Moved it from place to place. Rested a family photo on top. Walked by it on any given day and was transported back to a living room where Mr. Plummer sits in silence on a floral-cushioned couch custom-fit with a plastic covering. Turkey wings bake in the oven. Laughter fills the apartment.
My mother hands the uniformed agent her ticket and exits through the doors. I’m the one left standing, watching as she walks toward the platform. The uneasy feeling of leaving and being left sits with me as I stand there at the glass-pane door. It’s hard for me to acknowledge the fragility that is underneath her quilted winter coat or beneath the tough-skinned layer she’s worn since I’ve known her.
She turns and waves at me.
See you later. I strangle the words before they can leave my mouth, remembering Aunt Essie waving as we casually uttered the promise we didn’t keep. I was too young then to know that every goodbye could be your last. I’m sure of it now. Aunt Essie taught me that.
KATRINA NORFLEET is a Maryland-based writer, editor and published author. Her most recent creative nonfiction work appears in the Potomac Review and in several anthologies, including Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memory of Mother. Katrina holds an M.A. in Writing (nonfiction) from The Johns Hopkins University. She is currently developing a collection of essays themed around loss. (@joyfilledwriter)