When I was young, my parents employed a housekeeper who worked five days a week. Cora washed laundry, cleaned the house, and, during the summer, often cooked lunch for me and my brother Richie. She made a grilled cheese sandwich that no one else could duplicate, though we all tried. She said the secret was in the butter, but we didn’t know what that meant. We closely watched her make the grilled cheese sandwiches but never noticed anything unusual about how she used the butter. It was a delightful mystery.
Cora was African American—a Negro, as she would have been called back then—and thus somewhat exotic to Richie and me. No black people lived in our upper middle-class neighborhood, and only one black child attended St. Luke’s Grade School: Tammy Wood, a tough, intelligent girl one year behind me. Tammy was guarded and unfriendly, but, occasionally, on the playground, she would lose herself in a game of kickball or tag and laugh along with everyone else. At those moments, she could have been any one of us.
Cora drove an old Buick and parked on the street in front of our house. She wore a pale blue uniform that contrasted with her dark skin. She stood taller than our mother but thicker, with a big bosom and a bottom to match. She moved slowly but not out of laziness—she just knew how to pace herself, like someone working in extreme heat.
I’m afraid that I didn’t treat Cora very well. I was an independent child—lonely, that is—and made few demands, but I don’t recall treating her with the respect she deserved as a hardworking mother of three trying to earn a living. To me she was just Cora, who showed up most days and helped out however needed. Richie treated her the same way, as did our parents. It’s not like we neglected to say “please” or “thank you”—we weren’t uncivilized—but, looking back, I’m ashamed to admit we enforced a pretty clear boundary between employer and employee that didn’t leave room for anything like love. For a long time, I thought that was the reason why Cora left.
I knew very little about her—I didn’t even know she had children until much later, which illustrates how rarely I thought of her as a person. I didn’t know where she lived, where she grew up, or even how old she was. Years later, my mother told me that Cora lived for a time in a house with dirt floors. My parents didn’t know this until the day Cora’s car wouldn’t start and my father drove her home. He reported that, despite the “rustic” nature of the place, her house was as tidy and clean as Marine barracks. Years later, my mother was proud of the fact that, by employing Cora and paying her decently, she and my father had helped her move to a better living situation.
One summer day, a neighbor friend of Richie’s stopped by. Corny was a big kid who cheated at games and always seemed to have a booger in his nostril—a bat in the cave, as Richie called it. My brother wasn’t home that morning, but Corny didn’t seem to want to leave, so he and I hung out on the front lawn. I remember it as a hot day, and humid. I was uncomfortable in the sun but didn’t feel I had the right, as Corny’s friend’s kid brother, to dictate the terms of our meeting. I didn’t much like Corny, but he was older and thus cooler than me, so it felt like a privilege to be around him, especially without Richie there. He asked me what I was up to this summer and that sort of thing, and I felt important.
After a lull in the conversation—I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t prompted by a question from him—Corny said, “What’s it like to have a nigger working for you?”
Of course, I knew what that word meant, I knew it was a bad word and I was not to use it, but, because Corny was older, I didn’t want to challenge him. So, I shrugged and said, “It’s all right, I guess.”
Corny didn’t pursue it, thank God, and I was relieved when he announced a few minutes later that it was getting hot and he couldn’t wait for Richie any longer. After he left, I remained sitting on the grass until my mother called me inside. Her voice sounded sharp-edged, the way it did whenever I was in trouble.
I found her upstairs in my bedroom with Cora, who was straightening the blanket on my bed. My mother looked angry. Cora wouldn’t look at me.
“You owe Cora an apology,” my mother said.
I looked from her to Cora, whose eyes still avoided mine. “I do?”
“We heard what you boys said.” My mother pointed toward the open window. Outside, the grass glowed bright green in the sun. Inside, the room felt like an oven.
“I didn’t say it,” I said.
Cora stood up straight and said, “It’s okay, Mrs. G.” Sweat shone on her brown skin.
“It is certainly not okay, Cora,” my mother said. “Now apologize right this minute,” she said to me.
I looked at Cora again. She seemed about to cry, which made me cry.
“I’m sorry, Cora,” I said through tears and snot. “I didn’t mean it.”
“You should know better,” my mother said.
Cora nodded at me and bent down to pick up the dirty bedclothes from the floor.
“And that boy,” my mother said, “is no longer welcome in this house.”
“He’s Richie’s friend!” I said, certain this would lessen her anger toward me.
“I don’t care whose friend he is. I don’t like him.”
There came an awkward moment during which I didn’t know what to do with myself. Cora tossed the sheets into the hamper and my mother adjusted my pillow on the bed. They were done with me, so I left.
But that’s not when Cora quit. In fact, after a week or so of awkwardness between us, things returned to normal. I hoped she knew I didn’t mean any harm and was simply embarrassed that my mother had made such a fuss. Still, I wish I’d had the fortitude to speak to her on my own, to explain myself. For, though she never appeared to hold it against me—she continued making me grilled cheese sandwiches upon request, with a smile—I could never shake the feeling that I had let her down.
Two years later, Cora took a week’s vacation and never came back. She wrote a letter to my mother saying she’d found employment elsewhere. She gave no other explanation for her decision to leave us.
“Probably found someone who pays more,” my father said that night at dinner.
“But why wouldn’t she come to me first?” my mother asked. She looked genuinely hurt by Cora’s defection. “Maybe we could have matched their offer.”
“Hold on now,” my father said. “Don’t go offering the next girl more money.”
“Things are changing, Morgan,” she said. “We can’t treat people like Cora poorly.”
“Who’s gonna make those grilled cheeses, is what I want to know,” Richie said. No one paid any attention to him. He’d been suspended from Little League for fighting with another boy, and our parents were torturing him with indifference. Still, I could relate to his question.
Mostly, Cora’s departure left me confused, and I kept thinking of that day with Corny and wondering if she’d left because of me. I was also angry, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. And hurt. I thought back to her last day before her vacation. She’d said goodbye to me and Richie as though she’d be back soon. Did she know she wouldn’t be?
I didn’t speak to Cora until many years later. Just a day or so after my father died, she called my parents’ house. My mother answered and handed the phone to me. “It’s for you,” she said. I don’t think she knew who was calling.
“Hello, Carl.” I recognized the voice right away.
“I just wanted to call and say I’m sorry about your father.”
My mother was looking at me now, so I went into another room. “Thanks, Cora. I appreciate that.”
“He was a decent man.”
It felt strange hearing her voice again after so many years.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. I’m retired now.”
It struck me then that I’d never known how old Cora was.
“That’s good,” I said. “You sound good.”
She told me she was living in a nice little apartment in a senior citizens facility not too far from my parents’ place. Without much premeditation, I asked if I could come visit. To my surprise, she said yes.
When I hung up, my mother sat silently eating her soup, which was all she could manage to digest since my father had died. I could tell she wanted to ask about the call, but in the past few days she’d grown even more passive and quiet than usual. It was like she thought Dad might still be hanging around, waiting to criticize her from the beyond.
“That was Cora,” I told her after a moment, though she’d heard me say her name on the phone just moments earlier.
“Oh?” She didn’t look up from her soup.
“She just wanted to say sorry about Dad.”
I knew what she was thinking: Why did Cora ask for Carl? But I didn’t know the answer any more than she did.
“I’m going to visit her in a couple days,” I said.
“She lives in a senior home on Market Avenue.”
My mother pushed her half-eaten soup away. My father’s wake was scheduled for four o’clock, and she’d been saying all morning how she just wanted all this—the wake, the funeral tomorrow—to be over. The call from Cora seemed to be one more detail weighing on her, so I let it go.
Two days after my father had been buried, I drove over to Cora’s. She lived in a new building on the spot where, for years during my childhood, an apartment building had sat half-constructed after the developer went broke. The new facility was set up like a typical apartment building, though it offered 24-hour assistance if needed. I went up to the third floor and knocked on Cora’s door. I’d expected to feel more anxious, but after the past few days, this didn’t seem quite so daunting. My father was gone forever.
Cora looked remarkably unchanged except for graying hair and perhaps a few extra pounds. She smiled when she opened the door, and I remembered, like in a speeded-up montage, all the times that smile had made me happy as a child. I hugged her, and she offered me some iced tea.
We sat in her small, tidy living room. There was a sofa, an easy chair, a coffee table, a television. Photos of her family hung on the off-white walls. A large window overlooked the parking lot and some trees. Though she’d made an effort to make the place cozy, there remained an institutional atmosphere, one step up from a nursing home.
“You look good,” Cora said, and I wondered how strange it surely was to see me grown up. “You know,” she said, “I saw you once at the grocery store, a few years ago.”
I recognized this response immediately. Whenever I would ask for a grilled cheese sandwich, she’d say “Mm-hmm” just like this.
“Why didn’t you say hello?” I asked.
“Oh, it didn’t feel right, I suppose,” she said. “But I knew right away it was you. Even with the beard. You always had those blue eyes.”
It felt strange, knowing that Cora had noticed and remembered my eyes. It felt intimate.
“I wish you had said hello,” I told her. “I’d have loved to see you.”
“How was the funeral service?” she asked.
I gave her the briefest possible summary while still managing to honor my father. I didn’t mention that one of her many replacements, none of whom worked out as well as Cora, had attended the funeral. I’d been a little shocked to see Willie Mae in the pew, for she hadn’t been with us in years. Hers was the only black face in the church.
I asked Cora how long she’d lived here.
“Almost three years now,” she said. Then she told me an incredible story about her previous residence, a small ranch house where, one night, while she sat watching TV, a car ran off the road and smashed into her living room, avoiding her chair by a matter of inches. “This same chair here,” she said, patting the arm of the La-Z-Boy she sat in.
I didn’t know how to respond. The story was almost unbelievable. Yet I knew it had to be true—Cora had always been honest with me. I pictured Cora in her chair, as she sat now, watching “Murder, She Wrote,” and a car bursting through the wall. In my imagination, Cora barely reacted, which was how she’d respond whenever Richie or I did something stupid, like break a water glass while fighting. She’d just lift an eyebrow and shake her head before going for the broom.
“That must have been terrifying,” I finally said, and she nodded.
“Mm hm. And how is Richard?” she asked.
She was the only one to call him Richard, except my parents when they were angry at him. She’d thrown me off with the question, and I hemmed and hawed a bit before giving her the abridged version: drugs, mental illness, missing, possibly dead.
Cora didn’t seem at all surprised. “Well,” she said, “he was always a troubled boy.”
Her comment took me aback. Until he hit sixteen or so, Richie had always been a good kid. Then it occurred to me that maybe Cora had seen something in him, something off. Maybe he was the reason she left us.
“Can I ask you something, Cora?”
She didn’t respond, just waited, probably knowing what was coming.
“Why did you leave?”
When she didn’t answer right away, I had time to regret asking.
What did it matter now?
“Oh, Carl,” she said. “It’s complicated.”
“Was it something I did?” I asked. “Something I said?”
She looked genuinely surprised. “You? No, no. Both you boys were good, even though Richard could be a handful.”
“What then?” I asked, pushing past my intense relief at her answer.
“It’s not one thing, really,” she said. “Your family treated me fine. I had no problem with you all.”
“Well, what then?”
She looked around the room as if the answer could be found there somewhere, behind the TV, under the table. Finally, she said, “I guess I just got tired of it.”
“Cleaning other people’s houses,” she said. “Raising other people’s children. Washing their sheets and underwear.”
“I get that,” I said. “But didn’t you go to work for someone else after us?”
She laughed. “Oh, dear no. I worked for the telephone company, answering calls. It was a little dull, but no cleaning.”
“No children to deal with either,” I said.
“Oh, Carl, don’t get me wrong. I loved you boys, you know that. But I had my own to look after. That was plenty.”
The look she wore then was slightly defiant—she knew she was right. Still, I felt unsatisfied with her answer. I guess I’d wanted something more dramatic, even if it involved me. Her reasons for leaving turned out to be quite banal, if reasonable. She’d grown weary of caring for other people’s houses and children. And I could not blame her, except that she hadn’t warned us. She could have told us.
But I let it go. I finished my iced tea and told her I needed to get back home. I didn’t want my mother to be alone for too long.
“Give her my best,” Cora said.
At the door, I asked her why she’d asked for me specifically when she called the other day.
“You were always the sensitive one in the family,” she said.
She smiled warmly. “Oh, yes. You’d cry at the drop of a hat. You were a sweet child, Carl.”
I gave her a hug, and she smelled the way she always had, of soap and bread and a tinge of perspiration.
“Goodbye,” she said in a way that communicated finality. There would be no more visits.
Only after she’d shut the door did I realize I hadn’t asked her about her family.