Women of the Early Harlem Renaissance: African American Women Writers 1900-1922

Mary Elizabeth (Story by Jessie Redmon Fauset)

[From The Crisis, December 1919]

Mary Elizabeth was late that morning. As a direct result, Roger left for work without telling me goodbye, and I spent most of the day fighting the headache which always comes if I cry. For I cannot get a breakfast. I can manage a dinner, one just puts the roast in the oven and takes it out again. And I really excel in getting lunch. There is a good delicatessen near us, and with dainty service and flowers. I get along very nicely. But breakfast! In the first place, it's a meal I neither like nor need. And I never, if I live a thousand years, shall learn to like coffee. I suppose that is why I cannot make it.

"Roger," I faltered, when the awful truth burst upon me and I began to realize that Mary Elizabeth wasn't coming. "Roger, couldn't you get breakfast downtown this morning? You know last time you weren't so satisfied with my coffee."

Roger was hostile. I think he had just cut himself shaving. Anyway, he was horrid. "No, I can't get my breakfast downtown!" He actually snapped at me. "Really, Sally, I don't believe there's another woman in the world who would send her husband out on a morning like this on an empty stomach. I don't see how you can be so unfeeling."

Well, it wasn't "a morning like this," for it was just the beginning of November. And I had only proposed his doing what I knew he would have to do eventually. I didn't say anything more, but started on that breakfast. I don't know why I thought I had to have hot cakes! The breakfast really was awful! The cakes were tough and gummy and got cold one second, exactly, after I took them off the stove. And the coffee boiled, or stewed, or scorched, or did whatever the particular thing is that coffee shouldn't do. Roger sawed at one cake, took one mouthful of the dreadful brew, and pushed away his cup. "It seems to me you might learn to make a decent cup of coffee," he said icily. Then he picked up his hat and flung out of the house. I think it is stupid of me, too, not to learn how to make coffee. But really, I'm no worse than Roger is about lots of things. Take "Five Hundred." Roger knows I love cards, and with the Cheltons right around the corner from us and as fond of it as I am, we could spend many a pleasant evening.

But Roger will not learn. Only the night before, after I had gone through a whole hand with him, with hearts as trumps, I dealt the cards around again to imaginary opponents and we started playing. Clubs were trumps, and spades led. Roger, having no spades, played triumphantly a Jack of Hearts and proceeded to take the trick. "But Roger," I protested, "you threw off." "Well," he said, deeply injured, "didn't you say hearts were trumps when you were playing before?" And when I tried to explain, he threw down the cards and wanted to know what difference it made; he'd rather play casino, anyway! I didn't go out and slam the door. But I couldn't help from crying this particular morning. I not only value Roger's good opinion, but I hate to be considered stupid. Mary Elizabeth came in about eleven o'clock. She is a small, weazened woman, very dark, somewhat wrinkled, and a model of self-possession. I wish I could make you see her, or that I could reproduce her accent, not that it is especially colored, -- Roger's and mine are much more so -- but her pronunciation, her way of drawing out her vowels, is so distinctively Mary Elizabethan! I was ashamed of my red eyes and tried to cover up my embarrassment with sternness.

"Mary Elizabeth," said I, "you are late!" Just as though she didn't know it.

"Yas'm, Mis' Pierson," she said, composedly, taking off her coat. She didn't remove her hat, -- she never does until she has been in the house some two or three hours. I can't imagine why. It is a small, black, dusty affair, trimmed with black ribbon, some dingy white roses and a sheaf of wheat. I give Mary Elizabeth a dress and hat now and then but, although I recognize the dress from time to time, I never see any change in the hat. I don't know what she does with my ex-millinery.

"Yas'm," she said again, and looked comprehensively at the untouched breakfast dishes and the awful viands, which were still where Roger had left them. "Looks as though you'd had to git breakfast yourself," she observed brightly. And went out in the kitchen and ate all those cakes and drank that unspeakable coffee. Really she did and she didn't warm them up either. I watched her miserably, unable to decide whether Roger was too finicky or Mary Elizabeth a natural born diplomat.

"Mr. Gales led me an awful chase last night," she explained. "When I got home yestiddy evenin', my cousin whut keeps house for me (!) tole me Mr. Gales went out in the mornin' en hadn't come back." "Mr. Gales," let me explain is Mary Elizabeth's second husband, an octogenarian, and the most original person, I am convinced, in existence. "Yas'm," she went on, eating a final cold hot cake, "en I went to look fer 'im, en had the whole perlice station out all night huntin' 'im. Look like they wusn't never goin' to find 'im. But I ses, 'Jes' let me look fer enough en long enough en I'll find 'im,' I ses, en I did. Way out Georgy Avenue, with the hat on ole Mis' give 'im. Sent it to 'im all the way fum Chicago. He's had it fifteen years, high silk beaver. I knowed he wusn't goin' too fer with that hat on. "I went up to 'im, settin' by a fence all muddy, holdin' his hat on with both hands. En I ses, 'Look here, man, you come erlong home with me, en let me put you to bed.' En he come jest as meek! No o-me, I knowed he wusn't goin' fer with ole Mis' hat on."

"Who was old 'Mis,' Mary Elizabeth?"

I asked her. "Lady I used to work fer in Noo York," she informed me. "Me en Rosy, the cook, lived with her fer years. Ole Mis' was turrible fond of me, though her en Rosy used to querrel all the time. Jes' seemed like they couldn't git erlong. 'Member once Rosy run after her one Sunday with a knife, en I kep 'em apart. Reckon Rosy musta bin right put out with ole Mis' that day. By en by her en Rosy move to Chicaga, en when I married Mr. Gales, she sent 'im that hat. That old white woman shore did like me. It's so late, reckon I'd better put off sweepin' tel termorrer, ma'am."

I acquiesced, following her about from room to room. This was partly to get away from my own doleful thoughts. Roger really had hurt my feelings but just as much to hear her talk. At first I used not to believe all she said, but after I investigated once and found her truthful in one amazing statement, I capitulated. She had been telling me some remarkable tale of her first husband and I was listening with the stupefied attention to which she always reduces me. Remember she was speaking of her first husband. "En I ses to 'im, I ses, 'Mr. Gale, --'"

"Wait a moment, Mary Elizabeth," I interrupted, meanly delighted to have caught her for once. "You mean your first husband, don't you?" "Yas'm," she replied. "En I ses to 'im, Mr. Gale, I ses --'"

"But Mary Elizabeth," I persisted, "that's your second husband, isn't it, -- Mr. Gale?"

She gave me her long drawn "No-o-me! My first husband was Mr. Gale and my second husband is Mr. Gales. He spells his name with a Z, I reckon. I ain't never see it writ. Ez I wus sayin' I ses to Mr. Gale --'"

And it was true! Since then I have never doubted Mary Elizabeth. She was loquacious that afternoon. She told me about her sister, "where's got a home in the country and where's got eight children." I used to read Lucy Pratt's stories about little Ephraim or Ezekiel, I forget his name, who always said "where's" instead of ''who's,'' but I never believed it really till I heard Mary Elizabeth use it. For some reason or other she never mentions her sister without mentioning the home too. "My sister where's got a home in the country" is her unvarying phrase.

"Mary Elizabeth," I asked her once, "does your sister live in the country; or does she simply own a house there?"

"Yas'm," she told me. She is fond of her sister. "If Mr. Gales wus to die," she told me complacently, "I'd go to live with her." "If he should die," I asked her idly, "would you marry again?" "Oh, no-o-me!" She was emphatic. "Though I don't know why I shouldn't, I'd come by it hones'. My father wus married four times." That shocked me out of my headache. "Four times, Mary Elizabeth, and you had all those stepmothers!"

My mind refused to take it in. "Oh, no-o-me! I always lived with mamma. She was his first wife."

I hadn't thought of people in the state in which I had instinctively placed Mary Elizabeth's father and mother as indulging in divorce, but as Roger says slangily, "I wouldn't know." Mary Elizabeth took off the dingy hat.

"You see, papa and mamma --" the ineffable pathos of hearing this woman of sixty-four, with a husband of eighty, use the old childish terms! "Papa and mamma wus slaves, you know, Mis' Pierson, and so of course they wusn't exackly married. White folks wouldn't let 'em. But they wus awf'ly in love with each other. Heard mamma tell erbout it lots of times, and how papa wus the han'somest man! Reckon she wus long erbout sixteen or seventeen then. So they jumped over a broomstick, en they wus jes as happy! But not long after I come erlong, they sold papa down South, and mamma never see him no mo' fer years and years. Thought he was dead. So she married again."

"And he came back to her, Mary Elizabeth?" I was overwhelmed with the woefulness of it.

"Yas'm. After twenty-six years. Me and my sister where's got a home in the country -- she's really my halfsister, see Mis' Pierson, -- her en mamma en my stepfather en me wus all down in Bumpus, Virginia, workin' fer some white folks, and we used to live in a little cabin, had a front stoop to it. En one day an ole cullud man come by, had a lot o' whiskers. I'd saw him lots of times there in Bumpus, lookin' and peerin' into every cullud woman's face. En jes' then my sister she call out, 'Come here, you Ma'y Elizabeth,' en that old man stopped, en he looked at me en he looked at me, en he ses to me, 'Chile, is yo name Ma'y Elizabeth?' "You know, Mis' Pierson, I thought he wus jes' bein' fresh, en I ain't paid no 'tention to 'im. I ain't sed nuthin' ontel he spoke to me three or four times, en then I ses to 'im, 'Go 'way fum here, man, you ain't got no call to be fresh with me. I'm a decent woman. You'd oughta be ashamed of yorself, an ole man like you!" Mary Elizabeth stopped and looked hard at the back of her poor wrinkled hands. "En he says to me, 'Daughter,' he ses jes' like that, 'daughter,' he ses, 'hones' I ain't bein' fresh. Is yo' name shore enough Ma'y Elizabeth?' "En I tole him, 'Yas'r,' '''Chile,' he ses, 'whar is yo' daddy?' '''Ain't got no daddy.' I tole him peart-like. 'They done tuk 'im away fum me twenty-six years ago, I wusn't but a mite of a baby. Sol' 'im down the river. My mother often talks about it.' And oh, Mis' Pierson, you shoulda see the glory come into his face! "'Yore mother!' he ses, kinda out of breath, 'yore mother! Ma'y Elizabeth, whar is your mother?' "'Back thar on the stoop,' I tole 'im. 'Why, did you know my daddy?' "But he didn't pay no 'tention to me, jes' turned and walked up the stoop whar mamma wus settin'! She wus feelin' sorta porely that day. En you oughta see me steppin' erlong after 'im. "He walked right up to her and giv' her one look. 'Oh, Maggie,' he shout out, 'oh, Maggie! Ain't you know me? Maggie, ain't you know me?' "Mamma look at 'im and riz up outa her cheer. 'Who're you?' she ses kinda trimbly, callin' me Maggie thata way? Who're you?' "He went up real close to her, then, 'Maggie,' he ses jes' like that, kinda sad 'n tender, 'Maggie!' and hel' out his arms. "She walked right into them. 'Oh! she ses, it's Cassius! It's Cassius! It's my husban' come back to me! It's Cassius!' They wus like two mad people. "My sister Minnie and me, we jes' stood and gawped at 'em. There they wus, holding on to each other like two pitiful childrun, en he tuk her hands and kissed 'em. "'Maggie,' he ses, 'you'll come away with me, won't you? You gona take me back, Maggie? We'll go away, you en Ma'y Elizabeth en me. Won't we Maggie?' "Reckon my mother clean forgot about my step-father. 'Yes, Cassius,' she ses, 'we'll go away.' And then she sees Minnie, en it all comes back to her. 'Oh, Cassius,' she ses 'I cain't go with you, I'm married again, en this time fer real. This here gal's mine and three boys, too, another chile comin' in November!'" "But she went with him, Mary Elizabeth," I pleaded. "Surely she went with him after all those years. He really was her husband." I don't know whether Mary Elizabeth meant to be sarcastic or not. "Oh, no-o-me, mamma couldn't a done that. She wus a good woman. Her ole master, whut done sol' my father down river, brung her up too religious fer that, en anyways, papa was married again, too. Had his fourth wife there in Bumpus with 'im." The unspeakable tragedy of it! I left her and went up to my room, and hunted out my dark blue serge dress which I had meant to wear again that winter. But I had to give Mary Elizabeth something, so I took the dress down to her. She was delighted with it. I could tell she was, because she used her rare and untranslatable expletive. "Haytian!" she said. "My sister where's got a home in the country, got a dress look somethin' like this but it ain't as good. No-o-me. She got hers to wear at a friend's weddin', -- gal she wus riz up with. Thet gal married well, too, lemme tell you; her husband's a Sunday School sup'rintender." I told her she needn't wait for Mr. Pierson, I would put dinner on the table. So off she went in the gathering dusk, trudging bravely back to her Mr. Gales and his high silk hat. I watched her from the window till she was out of sight. It had been such a long time since I had thought of slavery. I was born in Pennsylvania, and neither my parents nor grandparents had been slaves; otherwise I might have had the same tale to tell as Mary Elizabeth, or worse yet, Roger and I might have lived in those black days and loved and lost each other and futilely, damnably, met again like Cassius and Maggie. Whereas it was now, and I had Roger and Roger had me. How I loved him as I sat there in the hazy dark. I thought of his dear, bronze perfection, his habit of swearing softly in excitement, his blessed stupidity. Just the same I didn't meet him at the door as usual, but pretended to be busy. He came rushing to me with the Saturday Evening Post, which is more to me than rubies. I thanked him warmly, but aloofly, if you can get that combination. We ate dinner almost in silence for my part. But he praised everything, -- the cooking, the table, my appearance. After dinner we went up to the little sitting-room. He hoped I wasn't tired, -- couldn't he fix the pillows for me? So! I opened the magazine and the first thing I saw was a picture of a woman gazing in stony despair at the figure of a man disappearing around the bend of the road. It was too much. Suppose that were Roger and I! I'm afraid I sniffled. He was at my side in a moment. "Dear loveliest! Don't cry. It was all my fault. You aren't any worse about coffee than I am about cards! And anyway; I needn't have slammed the door! Forgive me, Sally. I always told you I was hard to get along with. I've had a horrible day, -- don't stay cross with me, dearest." I held him to me and sobbed outright on his shoulder. "It isn't you, Roger," I told him, "I'm crying about Mary Elizabeth." I regret to say he let me go then, so great was his dismay. Roger will never be half the diplomat that Mary Elizabeth is. ''Holy smokes!" he groaned. "She isn't going to leave us for good, is she?" So then I told him about Maggie and Cassius. "And oh, Roger," I ended futilely, "to think that they had to separate after all those years, when he had come back, old and with whiskers!" I didn't mean to be so banal, but I was crying too hard to be coherent. Roger had got up and was walking the floor, but he stopped then aghast. "Whiskers!" he moaned. "My hat! Isn't that just like a woman?" He had to clear his throat once or twice before he could go on, and I think he wiped his eyes. "Wasn't it the --" I really can't say what Roger said here, -- "wasn't it the darndest hard luck that when he did find her again, she should be married? She might have waited." I stared at him astounded. "But Roger," I reminded him, "he had married three other times, he didn't wait." "Oh --!" said Roger, unquotable, "married three fiddlesticks! He only did that to try to forget her." Then he came over and knelt beside me again. "Darling, I do think it is a sensible thing for a poor woman to learn how to cook, but I don't care as long as you love me and we are together. Dear loveliest, if I had been Cassius," he caught my hands so tight he hurt them, -- "and I had married fifty times and had come back and found you married to someone else, I'd have killed you, killed you." Well, he wasn't logical, but he was certainly convincing. So thus, and not otherwise, Mary Elizabeth healed the breach. 

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