Oneida joined our family on my fifth birthday and remained with us until I was in high school. Under her tutelage, I learned how to cook, clean and iron. I learned humility and patience. I learned how to hug with my heart. Oneida was love in an apron.
We celebrated my fifth birthday at the country club: my friends forced into their party clothes, the requisite cake and ice cream, mountains of presents, and a clown to entertain. Oneida's previous employer was a general from Carswell Air Force Base who entertained other officers often. Undoubtedly, a room full of five-year-olds was a significant change, but it was one that she handled obediently, gracefully, with a quiet dignity. The same way she did everything.
"...and He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own..."
The sweet sounds drifted through the house like freshly baked bread. Soft and low, quiet yet joyful...Oneida's "kitchen singing" calmed and comforted me. Beating egg whites and kneading biscuits accompanied the hymns. I would sit on the counter, dangling my feet above the floor, and simply be with Oneida.
She exuded love from every pore. Hugging Oneida has always been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. It wasn't just a physical hug....her hugs traveled from her heart to my soul. Strong, gentle arms enveloped me and pulled me close as I sank into her soft pillow body. Surely this is what is feels like to sit on a cloud, surrounded by angels and celestial mist.
"Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home..."
Oneida wore the proper attire for a domestic worker: a clean, pressed uniform, usually in white or blue (black for formal occasions...always), and a white apron tied around her waist. The apron served many functions: a place to wipe dirty hands, a hot pad, a rag, a tear wiper. She was a fabulous cook, mastering everything from fluffy cheese souffle to the flakiest pie crust. I adored her biscuits; no recipe required, regardless of number. She kneaded them with experienced brown hands in a rhythm that was as ancient as the tides. Next, the flour-dipped glass revealed perfect circles, ready to be baked to a golden deliciousness.
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me...."
One day, Oneida, my brother and I went downtown. I don't remember the purpose of our adventure, but I recall the journey. Going downtown on the city bus was as exciting as it was rare. I wanted to sit near the front so I could see out the big window, but Oneida's "place" was in the back. At the time I didn't understand why I wasn't allowed to sit where I pleased. After all, Oneida rarely said "no" to me. I did as I was told, even though the full implication of that event wouldn't hit me until years later. I wish I had conversations with Oneida about her life. I didn't understand the differences everyone else saw. When I looked at her, she was just....Oneida. I adored her. Today, it makes me angry to think about discrimination. And it makes me particularly angry to think that Oneida was ever hurt because of someone's ignorance or stupidity.
"Blesses assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine...."
Some time in my 20's, I called Oneida for her biscuit recipe.
"Oh, Baby, I don't know! I never measured," she laughed.
A few days later, I received a call.
"I worked it out for you, Baby," she said. "I hope it's alright."
"Not to worry, Oneida, you taught me well. I'm sure they'll be wonderful." (They are always tasty, but I've never been able duplicate Oneida's biscuits the way I remember them.)
Oneida retired when I was in high school due to "high blood" and "very close" veins. My brother and I visited a few times a year, eventually taking our children with us. My daughter became "Baby" and I became "Miss Claire." A few years ago, she moved to Oklahoma due to health issues to live with her sister and we lost touch. Recently, I looked for her again; I wanted to tell her how much she truly meant to me. My parents were busy people; Daddy had his business and Mother spent her time volunteering, getting her hair done, and shopping. Oneida gave me the attention I craved (and needed), skills to use as an adult, and the undeniable feeling of being loved...unconditionally.
In my search, I found Oneida's obituary. She died less than a week after my mother in 2005. Although I believe she would never allow me to consider her my mother, in many ways she was the one who raised me, taught me, hugged me and loved me. She was there. Please don't misunderstand, I loved my mother and miss her, but we definitely had our "issues."
I plan to visit Oneida's grave in Oklahoma in the near future. I don't believe that she's "there" but I want to make the trip...to say good-bye...to tell her what she meant to me...and to find out exactly how old she was! I knew she was older than my father (who died at 95 in April 2011), but never by how much. Really, I just want to be with her again.
My sweet Oneida.....I love you!
Have you had a special relationship with someone who wasn't a part of your family? Was there someone in your childhood who loved you unconditionally?
Have you been there?