The Gift Keeper
MY BLACK ANGEL: FINAL CHAPTER
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, feels similar to other southern cities we’ve visited during our travels. The campground where we parked our RV last night is close to the University of Arkansas campus, with its noisy, youthful energy. But driving just a few blocks has brought us into a quiet neighborhood, past front porches where old folks sit in their rocking chairs drinking iced tea. The distant sound of the drumline practicing for an upcoming football game is the only reminder that this is a college town.
We’ve come to Pine Bluff to meet with members of our Bahá’í Faith community and to talk about their race unity initiatives. Our host, Peter, who we learned yesterday is the only White professor at the university, has arranged to meet us here this afternoon to visit an elder member of the community.
Miss Esther’s home sits on a corner, in a row of small, wood-frame houses. We walk through the sagging front gate and past a well-tended flower garden that hums with bees. The steps slant this way and that, but the porch is swept clean. Peter puts his face right up to the door. “Hello! It’s Peter, Miss Esther,” he hollers while knocking. “I’ve brought some visitors.”
“Coming! Coming!” we hear her call from inside.
“Take your time, Miss Esther. No need to hurry,” shouts Peter.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” she says, and swings open the door. Miss Esther’s whole face smiles. I would have guessed her to be in her 60s, but Peter told us she’s nearing 90.
She beckons us in and says, “Please sit down. I’ll get us some liquid refreshment.” Peter moves to help, but she waves him toward the couch.
I settle into a rose-colored armchair and look around. Every horizontal surface in the tiny, crowded living room is covered with figurines of angels. They cluster on the bookcase, mantle, and side tables; they line up in single file along wall-mounted shelves. Most have their hands folded in angelic reverence, but a few point a finger or hold out a hand to guide some yearning soul. One cradles the Baby Jesus. Their wings are spread out in flight or folded behind robes of varying colors. There’s only one obvious thing they all have in common. Every one of them has a white face.
Miss Esther comes back carrying a tray of tall glasses, and I brace for the sugar rush of Southern sweet tea. “What do you make of my collection?” she asks.
“Amazing!” I say. “How many do you have?”
“I’ve lost track,” she answers. Over a hundred, last time I counted.” She takes a long, slow drink of the amber tea, watching us over the rim of her glass. I still find it difficult, when I’m with Black folks, to distinguish between Southern hospitality, genuine warmth, and a show of friendliness designed to keep a White person comfortable. But Miss Esther’s eyes give her away. They seek connection like a thirsty root seeks water.
“These folks live in a motor-home, if you can believe it!” says Peter. “They come from Chicago and now they’ve been all over the place.”
Then, swiveling his head to look at me and Gene, he says, “Tell her the story about the Black astronaut.” With one sentence he has made it okay to speak openly about race, and I’m grateful to him for this guidance. I’ve learned the hard way that many Southern African Americans have no desire to talk about race with unknown White strangers sitting in their living room.
Miss Esther leans forward in her chair as we tell stories about Black women and men who have challenged us to examine our beliefs about race. We pause frequently so she can ask questions or share her own stories, but she says only, “Oh my!” or “Well, I’ll be!” or “Imagine that!” and then urges us to continue.
After a while, she puts her empty glass down on a coaster, rearranges her slight body in her chair, and looks up, as if waiting for her next words to appear on the ceiling. “I ask you now,” she says, “as you’ve been so many places and seen so many things, I wonder, in all your travels, have you ever seen a black ceramic angel? I’ve been a collector for many, many years, but—as you can see—I’ve only ever found . . . well . . . I could only find white ones.”
This is one of those moments. We’ve all had them, haven’t we? Something that was misaligned falls into place with such solidity that you’re sure it made an audible sound.
“Oh my goodness! Wait right here!” I nearly shout as I jump out of my chair. “I’ll be right back.” I half-run out the door, down the slanty stairs, and around the corner to my car.
Our campground is only a couple miles away, and it takes me less than 20 minutes to drive there, retrieve the purple-ribboned box from under the bed, and return to Miss Esther’s house. In my absence, she has served up shortbread cookies and the conversation has turned to lighter subjects.
I hold the box out in front of me with both hands, as if presenting a crown to a queen. “This is for you,” I tell her, “from DiAnn in California. Careful, it’s very fragile.” Saying this makes me smile.
She unties the ribbon, opens the box, and lifts the glass globe from its fluffy nest. None of the things people tend to say when they get a gift—Are you sure? Oh I can’t accept this! Oh you shouldn’t have!—none of this is spoken. Her lips tremble a little, and she presses them together. I tell her DiAnn’s story. When I get to “I guess you’ve never been to heaven,” the corners of her lips rise slightly.
Miss Esther inspects the gold stand, apparently finding it sufficiently substantial, then centers it on top of her television—a sturdy piece of furniture that isn’t going anywhere—and hangs the glass ball from its hook. “I’m going to set her right here on top of my TV, where I can look at her all the time,” she says.
The brown-skinned angel turns back and forth on her stem, taking in all the members of her angelic choir.
Not long after our visit with Miss Esther, DiAnn’s body became too fragile to hold her mighty spirit, and she moved on to direct other heavenly choirs. I was only one of many people whose lives were touched by the gifts she left behind.
For a time, I was a gift-bearer. The Black angel worked her magic as she rode in her cocoon of bubble wrap under our bed in the RV. She was the carrier of DiAnn’s love, which I wrapped in a protective layer and stowed in my heart. Although the angel was not mine to keep, the love stayed with me. It held me as the years and the miles went by and I built friendships with more and more Black women. Some of those friendships flowed easily; others were complicated and required more patience and time to build trust.
And always my Black angel watched over me.
Phyllis Unterschuetz is a writer, storyteller, and the co-author of Longing: Stories of Racial Healing. She writes about racial justice, self-discovery, and spirituality and is currently working on a memoir about healing from a traumatic, illegal abortion.
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