My grandmother, Frances Lillian Avery Batson worked as a maid for the Jewett family in Upper Nyack. My life-mate and I recently moved into a cottage on the property near the “big house” where the Jewett’s once lived. My grandmother would often bring her daughter, Adeline and her granddaughter, Sylvia with her to work. Sylvia would play piano and violin at parties. My grandmother and aunt would prepare meals, provide table service and clean up.
We have placed my grandmother’s favorite chair in a place of honor over looking the Hudson River. She fought the good fight, she finished the race, she kept the faith and now she has a cozy seat with a view near where she once toiled.
Like many prized possessions of families without abundant means, this chair was almost lost forever. Few can afford to maintain or store furniture from previous generations. These items are lucky to be given away or sold. Most often, they are literally dumped on the thrash heap of history.
In the constant shuffle of expanding and contracting families, grandma’s chair was sent off to be reupholstered and got abandoned at the antique store. I have Muhamad Mahmoud of Antique Masters to thank for its salvation. With one broken arm, sagging underneath the weight of threadbare fabric, the weakened chair was no longer suited for seating. So I brought it to Mohamad. I was lured by his sign “Bring me your broken chair, old lamp and your damaged table, and I’ll fix it and save you money.’
I paid for the service, but did not return when the work was completed. We were in a very cramped apartment and could not find room for the precious piece of furniture.
In desperation, I tried to donate the chair to the collection of a local historic preservationists. I argued that the chair represented the middle-class black community in the center of town along Jackson Avenue that had been destroyed by urban renewal. That this chair was the last thing standing. But alas they did not have the space for furnishings.
Despite my lack of retrieval of the chair (that I had by that time left behind for two years), it was not discarded or sold-off to cover the cost of storing it, instead Muhamad hung on to it for me. He understood the importance of the chair. One day as I walked down Main Street, on the opposite side of his shop in a not so subtle attempt to avoid Muhammad’s gaze, this earnest and honorable man intercepted me and said, “It’s your chair, come and take her back.”
It just so happened that Marisol and I had just moved into the cottage on the Jewett estate. And suddenly, in a bolt of recognition, I realized that the stars had aligned for my grandmother to return to her place of employment. (Thank you, Mohamad. My family is eternally grateful).
Chairs were very important in our household, or any hardworking homestead. Elders got special chairs that no one else could sit in. If you were cheeky enough to rest in one that was spoken for, you had to vacate from your surreptitious squat swiftly, when the rightful chair-heir arrived.
The chair would face the window with the most bucolic vista, or be closest to the fireplace or TV, whichever centerpiece families would gather around. In later years, with the advance in chair technology, the chair of honor would be the one that reclined.
As one aged, one got closer to inheriting the chair. The music of a funeral dirge would elevate you to that seat. I took my dad’s chair when he passed.
My father loved his chair. As a working man, he would rest his Schlitz beer on the TV tray and watch the news. During his slow decline, he would recline and bounce his feet when we’d play the music of his youth. He looked so secure in his seat. He was there for two meals each day and probably too much television watching and many naps. His chair might as well have been at the helm of a ship that sailed seas or flew through space. There, he was master and commander.
As supreme as my family may have felt at home, outside the house in the 30s, 40s, 50s, ad 60s things weren’t so sanguine for people of a darker complexion. American custom and culture of racial hierarchy dictated lesser roles. Even though my aunt had her own business, Batson Secretarial services, and my grandmother was a civic leader and a deacon, with as much power as any man or minister in her church, in the world of work, they were given servile parts to play.
But even within confines of the oppressive order that relegated one gender and any non-white person to servitude or second class citizenship, (a state of things that is shockingly still in effect), the Batson family never bent the knee.
My aunt rose close to the apex of public service as the Deputy Village clerk for the Village of Nyack and my grandmother most certainly was a competing matriarch in the homes that she visited dressed as a domestic. For example, in addition to her domestic duties she double as a Latin tutor. As a child she would have me recite Cicero’s speech to the Roman Senate given in 63 BC: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra!
On holidays, in the 70s, for as long as she had the strength, my grandmother continued to help her families with large meals. As a teenager, I found the arrangement wholly unacceptable. She would stay up all night before Thanksgiving cooking for us, but then leave the family table on the morning of the holiday to help others find comfort around their hearth.
There must have been some intense compassion that drove her to leave those she loved so much to work so hard for others. She most have found that the money that she received paid more than bills, but allowed her to share her love by deepening the security of her progeny. She owned her home, but I’m sure she succumbed to the reality that houses always need fixing.
And the families that she visited must have treated her in a way that kept her from retiring her crisp white maid’s uniform. I had a public school classmate in Teaneck, David Geller who had family from Nyack. They were lucky enough to have my grandmother tend to their holiday table. When we made the connection that my grandmother worked for his mom’s family, I detected only a reverence at the fact and no superiority in his tone.
My grandmother’s chair came back to the Jewett estate in a trip that she bought and paid for with a life of service, dispatched without bitterness or contempt.
I need to take to her chair more often. I will find something very important sitting quietly there.