Michelle H. Davis

© Copyright 2021 by Michelle H. Davis

Photo of baby Michelle and Lerdine.

Lerdine is a story written about the relationship between Michelle and the woman who would come to clean her home when she was little. A child of emotional neglect by her mother, Michelle understood even at four years old, that Lerdine was teaching her not only the lessons of keeping a home, but of what it is to love and be loved unconditionally. Although Michelle has not seen her beloved Lerdine since she was 7, these are conversations and lessons Michelle has never forgotten and has carried with her into adulthood.  

It is 1976 and I am pressing my four year old cherub hands and cheeky face on the outside of the sliding glass doors that lead from her patio to the den. The sun warmed glass and humidity in the air aid in my attempt to make foggy prints on the pane, trying not to giggle while Auntie Ms. Lerdine pretends to wipe me away from the inside. 

My goodness” she playfully gripes in her throaty southern drawl, “What this woman been doin’ last few days I’m gone that’s got this silly lookin’ spot on this here window I can’t seem to get off! You seein’ this Nanny May?” 

Yea yea I see it Ms. Lerdine” groans my Nanny May in her sharp Queens tongue. She rolls her eyes both bored with this game for the thousandth time and annoyed at its interruption of her 3:00 date with Days of Our Lives. 

I may just hafta wipe this here window all day Nanny May. Miz Nancy ain’t gonna be happy when she come in from out there in her garden, if she come in that is, an see all I did today was wipe this here silly lookin’ spot. But I just can’t be leavin’ it here now can I Nanny May? Jeez my arm gettin’ tired. I hope this spot disappears real soon!” 

Despite Auntie Ms. Lerdine working exceedingly hard to feign annoyance, her full mahogany cheeks rise to the corners of her eyes as she breaks character and the smile she saves only for me begins to appear. 

Unable to contain myself any longer I slide the door open just enough for me to creep my way through, laughing uncontrollably exclaiming “Don’t wipe me Ms. Lerdine don’t wipe me! It was me! It was me Miss Little on the glass! Don’t wipe me away Auntie Ms. Lerdine! Hahaha I tricked you again! Mommy did you see me? Did you see me trick Auntie Ms. Lerdine again?” 

Well now looka that Miss Little you sure did trick me now didn’t you. You see how Miss Little done tricked me again Nanny May? I’m sure your momma saw you somehow babygirl, I’m sure she did.”

My mom is 200 feet away in her vegetable garden barely visible amidst the jungle of towering Brandywine tomatoes and Sweet Bell peppers. Sometimes I sneak back there myself when she isn’t looking to inhale the fragrant tomato leaves and listen to the bees buzzing harmlessly around my head. I ask even though I know she doesn’t see me or hear me from out there. Or from anywhere really. But I love that Auntie Ms. Lerdine will always tell me she did. Lerdine loves me like that. Like someone who wants me to know that I’m loved. 

Now go ahead Miss Little n’ grab that there rag and Windex spray she like to pay extra for when I told her ‘bout a hundred times a splash of white vinegar will do the job just fine and wipe them little finger face prints of yours off the other side of this glass just like I showed you. Go on now Miss Little, show me you been payin’ attention to what your Auntie Miz Lerdine been teachin’ you. Thaaaat’s right that’s it babygirl you got it. Nice and easy. Just a little spray and nice big circles. You always wash the glass n’ mirrors in nice big circles. You be doin’ it up and down and back and forth the way these other white ladies do it and all you gets is …”  

Streaks! Streaks! Streaks!” I yell out jumping up and down excited to know the answer. “The white ladies make the streaks!”

That’s right my little Miz Little. You have been payin’ attention! You such a smart girl ain’t she such a smart girl Miz Nanny May?”  

Yea she is Ms. Lerdine. I think she may be the smartest little girl we know.” It was a commercial so Nanny May could say more than just a few words this time around. And even Days Of Our Lives would never keep her from giving me a warm smile and making sure I knew I was worth something. 

Now pay attention Miss Little. I’m gonna teach you somethin’ new today.”

I didn’t really need Auntie Ms. Lerdine to ever say “pay attention”. When she was around there was nowhere else I wanted to be. Being loved is like that. You just want to be around the person who loves you. Beneath her intoxicating presence was an undisturbed energy that beckoned me. I was never further than an arms length away. And somehow even as a child I knew that her willingness to be at our home hours longer than expected talking with me and teaching me her craft came from a place of pure, untethered love. The kind I suspected maybe you’re supposed to feel when your mom is teaching you and talking to you and loving you. I guess anyway. 

Ok Miss Little here we go. Now when you vacuum the rugs, always move forward with the machine slowly slowly in a straight line startin’ at the left side of the room. Next lap you movin’ backwards...you see me movin’ backwards here? You ain’t got eyes in the backa’ your head Miss Little so be mindful where you goin’. And here’s your Auntie Miz Lerdine’s secret. Only move the vacuum half a step to the right so you just a bit goin’ over the row you did before a second time. That way you’ll pick up anything you missed the first time around. You see it Miss Little? You see what I’m teachin’ you? Lord knows she will never show you how to take care of your house or your children for that matter cuz we here doin’ it all for her anyway ain’t that right Miz Nanny May? You think Miss Little’s momma ever cleaned a commode or a rug in her life? Haha no mamm uh-uh no mamm I don’t think so.” 

A slight giggle sneaks out when Auntie Ms. Lerdine says “commode” but I am quickly brought back to my lesson. My seafoam green eyes open wide as my gaze quickly shifts from Lerdine, to the flawlessly straight lines she is making on our dijon yellow rug and back to her, hypnotized by both her rhythmic movements and the hushed whirring of the machine. I am acutely aware by her tone that this is vital information she is giving me right now. How to wash my windows. How to vacuum my rug. What it feels like when someone really loves you. 

I am paying very close attention. 

Come upstairs with me now Miss Little and let me show you how to make those beds. When you grown and your arms big enough you make your own bed every day soon as you wake up and get out of it you hear me? You ain’t no animal Miss Little. You deserve to look in your room and see a nice place to rest your head. I ain’t really worried ‘bout you Miss Little. You ain’t a thing like your momma are you? You a good girl who gonna love and respect the things you own. Looka all these beautiful things your momma has here in this house and she can’t take just a minute to keep ‘em looking nice and clean. Not you babygirl nooooo way not my Miss Little. You gonna grow up and be more than happy to show your house some love the way it loves you keepin’ you safe and warm and dry. And you gonna be happy to show your own kids love too ain’t that right? Promise me. Promise your Auntie Miz Lerdine you ain’t gonna have no Nanny May in your house raisin’ kids you call your own. You promise me right here and now babygirl. Ain’t gonna be no Miz Lerdine or Nanny May ever in no home of yours.” 

I never giggle or fidget when we get to this part of the day. This is a promise Auntie Ms. Lerdine asks me to make every time I see her but this time I can tell it's different. This time she stops what she’s doing to slowly lower herself to my level and look right in my eyes so I know that today it is the most important thing of all the important things she has ever said to me ever. 

I promise Ms. Lerdine'' I say, placing my hands on my heart so she knows that I mean it, “I promise and cross my heart that you and Nanny May will be the only Ms. Lerdine and Nanny May I ever know.” 

I didn’t know that that time would be the last time I would make that promise out loud. I didn’t know that we were moving and then my daddy was going away. I didn’t know that Auntie Ms. Lerdine and Nanny May weren’t mine to keep forever. I didn’t know that it’s hard to feel loved without the someone who wants you to know that you’re loved right there with you all the time. Those are grown up things to know. Conversations had by adults after teeth are brushed and kisses are had and little Miss Littles are tucked in for the night by their Nanny May’s. Had I known I would have paid closer attention. I would have listened harder. I would have promised louder. I would have held her gaze without a blink for as long as I could, infusing her love inside my bones. 

I wish I had known. I didn’t know. 

Auntie Ms. Lerdine I’m still little but all grown up now. There is no one here but me to keep my house and raise my kids. My carpets are clean and my windows are so streak free it’s like there isn’t any window there at all. I only use vinegar on my rags. My beds are made every morning as soon as my feet hit the floor. My laundry is crisply folded. My dishes are washed and stacked in the cupboards. And every three days I clean my own commodes. 

My children have known no other mother but me. I am the only mother they’ve known. I have kissed all their booboos and wiped all their tears. I have hugged them good morning and tucked them in sweet dreams good night. I have taught them all that I know about clean homes and loving hearts. I have made sure that they know they are special and loved. I have loved them in a way I'm not sure there is a word for. I have loved them the way you loved me. 

And you were right Ms. Lerdine. I have never once still seen her move a vacuum, or wash a window, or clean a commode. Not once in my whole life. 

Michelle Helaine Davis has been reading, writing and telling stories as long as she can remember. Her love of the English language came from her father’s extraordinary vocabulary and willingness to pause during any conversation he was having to teach Michelle a word’s pronunciation and meaning when she asked, which was often. Most of Michelle’s stories are pulled from true events that have happened during her very textured life. No matter how busy life seems to get she writes every single day. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her two rockstar kids and two perfect pups. 

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