Florence

by Joan Colen

            Jerry looked like an old possum hanging there by the side of the pool.

            I was watching Florence ironing as she talked about my boyfriend. He’d taken the train back to the city. She filled the iron with water and put the sleeve over the narrow part of the board and  began to iron one of my father’s shirts. Perfectly.

            How do you do that so it’s so perfect?

            Child, this ain’t nothing. My grandmother always said if you’re gonna do something, do it right.

            I didn’t want to talk about what she thought of Jerry. I was no child but I’d known Florence since I was. Now I was a single mom, desperate to be married again. I was visiting my parents in Greenwich. Jerry had come for the weekend. But Florence who never minced words couldn’t resist.

            I think he’s as ugly as old Leon who looked like a mugwump. I remember you had me ironing his ratty undershirts. Full of holes. She laughed.

            Leon was the man before Jerry. He said he was a writer but he worked for the IRS. We even lived together for a while. I broke up with him when he finally let me read what he was writing and because when I wasn’t home one day, Florence said:

Joanie, when you’re not here, he’s as mean as a snake to Susie.

            I was sixteen in the late fifties when mother hired Florence to clean and do our laundry; I never learned how my mother found Florence. I guess it doesn’t matter now.

            We were living in Scarsdale then; I was the typical, awkward, suburban hating preadolescent. In the fifties everyone watched TV shows like “Father Knows Best’ and “Leave it to Beaver” and Jewish families tried to fit in. The only black people we saw were chauffeurs, cooks and maids.

             Florence came on the train from Harlem and mom picked her up at the station every Thursday. She always dressed for the train ride, a pencil skirt, sometimes a pill box hat, stockings and heels. She had a terrific figure back then. Soft, dark wavy hair framed her face. Her skin was light, her lashed long. When she got to the house, she’d change into a uniform mother provided. All the ladies who worked for mother’s friends wore the same-blue, grey or pink cotton  ones with a round white collar and an eyelet apron. The uniform didn’t change Florence.

             I’d leave my clothes on the floor as I changed from one outfit to the next for school trying to look thinner and never succeeding. The diet pills mom took weren’t helping me. The machine that gave little electric shocks didn’t work on my thighs, and the Metrical I brought in a thermos to school , I dumped in a sink in the Girl’s Room.

            Joanie, pick up those damned clothes you leave all over your floor!

            Isn’t that why mom has you!?

            She kind of gasped.

            If you were my child, I’d hit you upside your head. Do you know what you’re saying? You should be very ashamed of yourself.

            Years later when I was grown, taught in Harlem and cared about civil rights I remembered this incident with remorse.

            Florence was married to a long-distance truck driver named Allie. She had three children but didn’t about her past. As I grew older and our lives came together every other Thursday, she began to tell me more.

            She’d only gone the eighth grade in school and lived with her grandmother; but each of her children went to college. She picked potatoes and strawberries bushels of them. We were paid by the bushel. I was the fastest. She worked at diners as a cook. She left out the hard times she must have had, perhaps knowing I could never understand. When Allie died, she never told me why or how.

            Every year, Florence cooked Thanksgiving and went home late with some of ours, for herself.

She warned me about Sam, my first husband. She noticed a lamp on the floor of my parent’s house and knew somehow, he’d bashed it in.

            Why is that good standing lamp mashed up like that?

            It just fell over.

            And it just so happens it was when Sam was here when your folks were out? He’s a typical man, child. And a man is part dog.

            I wished I’d have listened to her. But then I’d never have Suzanne. Suzie as Florence called her.  When I was a single mom living in the apartment I’d  once shared with Sam, Florence was there on Thursdays.

            When I finally met the man I later married, Florence approved. His name was Jay. Our baby daughter, Danielle, looked so like him that she called her “Little Miss Jay.”

            By the time I was a grandmother and my own mother died, Florence was still coming every other week to do my ironing. Terrible things had happened to Florence by then. One of her daughters, Shirley, died. A stroke. Her son in law was killed in an accident. Bill with whom she lived and was the love of her life after Allie, died too. But Florence wanted to work, to talk, to still see me.  And I loved our talks and her memories of my mother and father, though not always so flattering.

            Your daddy used to sneak your brother money, Joanie, behind your mother’s back. You know he spoiled that boy forever earning his own.

            When Florence agreed with something I said. I loved it when she’d reply:

            You got that right!

            Florence was feeling ill. Her blood pressure was high. The death of her daughter made her weak and suddenly frail. Jay and I sent her to our doctor.  We didn’t trust Medicaid.

            She was eighty-five and still coming to do my ironing.  Perfectly. Piles of it.

            What did the doctor say?

            He asked if I was still having sex.

            By then we were both laughing.

            What was your answer?

            What’s that? I said.

            One day, a few months after her visit to the doctor, I came home and  Florence doubled over.

            Flo, what happened?

            Joanie, do you have an aspirin?

            Let me take you over to the ER at Lenox Hill.

            Just give me an aspirin.

            OK, but please let me take you.

            Joan, haven’t you ever taken a turn?

            Florence sat down on the bed in what used to be called the maid’s room. I knew her neighbor Cynthia had a car and used to take her places after Bill died.

            Flo, at least call Cynthia to pick you up. And tell her to take you to Harlem Hospital.

            I’d visited her there once. I forget why.

            Then I called my husband.

            Make sure she gets to the hospital, Jay said.

            I waited downstairs with the doorman until Cynthis pulled up and he helped her into the car.

Jay rang the doorbell ten minutes later. He’d come home to take Florence to Lenox Hill. But she had left.

            Next day I called Florence. She said she was fine. Three days later Cynthia called.

            Florence was dead.

            She wouldn’t let me take her to the hospital. You know how stubborn she is. Was. She was like a mother to me. Cynthia cried.

            Me too, I thought.

            If only I had taken her, if only Jay would have been ten minutes earlier. If only I hadn’t given her all that ironing.

            Her Grandson Chris called me.

            “Snooky, he called her that, loved your family.”

            He invited me to the funeral which was in the town in Virginia where she was born.

            I didn’t go. I sent a check.

About the Author

Joan is a retired teacher. She has been writing fiction for the past fifteen years. Her work has appeared in your journal, Pensive, Adanna, and The East Hampton Star.