Who was Essie May Jones? To me she was the smartest woman I had ever met. She was strong and steadfast yet kind and fun. She would take a bus twice a week to visit us when I was growing up. At first, I remember her being a shy lady who would only talk if I asked her questions. I must have made her crazy at first because that's all I did. I wanted to know all about her. I learned about her childhood in the South and how different and fun it was. How she could play outside without shoes. She was allowed to go to school with all her cousins and when it got really hot, she could go swimming in the lake just in her undies. To me it sounded like total bliss.
She educated me on so many things like ironing, making beds, waxing furniture and most of all soap operas.
My love of Niagara Spray Starch was born. I would be able to spray my father's handkerchiefs before she ironed them. Then, after the iron was cooled off, I could pretend that I was ironing with rags. To me, Essie was everything my mother was not. She never got mad or yelled. Her patience was endless.
As a child of the sixties, I would see the way African Americans were treated. My frustration was evident even back then. How can all of this be happening to people like Essie May Jones? I loved her. She was a constant comfort to me in my crazy dysfunctional childhood. Couldn't she get mad at these bad people and teach them love and kindness? I think my path was already being paved on those very days as I watched the news and saw the police clubs being cracked over innocent heads just because their skin color was different.
Yes, times were changing and there was excitement in the air. The music took on a quality of peace. I was getting older and Essie soon would be sharing her Tarrytown cigarettes with me. She had a restless quality about her too. Her boys were older and many times they were giving her trouble. Her bus rides to the suburbs were tiring. I will never forget the day she told us that she had gotten a job at Alexander's department store and she would be leaving us. My heart sank. She was everything to me, a mother, a best friend and a teacher. How would I grow up without her?
I never saw Essie May Jones again. My mother would get a Christmas card from her every year but that has stopped. In my heart, I always thought that someday I would find her. Now with the Internet, I have searched endlessly to find her and let her know what she meant to me. It may never happen, but I will always carry her in my heart and I know she has paved the way for many other women of color who needed to find a better life. Her determination, her fearlessness and strong resiliency was something I had admired and copied many times in my life. Her impact on me as a young girl and now as a grown women has never wavered. Gone are the days of African-American women cleaning houses and taking care of white people. I hope that Essie May Jones is still on this beautiful planet taking pleasure in how she and so many others of her generation were the first role models for women's independence from working only as a domestic.