by Erica L. Williams
As kids, Regina and I always knew when Grandpa and Grandma Royce were planning a visit. According to Mom, the mark of a bad wife was a dirty house. So, whenever Mom hired a cleaning crew, I knew in the next week my daddy’s parents would arrive. The crew cleaned every crevice of the place, including the baseboards and windows. The house smelled of ammonia and Pine Sol days after they were gone.
Because my mom’s parents, Granddaddy and Grandma Espy, died when we were not old enough to have solid memories of them, my sister Regina and I looked forward to visits from Grandpa and Grandma Royce.
I remember Grandpa Royce having to duck his head inside our home to avoid hitting the chandeliers. Grandma Royce smelled of baby power, and, when she hugged me, white fluffs of powder puffed out from between her breasts.
Grandma Royce always had something to say about Mom’s cooking. She never insulted it, per se, but gave snide comments, such as, “Next time, try putting a pack of gravy mix in your beans. It’ll make them more flavored, and add more thickness.” Or, “Next time you make Brunswick stew, try adding a little vinegar. It cuts down some of the sweetness of the barbeque.”
Mom, not one to back down, would say, “Colson likes it just the way it is, don’t you, Baby?” She’d turn to him, smiling, but I knew that her smile really said, “Back me up, or I’ll give you hell later.”
Daddy, caught in the middle, would blush and change the subject by asking Grandpa how the garden was coming along. Grandma would then turn her attention on Regina and me.
“Regina, are you still thinking about being a beautician?” she asked one visit.
“Actually, she’s thinking about going to Spelman,” Mom said. “As smart as she is, she can get into any university.”
Grandma turned to Regina. “Are you going to college, Honey?”
Regina squirmed in her seat. She was only a high-school freshman at the time, and I knew she hadn’t given a second thought to college.
“I think I’m going to do hair,” Regina said.
Mom turned all shades of red.
“Well, I don’t know a black woman who doesn’t budget money to get her hair done,” Grandma said. “You’ll be fine.”
Mom cut her eyes at Regina.
“Thanks, Grandma,” Regina said. “Before you leave, I’d love to do your hair and show you the latest style I designed.”
Grandma Royce giggled like a young girl. “I’d be tickled. I’ll tell all my friends my grandbaby did my hair. Give them old folks in Ashville something to be jealous of.”
Regina, who had been trying to get Mom to try out the same style for months, smirked.
Grandma then turned to me. “What about you, Sweet Pea, how are you doing?”
The weight of the question suffocated me. Daddy and Mom were arguing nonstop. According to Regina, current rumor had it that Daddy was dating a woman in Fort Mill. What could I tell her that she would actually want to hear?
When Grandma looked at me, it seemed as if she had special powers to read my mind. I wanted to turn my head and break her focus, but I couldn’t.
When I didn’t answer her question, she’d touched the mole on my cheek and said, “Ten-years-old and still cute as a button.”
In between talking with Daddy, Grandpa snapped pictures of us at the dinner table, smiling like the happy family we weren’t.
“Evelyn, this food so good I might have to make you pack up some so I can take it with me,” Grandpa had said. We all knew that it was his way of making up for Grandma’s sly insults.
As part of Charlotte’s “better class,” Grandpa and Grandma Royce, in their formative years, had moved in the same affluent circles as the Espy’s. Grandpa Royce worked as a photographer, becoming one of the first colored people to be hired by the local newspaper. Grandma Royce taught secondary school.
During Grandpa and Grandma Royce’s era the upper echelon black folks prided themselves on being “better” than the lower-class blacks or, as they were commonly called, “the masses” or “poor sorts,” who embarrassed the race by doing such unearthly things as holding raucous Holy Spirit camp meetings and baptizing God’s new converts out in public.
Ironically, the better class prided themselves on racial pride and solidarity, but bragged about possessing a certain social decorum that separated them from the rest of the blacks. Unlike, the “masses” who hung out on corners in drunken stupors, they held invitation only social events in each other’s homes where they could drink until they were tipsy without the world seeing. The better class organized clubs and mingled with each other to discuss the issues that concerned them.
Mom took pride in being brought up to believe that she was better than everyone else. Daddy, on the other hand, became a lawyer to serve the underserved, setting up a legal-defense fund for people who couldn’t afford the expensive lawyers.
“Every time we pass down Beatty’s Ford Road, I think of your father and all the stores he had and such,” Grandma then said to Mom. “They’re just empty dilapidated buildings now. Such a shame. We use to have such fun with the Espy’s. How fortunate for you to have been adopted by them.”
Mom flew up from the table as if she’d been slapped.
“Did I say something wrong?” Grandma feigned innocence. Just like everyone else, she knew that Mom desperately tried to erase the fact that she’d been adopted, and under no circumstances wanted it discussed, ever. Mom never liked to be reminded that she wasn’t born a part of the better class. By blood she was a part of the masses. Grandma Royce took a sinister pride in reminding Mom of that. Clean house and all.
Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. She currently lives in Baton Rouge, LA. “Better Class” is an excerpt from her yet to be published novel Savannah Road. Her work has appeared in Kansas City Voices and Necessary Fiction. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ericalwilliams3.