The Jewel in the Crown



Herbert St. & Scotten St. Detroit, MI

Neighborhood: Uncategorized

[The following was originally published in “Piece From Life’s Crazy Quilt,” a collection of personal essays about growing up in Detroit in the 1920’s, 30s, and 40s by Marvin V. Arnett. The collection first appeared in 2000, as part of the University of Nebraska Press’s “American Lives” series (Series Editor: Tobias Wolff), and the University of Nebraska Press has shown considerable kindness in permitting us to post it here.]

My world was one of ever-changing parameters. Each succeeding year expanded both its physical and emotional boundaries until eventually they extended to the edges of the four continents and to the capacity of the human heart. But that state was reached many decades later.

In the beginning of memory, the boundaries were limited to the distance between my hands and the hem of my mother’s dress. By the age of four, they had stretched to the five rooms that comprised our flat and the attached L-shaped porch. By the time I entered kindergarten, they included the backyard and the sidewalk in front of our building. Within this space, many a life and death drama was played out. But none more tragic than the loss of my sister, the “Jewel in our Crown.”

Since William was ten years old when Jewel died, and I was only five, much of what I learned about her death was related to me by my brother. Although his knowledge of the facts surrounding Jewel’s death was far better than mine, from a vantage point deep within my heart, dim images emerged that helped to fill the gaps in his story.

Like most tragic stories, it began at a point filled with light. It was June 1933. School was out, and vacation Bible school had yet to begin. A golden time! The only weeks of the summer vacation that belonged utterly and completely to the neighborhood children. Since I would not attend kindergarten until the following September, my joy was tempered by a lack of understanding of how deeply my brother and sister valued the freedom of those days. As Mother’s constant companion, every day was free to me. I did relish the fact that now I had my siblings available all day long to harass and annoy instead of just for a couple of hours in the evening.

Jewel convened her annual play school for which, as usual, there was no lack of students. To understand why every kid in the neighborhood–including boys twice her age–were more than willing, even eager, to participate in her play school, you would have had to know Jewel. She was the beloved “Jewel” of the entire neighborhood. Her appeal was not limited solely to those who knew her. Even in the highly prejudicial world of the 1930’s, it was not unusual for my mother, when accompanied by Jewel, to be stopped numerous times while both men and women, black and white, stooped to smilingly admire the beautiful little girl. She was that rare individual who looked uniquely like herself.

Many years later a cousin sent me a color photograph of my brother and sister taken when he was eight and she was six years old. Although the photo was taken with black-and-white film, the photographer had, as was the custom of the day, colored it using pastel water tints. There they stood; she in a pink-lace-trimmed, baby doll dress, a wide ribbon in her hair, and white lace stockings peeking from the tops of her three-button, high-top shoes. My brother, resplendent in a navy blue double-breasted suit worn with a white ruffled shirt, stood beside her with his left arm thrown protectively around her shoulder. With her creamed coffee complexion, dimpled cheeks, wide set blue-green eyes, and soft, curly black hair, she looked more like a beautiful cherub then the child of a poor working-class Negro family.

If Jewel had an attraction for people, that attraction was multiplied when it came to animals. When she joined us on the front porch on a summer evening, our stoop immediately became a gathering place for animals of all descriptions. Stray cats and mongrel dogs assembled from everywhere. They seemed content just to lay at her feet in wait for the occasional light caress she would bestow on each of them. When she would leave the porch to work on one of her Bible scrapbooks, they would immediately wander off.

Oddly enough, my brother and I did not resent the attention paid to Jewel. Somehow we knew she was entitled to special treatment. A family friend, Mrs. Eubanks, summed it up best when she said, “I think God made a mistake when he allowed her to slip through. Why, she’s one of his angels as sure as I’m sitting here. Jewel’s just too good for this world.”

Mother would mumble, “Don’t say that, Annie,” and quickly change the subject.

One Sunday afternoon, when Jewel joined us on the front porch, we spotted a newcomer among her usual cortege of animal friends. It was a large taffy-colored cat. She was different from the usual stray animal seen in the neighborhood. Sleek, well-fed, and meticulously groomed, she was obviously a well-loved member of some family. Father said she was probably lost from one of the large houses on the boulevard. Night after night the cat reappeared, and night after night Jewel fed her a saucer of milk. Over time, everyone accepted her as Jewel’s cat, and Father made a bed for her on the back porch. William and I voted to name her Taffy because of the color of her fur, but Jewel insisted on naming her Sunburst. So Sunburst it was, and we soon grew to think of her as a member of the family.

Fall came, and school resumed. On my first day of kindergarten, I met Beatrice, a kindred spirit, who was to become my best friend. Together we would seek adventure and find it in ways we could not have imagined.

As fall deepened, the mornings became crisp and cold. Frost formed on the tops of bushes and fences, and the sound of birgs disappeared. One afternoon, when Jewel said it was getting too cold to leave Sunburst on the back porch, Father replied, “Cats have been living outside since the beginning of time. Why should it be any different with Sunburst?”

Despite his words, one tearful glance from Jewel resulted in his moving Sunburst’s bed to a place inside the backdoor. Gradually, the bed eased its way back to the corner of Jewel’s sleeping alcove, there to lose its occupant to the warm shelter of Jewel’s arms. Each morning found Sunburst fast asleep on her shoulder.

Halloween came and went, and the Thanksgiving holiday loomed invitingly. Already Mother was sifting through the canned goods in the kitchen pantry to determine what she had on hand versus what she would need to prepare the high feast of the year. Not even our Christmas meal came close to the groaning board set forth for the Thanksgiving holiday. No matter how tight money was, Mother always came up with a varied assortment of entrees, side dishes, relishes, and homemade desserts. Topping of this cornucopia of culinary delights would be the ubiquitous freezer of peach ice cream, prepared from fruit Mother had canned in the early fall. Even Jewel would tear herself away from her scrapbooks long enough to compete for a lick from the freezer’s dasher.

But this Thanksgiving something was different. While my brother and I badgered my mother in the kitchen–snatching finger licks of icing from the cakes cooling on the sideboard and fighting over who would get the batter-covered mixing bowl–Jewel remained in bed with the covers pulled over her head. Ever since the beginning of the school term, she had seemed to grow increasingly tired and listless. Jewel had always been the first up in the morning, but lately Mother had to call her two or three times each morning before she would slowly drag herself up. On Thanksgiving morning, when Mother finally went to prod her awake, she found Jewel lying, semi-comatose, in a sweat-soaked bed. I will never forget the sound of my mother’s voice as she screamed over and over again.

The days that followed were a complete blur. Mother and Father disappeared for long periods of time. Aunt Bessie said they were at the hospital sitting with Jewel. She was in a deep coma caused by something called spinal meningitis. My parents left early in the morning and returned late at night. Some nights I would awake to the sound of someone crying, only to have my father come and pat my back while humming me back to sleep.

Nothing was going right. Everyone in the family had to be tested for meningitis. Sunburst had disappeared, and my brother and I could not find her anywhere. When my father came home one day and asked, “Where is that damn cat?” we knew something was very wrong.

Our aunt told us the doctors thought Jewel might have caught her illness from Sunburst. Aunt Bessie, ever the optimist, tried to cheer us up by saying, “Thank God your tests came back negative.”

Every man in the neighborhood joined in the search for Sunburst but without success. Hope of ever finding her had faded when one of the Scott boys ran across her body in the narrow pathway between the Eubanks’ and Loomis’ houses. She had been shot. The lab technicians at Receiving Hospital said her body was so riddled with bullets that it was impossible to test it for the meningitis virus. Neither the Eubanks or Loomis families reported hearing gunshots, so the matter was dropped. Then, one afternoon in mid-December, my parents returned from the hospital early, and all conjecture ended. My sister, Jewel–beautiful Jewel–had died.

While my mother spent the days followed the funeral locked in her bedroom with only an occasional sob to prove she was still alive, my father spent long hours consoling my brother and me. Only his unusual silences and bloodhsot eyes told the story of the deep pain he felt. One day, nearly two weeks after Jewel’s funeral, my brother overheard Father say, “Bessie, this has gone on long enough. What must the children be thinking?”

Our aunt sighed and said, “I know. Let me talk to her.”

Later that evening Aunt Bessie went into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. As hard as we strained to hear, we heard nothing. Father sat at the dining room table holding his head in his hands. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Aunt Bessie came out of the bedroom. She nodded to my father, gathered up her coat and hat, and left the house.

I don’t believe my brother and I slept at all that night. When we finally did drop off, we awoke to the smell of bacon frying. When we peeked around the doorjamb, we saw Mother in the kitchen moving busily from stove to table to icebox, humming softly under her breath. When she spied us, she called out, “You children had better hurry and wash up before your food gets cold.”

In unison we broke for the bathroom that annexed the back porch. As he pushed past me, my brother punched me in the side, slowing my progress just long enough for him to bolt ahead into the bathroom. A wave of hope swept over me. Perhaps in time our lives would return to normal. Perhaps in time all would again be right in our world. I turned toward the kitchen. I could still hear Mother humming her favorite hymn. As I rounded the corner and entered the kitchen, ripe with the aroma of brewing coffee, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Mama! Mama! William hit me!”

[From “Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt” by Marvin V. Arnett by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2000, 2003 by Marvin V. Arnett]

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