Sunday, August 08, 2004

NDAWNIS -annie

I loved Annie. Friends brought us together when I moved to Los Angeles –eventually to marry her nephew. But that is not the story I want to tell. AnnieBelle lived more than life, she lived between the earth and the sun. She danced across your heart. She cooked and shared meals of love and laughter. Generous, saucy, pudding-shaped Annie. Smooth like butter and acorns, she smelled like persimmons and marigolds, juicy-sweet and sultry. Her voice was deep ---quiet running, heavier than water. She could have been a torch singer. When she listened you could see ideas chasing across her pupils and when she spoke gregarious, giggling laughter filled those eyes as if all the world was there for rejoicing. She was a native American woman unlike any woman I have since met. She was the synthesis of America shining with gifts --generously spread with open arms.
We both had left our mother’s home to follow our own will. AnnieBelle was the eldest of ten children and left home at fifteen because there was little food --she wanted meat on the table. She had originally left southern California to go to Illinois around 1928 –just 4 years after native Americans were granted citizenship by the U.S. Congress. By the time she got to Chicago, she was hired as a chaufferette by a local judge and his family. They took her in despite the views of the community and treated her as one of their own children. When it was time to move on AnnieBelle bought a car to ride the south wind.
She had seen the black and silver coupe with a red stripe down the side, parked just in front of her favorite dress shop. She asked about the car. The man laughed and said she could not afford it, and probably didn’t know how to drive it. She asked him to name his price. He stopped, looked her over, and named a higher than expected price. Did he have the pink slip with him? She took him to the bank offices to close the deal. The man was flabbergasted when the banker smiled and asked them to sit down, calling AnnieBelle by name. When the negotiating was done, she went to the ladies room to count out the cash she carried in her money belt.
That evening, the judge told her how he had gotten a phone call during court recess, laughing with the banker over the look on the poor man’s face as AnnieBelle proceeded to sign the papers chatting happily.
AnnieBelle knew how to be happy and welcome you into her world. When you walked into her home there was laughter, like music all around you. Her spirit took secret sorrows away. I loved Annie’s small, beautiful home. Silk-covered down cushions on the sofas and chairs; paintings, crystal candle holders and thick carpets. It was not what you would expect from a native American --much more luxurious and it had the hospitality of my grandmother’s house.
AnnieBelle had been a caterer and knew many of the best names in Beverly Hills. Famous people she had cooked for would call to see how she was doing and she would tell me about their secrets after she hung up the phone –the ones who wouldn’t pay, the diseases they caught from whom, or how mean and stingy this one treated her family or how many unclaimed children that one had . . .
I loved living with her. AnnieBelle lived by her own choices, she knew why she made decisions. And she knew more secret things than could be imagined. After buying her car she had gone east and met Billie Holiday in Baltimore. AnnieBelle loved to have a good time. She loved jazz. But most of all she loved to dance. She became one of the opening numbers for Billie’s show.
Short, chubby, red-headed and freckle-faced she had became a fan dancer and a stripper –she wore a bright pink bathing suit under her long flamingo colored plumes. She showed me the scrapbooks of pictures from their travels and she often protested that she had never danced naked in public.
The years following the financial crash were dangerous lynching times for blacks and native Americans. The saying was that when cotton prices went down brown people flew up. Billie’s most famous closing song was Lewis Allen’s poem, “Strange Fruit.” The song reminded Billie of her own father’s death. AnnieBelle told me that their travels in the south were too traumatic and weighted them all down bringing destructive drug problems for Billie.
Soon Annie decided to settl down and married a numbers runner in Kansas City. It was hard for poor people to get an education. Her husband “had a head” for numbers but had to support his mother, brothers and sisters. He went from odd job to odd job and could not make enough until he became a numbers runner.
He didn’t think he could do it. A numbers runner took bets on dogs, ponies, ball games, anything that could a book maker could offer odds on. The runner had to keep the numbers in his head so there was nothing on paper for the authorities to use against him. He had to remember the clients’ bets and the odds that were offered. A runner often got beat up when people lost their bets and had to pay up. But if he kept everyone happy he could make more than enough to take care of his family and keep meat on the table.
I loved Annie. I eventually married her nephew not knowing I would be marrying the whole family –not just AnnieBelle but everyone –her jealous, competitive sister Zephyr with her tall, quiet eagle-nosed husband Isaiah and their nine children, plus Isaiah’s father and brother’s families.
Their welcome was wide and I appreciated every bit of it.


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