Jesse Youngblood walked into the lobby of the Ayers Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama; her body went ridged, childhood fears revisited as she stopped in front of the elevator doors. The doors opened, she shut her eyes tight and walked quickly through them, and she did not need to have her eyes open to know that the tarnished brass rail was next to her hand. After almost thirty years, Jess still associated the old elevator with a tragic episode in her childhood.
A childhood that was both happy and sad had confused Jesse more times than not; her eyes and nose wrinkled shut she did not know that an elderly man had walked in behind her, he waited for a few moments then began clearing his troth.
“Young lady are you going to just stand there with your eyes closed or do you intend to select a floor?” The voice dripped of southern politeness, yet laced with attitude.
“I’m sorry sir, the tenth floor please.” Her voice apologetic Jesse could feel his irritability, but she kept her eyes closed.
Assuming she was not going to surrender her hold on the railing, he reached out selected his floor and pushed the button for the top floor as well. The antiquated elevator cables creaked and groaned as Jesse counted each floor that they passed, it stopped on the ninth floor; the old man grumbled under his breath as he got off. The intimidating climb continued.
Despite her fear of the elevator, Jesse was excited to be back, five years ago her aunt made the decision to change the building from a hotel to apartments; of course, her Aunt Biana still occupied the entire top floor as she had done since moving into the hotel with her husband. She could not help but wonder how the home she grew up looked with the changes.
Jesse did not have to wait long, the doors opened and so did her eyes, she stepped quickly into the entrance hall where nothing had changed. The tenth floor was like stepping back into time. Mirrors in gilded frames, drawings of known and unknown artists lined the walls; colossal vases filled with multicolored plumes stood tall like sentries at the entrance door. Time had left its mark on everything, the building, maybe the life beyond the door. Jesse did not know what she was going to find on the other side, but she was home.
Opening the door, Jesse found that her aunt Biana’s home was unchanged; the enormous living room still as bodacious as Miss Adeline’s girls over McNutt’s Tavern on the outskirts of town was bursting with familiar flamboyant furniture. Windows draped artistically in imported silks and lace was as awesome today, as they had been the first time she had visited her aunt. The walls, tables, and bookcases held pictures of Jesse, creating a scrapbook of her life. She had grown up inside these walls of dark mahogany panels and swirling alabaster. It had been her playground. Her years in this place had been one of discovery and learning, a time that shaped her future. Suddenly, the clinical smells coming from the hallway leading into the bedrooms assaulted her senses, reminding her of why she was back.
Jesse would soon know as the familiar voice of her beloved aunt Francis bellowed through the hallway. Dressed in black that was only slightly darker than her skin, with a starched white apron Francis spread her arms; pulling Jesse to her sagging bosom hugging and crying until Jesse thought she would burst; she was truly home, home with both her aunts.
Francis cried out, “Miss Jesse you as pale as a ghost, don’t they have no sun in California”?
The person known to Jesse as her aunt Francis came to work for her aunt Biana long before Jesse cam to live with her. Francis had been the grandchild of slaves. To Francis, her baby Jesse unfortunately did not inherit her fathers’ Chickasaw skin, instead she was like porcelain like her aunt Biana; she pulled back from Francis.
“How is she”?
“Oh Miss Jesse, I am so glad dat you are home, I can’t do nothing with dat women, course never could. Says she is going to dat cabin of hers down south and nobody is goin to stop her, you need to talk some sense into dat woman.”
Jesse did not get a chance to say anything; the whirlwind of frustration was already backing into the kitchen, Francis who long ago became her aunt Biana’s housekeeper, then nanny, Jesse knew she had become a close friend and confident. Now she was her caretaker!
Now it was time for Jesse to take care of her, as she did Jesse when she was a child. Hesitating as talons of fear threatened to rip out her heart, she stood gazing through the bedroom door. She stared at the emancipated arms lying above white satin covers; she listened to the struggled breathing echoing from the high ceilings. Sitting in a chair next to the bed was a middle aged woman, rigid, frowning, she looked up at Jesse, lowered the book she was reading, leaned down picking up a brown paper bag, grimaced as she looked toward the bed, and without speaking stomp out of the room.
“Madam, you I suspect is her niece, tell that woman when she wakes that she will not be getting any references from me, I will no longer sit with her and the other shifts have quit; she is impossible.”
Biana had arranged sitters to come in three shifts a day, this would relieve Francis to take care of daily chores, although Jesse knew neither of these proud women would be satisfied with anything other than being by themselves, alone. Jesse’s legs felt like rubber.
A voice, weak, yet confident, laced with an articulate old south accent coming from beneath the covers was none other than that of Biana Youngblood-Ayres, Jesse’ aunt.
“What’s in the world is all the fuss about, I don’t need some tongue wagging, Church of Christ busybody hanging over me trying to get me to ask for forgiveness before I die, good riddance. Come here child, let me see you.” Biana smiled when she laid eyes upon the only child she had in her life.
Jesse looked down at her aunt, now only a shell of the woman she use to be, her flesh clung to deteriorating bones, the long black hair was gone, white stubble remained in its place. She had finally met a competitor that she could not beat, cancer.
Her aunt had kept this terrible news from her for months, and then finally Francis called. Jesse knew that her only concern was to care for and to absorb every moment left in this wonderful person’s life. Biana reached for Jesse, a huge smile exploded from her pearl white teeth through the bright red lips.
“Darlin, we will be leaving for the cabin tomorrow.”
Jesse leaned down patting her aunt’s shoulder, “Hon you are not able to travel anywhere”.
“Jesse, I have no intentions of dying surrounded by honking horns, sirens and the red, foul-smelling steel mills. If I am to die, I want it to be at the cabin.”