We all have a story. The story of Susie Lee Collins was a simple one in the time that I knew her. However, outside of our individual life story, we all carry with us an energy, simple or complex, that may or may not shape the lives of those around us. Susie had a very strong energy, and in a very few years, without intent, she shaped my brother and myself into who we are today.
I was perhaps three years old when Susie Lee Collins arrived in our home, and 12 or so when she left. Back in the day, Blacks used to take the bus up from Detroit to the Community Center in the city in which I lived, looking for day work. Maybe they found it and stayed for the day and then returned back to the city that night. That was where my mother went one day looking for a day worker to clean the house, and she returned with Susie. At the end of the day, when it was time to go back to Detroit, Susie said “I brought clean underwear.” She stayed with us for ten years.
Susie came to us, with no education, I believe from somewhere in the South. I think she had a daughter and a couple of grandchildren in Louisiana or thereabouts. My father was an executive at Ford and was able to secure a birth certificate for her, perhaps a bit after-market, but it was enough to get her registered with Social Security. I honor my father for doing this and paying her and her social security. These values seem to be lost these days.
Susie was our cleaning lady, cook, baby sitter and substitute parent, as my mother and father were well caught up in their own lives. My parents used to eat dinner alone together at night, and Susie would feed us earlier. I would often ask what was for dinner, and more often than not, Susie would reply, “yalls gettin the leavins”… which meant we were getting the rest of whatever my parents ate the night before.
Susie taught me to cook, ordered me to clean, made me eat every scrap of food on my plate, but mostly she taught me to love someone of a different color and social status just as much as I loved my own parents. I have a housekeeper to this day, but every morning after I wake up, I make my own bed. It is a habit I learned that I never lost. I never leave any food on my plate. I make eggs – pan scrambled – the same way I did when I was five, and I don’t leave any dirty dishes in the sink overnight.
To a three-year-old, Susie was huge. It seemed she was as wide as she was tall. I think at heart she was a country girl. She told me once that she and her brother used to work clearing land of trees. Her brother would chop down the trees, and she would climb them and sway back and forth so they would break earlier. Maybe that was a story, but maybe not.
One time she got disgusted watching workers trying to move a big ornamental plum tree that they had nearly dug around the base in our back yard. She just went down gave it a big twist and set the root ball outside the hole. She made a little house for me in the lower back yard next to a willow tree. She made the frame out of woven willow branches and the walls out of hay. When, I slept there the first night, I learned I had hay fever in a bad way. Susie cried for three days and never left my room until I was well again.
She also kept a few nice willow switches, as she called them, behind the door of her room, and when my brother or I acted up at night she would, with great fanfare, head off to get the willow switches to supposedly whip us. This was our cue to get in bed and hunker down beneath the covers which she would come and tap ever so lightly.
Susie was very religious, and as her room was next to mine, I noticed she always watched Oral Roberts as he went about curing the blind and deformed. I used to sit on her bed with her and watch sometimes.
My most profound memory was the day JFK was shot. Of course they let school out, which excited me, an eight-year-old, much more than the shooting of a president I did not know. I ran home to tell the news to Susie. I found her sitting on her bed crying up a storm while watching her tv. She just grabbed me and hugged me and kept crying. I guess in that sad moment she was looking for comfort and love. I cried with her a little and said “don’t cry, Susie,” and it was all right.
Mostly for me, when I was a child, Susie was a warm safe place. She was as sweet and gentle a person as I have ever known. She played with me, made me work, scolded me, comforted me when I was in pain and most of all helped me to understand that there was really no difference between the races, just as there is no difference between a blue eyed and a brown eyed person. This was her everlasting gift to me and has molded my belief system through adulthood. I am a much better man and father because of her. Even 40 years on I miss her.
(Kurt Hoffman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)