This is the year that Charlotte died. Strange that in the end I should find her death so significant, so haunting, because, in fact, I hardly knew her. Yes, over the years I had spoken with her on the phone a number of times and read the cards she sent to the house, but I had never met her in the flesh. Charlotte was for me never more than a voice, a spirit, a hand-writing, vestiges embedded in memory, in the history of our home.
Charlotte was important to my husband, and hence to me, a crucial link in what can aptly be called a tale of two cities. She was a de facto ambassador, an exceptional figure persistently shuttling back and forth to us, calling to us, and testifying to us, across a racial divide.
Her long personal connection with my husband, maintained variously through a complex blend of friendship and spiritual and financial generosity, stretched back several decades, connecting our white, affluent, north-side household to the realities of African-American life on Chicago’s tougher south side.
A matriarch as well as an experienced housekeeper and nanny, Charlotte came to work in Bob’s household when his only child (now twenty-something) was a small boy. Charlotte was, in that long period, a powerful daily presence, providing practical care, encouragement, and spiritual inspiration to a family that, while materially fortunate, was ultimately riven by its own complex difficulties. Regardless of the day’s proclivities, or those of history, Charlotte was invariably a full embodiment of Christian belief, frankly and enthusiastically spreading the gospel of God’s love.
She was long retired and gone from the scene by the time my husband and I met and married. But Bob’s appreciation of Charlotte, now elderly, and the needs of her family, was enduring. He sent her a fixed sum monthly to ease her retirement, a ritual occasioning their monthly exchange of notes and calls. Charlotte always sent cards with a religious theme, her copious thanks scribbled in notes full of enthusiasm and affirmation, seasoned with scraps of apt Biblical quotation.
Besides several adult children, some of whom lived with her, Charlotte’s family included a woman a decade younger than herself named Muriel, a once-homeless friend whom Charlotte had adopted. Bob sent food to Charlotte’s family every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Almost always it reached them, though the massive package of food was once stolen from their porch.
When Charlotte was ill, her daughter Felicia, an ordained minister who led a small church, would call with the news. One day Felicia called to say her mother had fallen and broken her hip. It proved to be an injury that would not heal. Charlotte, suffering from some sort of infection, spent many months in a rehab facility; after that, she never returned home for very long.
The last time I spoke with her, she sounded composed, still fervently faithful but frail, filled with a hope that, no matter what came, God’s joy would come, too. In the end, her heart gave out, a death sudden-seeming to those of us accustomed to thinking of her as only ill, perhaps even recovering.
Her affectionate soul, transcending the differences of a benighted urban society, is gone, leaving us only with abstractions, and the recollection of an unmatched example of confidence and faith.