My One Good Nerveby Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis (Introduction)
"My One Good Nerve" is an exuberant collection of writings in the down-home tradition by that incomparable icon of the human spirit, Ruby Dee. Married for 50 years to fellow actor Ossie Davis, Dee has led an astonishingly full life. But she has never forgotten where she comes from as an African American woman. Fans who have admired and drawn strength over
"My One Good Nerve" is an exuberant collection of writings in the down-home tradition by that incomparable icon of the human spirit, Ruby Dee. Married for 50 years to fellow actor Ossie Davis, Dee has led an astonishingly full life. But she has never forgotten where she comes from as an African American woman. Fans who have admired and drawn strength over the years from Dee's outspoken human rights advocacy and unforgettable characters are rewarded here with many glimpses into her memories and convictions. This book is an inspiration and a blessing.
- Turner Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1 Lots of people, including myself, are longing for impossibilities.
I write about the things my baby sister LaVerne and I used to reminisce about together as a way of keeping her close to me. I used to do all her fighting for her. She brought out the protector in me. She knew she could always count on me to be there for her at crunch time, and I was, too. Except for the last time I heard her call my name. I heard it coming all the way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, but at the time I didn't believe calls for help could come through the air and not on the telephone. Besides, I knew I would be going to Vegas in another ten days. I let that word, "tomorrow," and thoughts of "later" beckon me instead. Ten days later she had died, and I didn't get to embrace her or say good-bye when I could have.
I used to tease LaVerne about how much more of our childhood she remembered than I did. The South. Harlem. Of course, I remember some things perfectly, like one particular woman, a retired teacher, who used to visit our mother. Even her laughter seemed sad. My mother rented rooms in our spacious apartment up on Sugar Hill, mostly to domestics. They lived with us a long time and only came home on Thursdays, every other Sunday, and on their one week vacation during the year.
Life exacts a high toll, sometimes all at once, and sometimes bit by bit.
I have a younger sister who remembers everything. I believe she even remembers being born- what it was like inside and so forth.
Her memories have helped to inform me of who I am and why I feel the way I do about certain things. Take poverty, for example. She said that when I was a baby I was put to bed in a dresser drawer be-cause the folks who kept me during a parental shift of emphasis were very poor and couldn't afford a crib. So, poverty came to mean a gasping for breath in darkness, a claustrophobic condition where you could smother to death unless you were big enough and strong enough to kick the drawers open.
Every summer, my mother used to take us to Chester, South Carolina, to visit her people. I have some of my own memories about that time. The South came to mean thick milk, bitter greens, great big ol' biscuits, and oh such sweet peaches, flies, heat, quilting with my grandma, hugging my bearded grandfather who smelled of tobacco and horses and sweat. It was a good smell.
Back then, I thought there was no such thing as ugly white people and I thought all mean people looked like conductors. My sister says I once kicked a conductor who got our mother upset and threatened to put us off the train when she couldn't find the pass we traveled on. I thought the boogeyman wore white sheets and all colored people were good and sang spirituals. And when something bad happened, they grunted and said, "Humph! Ah Lord!" And when they died they got hung on trees.
My sister asks sometimes, "Remember those horsehair mattresses we slept on and how we'd bury our faces in the pillows because that coarse linen smelled so fresh?" I really do remember the sound of the screen door banging and all the bustling around and excitement when it came time for us to leave and looking forward to the heavy lunch Grandma had packed for us to eat on the train. Then there were my cousins, Sipp and Jay. Sipp's name was really Esther. But big Jay would always be clowning around. He used to make us pretty rings out of peach pits. He'd put a bead in the middle of it and he'd say, "See that. That's a diamond. Don't tell nobody I never gave you nothing." He had one joke he'd tell. I don't remember what it was but the punchline was, "Niggers just ain't no good."
One time, my brother Edward showed him his medals that he'd won in school for running and jumping and Jay said, "I bet you stole 'em. I bet the only medals you ever won were for running to the table and jumping in the bed."
And when it came time for us to get on the wagon and head out for the train depot, he and Edward would chuck rocks at each other until somebody would tell them to stop.
South was where almost everybody we knew came from. South was where you went to visit in the summertime or brought people away from who were in trouble. When somebody died, you took the body back home, down South. South was where my mother had taught school. South was where colored people had a lot of land that peanuts and cotton sucked dry. They couldn't hold on to it, so they just walked off and left it; or there was land where the old folks got killed and somebody took it. South was where chickens came from and where you could see pigs and ride horses, milk cows. Later South was stories about swamps and snakes and alligators and walking in ditches so white folks could pass, and South was about running away. It was Billie Holiday singing, "Southern trees bear a strange fruit." South was where that same cousin Jay came back home from the war, sat on the edge of his bed in his uniform, put a pistol in his mouth and blew his brains out. "Humph! Ah Lord!"
South was a scary place where skeletons and ghosts cracked pecans in the night. It was a warm, loving/ hating, sensuous, personal, personal place. Whenever I hear somebody say, "I'm from the South," it sounds like a confession.
Oh yes, my sister remembers a lot and she helps me remember some things too. I told her she's the one in the family that ought to be a writer. I believe she could fill a book from just memories.
Three Finger Freddie
Being black in the U. S. of A. can be especially hard on some people. Three Finger Peg Leg One Eye Hook Freddie was one of those people. As you may guess from his accumulation of names, the vicissitudes of blackness had chopped him up pretty bad. None of his friends and few of his family ever thought he'd live long. I know I didn't, but he is still hanging in there.
My name is Axel, the closest thing to Freddie's best friend, you might say. Perhaps one reason we got so close is-- well, I'm an insignificant-looking person, and Freddie is so big and black and important looking. Opposites attracting and all that. Now Freddie never would have been good-looking, but his present condition made him look downright scary and hard for somebody to think about hiring. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
You see, he got the name of Three Finger when he was still a boy. One day after regular school hours, he was experimenting around in the chemistry room when the custodian opened the door and startled him by yelling, "What the hell you doing in there, nigger?"
Freddie dropped the concoction he'd been working on, which exploded and blew off two of his fingers. On top of that, he hurt his head as he fell to the floor. He remained in a coma for two days. When he came to, the first thing he said was, "I am not a nigger. I ain't a nigger. I ain't."
Then he told his momma and me what happened. Now we believe that it was being called a nigger like that, that was at the root of the robbery of Freddie bit by bit and brought on his present predicament. The word became like a red flag to a bull. He just naturally went crazy anytime some-body called him a nigger-- especially somebody white. It stands to reason that that kind of sensitivity can be costly. Even though, over the years, Freddie inflicted a lot of punishment on a lot of people, he himself suffered the loss of some pretty important parts.
Alright. The two fingers he lost were on the left hand. Then he lost all of his right hand in an ax fight he had with a guard on the chain gang. I never did get all the details on the stick fight he had with some bruiser in Louisiana where he lost his left eye. He lost a leg when a bus got in his way as he was crossing the road to deal with another white "brother" who had said, "Come on over here a minute, nigger, please. I got something I want you to help me with." His momma and I had warned him over and over: "You can not let ignorant people rile you up like this. You can't keep a-gettin' mad every time some fool-- no matter what they color-- gets it in his head to call you a nigger. Keep on like this and you will lose your behind."
I said, "Define yourself. You know who you are." "He's not been himself since that explosion in high school," his momma said.
"I am not a nigger. I ain't a nigger. I ain't," the by now Three Finger Peg Leg, etc., Freddie would protest over and over, sitting with his face in some corner whenever his spirits got real low. Now, it's not so easy for a grown black man to get a job even when he has all his parts and all his faculties. An off-and-on twenty-year prison record doesn't help much either. So, naturally, after his momma passed, the question of where he was gonna get the money to survive began to worry him. Even before the loss of his various parts, he had been particular about what kind of work he wanted to do. For example, he didn't want to be a bouncer. "Just because I'm big and black and strong, I don't want to get paid for knocking people around," he said.
But the circumstances of how life had . . . intercoursed him up, mitigated against his having many choices.
Fortune had been kinder to me, however, who learned early, thank God, how to put the fact of my blackness in a more realistic, business perspective. I now owned a combination restaurant-club in a good location. Every now and then, Freddie would come by, before things got underway in the evening, and sit down and play a game of checkers with himself, using his three fingers to move the red checkers and the hook he had for a right hand to move the black.
The place was filling up pretty good this particular night and I really wanted Freddie to go home. But he kept steady pushing those checkers and arguing with himself from time to time, "I am not a nigger. I ain't a nigger. I ain't."
The combo that entertained starting with the cocktail hour took a break, and I saw Freddie slowly get up. I thought he was fixing to leave or going over to talk to the musicians, so I wasn't prepared for what happened. Freddie hop-walked over to the little stage and sat down at the piano. With the three fingers, he began to play a rhythm in the bass that made everybody in the place turn around. Then he'd slide that hook, or hop it, all over the treble while he beat out another rhythm on the floor with the peg. After a while, it seemed that the hook got caught in some high notes and a sound came out like a wail. It reminded me of Coltrane, the way he could hammer a phrase that conjured up colors and gave vibrations concrete form in midair. The customers stopped eating, drinking, and talking and just listened. Then, all of a sudden, they stood up and shouted and clapped. I even saw some of them crying. From time to time, Freddie would grunt and mumble under his breath. I knew what he was saying.
Later that night, Freddie started in again and the people got up and danced like they were under a spell and there was no tomorrow. I wondered if they'd ever be going home. I don't know where Freddie learned to play piano like that. Maybe he picked it up in the pen. Sounds crazy to me, but he says it has a lot to do with remembering sounds and how they feel. Playing checkers helps too, he told me. Now you figure that one.
Since that night, nine years ago now, I've opened two more clubs. He works all three places, and we call them "Three Finger Freddie's" since Freddie and I are partners now. The man is hard on pianos, though, and I have had to put special wood on the floors to keep Freddie from pushing them in with that peg.
He stopped mumbling to himself about five years ago. I do notice, though, that sometimes his good eye fills up and spills over whenever he's playing something quiet and sweet. Looks like he's got-ten over that word "nigger," too, because no more parts are missing that I know of. No more parts, that is, since the brawl about five years ago when he got both his eardrums broke and lost his power to hear.
"Someday he'll come along-- that man I love,
And he'll be big and strong--"
I need to hear
Songs that I can sing
Words I can remember
Melodies that haunt
Sounds that sustain me
While waiting for that man I love
(Who I haven't even met yet)
To come get me on his fine black steed
And take me away
Gently intent on the passion
With love deed
Or he can just drive on up in his raggedy old car
Or come walkin'
I'll have his supper ready and
Leave the door ajar.
Because the wind is howling, honey,
And the coal is low.
But he better hurry up and get here
'Cause I ain't gonna wait forever.
"Someday he'll come along. That man I love--"
Aunt Zurletha had pretty red hair, light brown eyes, and blue-black skin. A circle of rouge was on each cheek. The shiny red lipstick on her full mouth matched her fingernail polish which matched her toenail polish. Usually, she wore earrings that looked like diamonds that matched the three rings she always wore.
My brother William said she looked like a witch, which made me wonder when and where he had ever seen a witch. My other brother, Curtis, said she looked pathetic. "Pathetic" was his new word that year. Everything was "pathetic." My father, Hosea, said she looked like a hustler. "Zurletha the Zero," he used to say. I thought she was pretty, especially when she smiled. Her teeth were even, and so white. Mama used to say, "You can just quit so much talk about Zurletha. She's the only roomer that pays her rent in advance."
I heard her say to Hosea one night, "Who could we turn to when we had that fire in the shop and folks suing you for their clothes and the insurance company practically blaming you for starting your own fire and all the fires in Harlem for the last ten years? Who in this world could we turn to? Tell me. We would have starved to death but for Zurletha. No, I will not let you put her out." "Now hold on, Mat. Gratitude is a thing you have got to understand. I am grateful- grateful to God who made it possible for me not to go under. That woman was just God's instrument, God's way of showing men"
"You just mad because you can't get her to that church of yours."
"Mat, the woman needs a church home. She needs something more in her life besides those white folks she works for. She needs to find God."
"Not in that raggedy little broken-down store-front, Hosea. You know how she likes pretty things."
"That is precisely what worries me, Mat. That is precisely why I want her out of here. Take Baby- she practically worships her. And if I catch her one more time messing around in that woman's room-"
"Zurletha doesn't mind. She told me Baby's just having a little fun," Mama said.
"A little fun can leave you dragging a lifetime load. I've seen too much, Mat. I know what I'm talking about."
"Alright, Hosea-- that's how you feel, we can keep Baby out of there."
"Playing with them beads and that glass junk she calls jewelry. Rubbing up against those rabbits she's got hanging on the door-"
"They are not rabbits, and you know it. Mink, that's what it is. A mink coat, and she's also got a fox stole."
"Don't care if it's dog. I want Baby's mind steady on her books and her grades and on what she is going to do with her life."
"Alright, alright, Hosea. Stop preaching at me. Put that light out now. Go on to sleep."
"Keep that door locked when Zurletha's not in there, y'hear."
I didn't understand my father sometimes. Aunt Zurletha- and he made us call her "Aunt"- had been living with us on her days off for as long as I can remember. She didn't want us to call her Miss Battles. And Hosea wouldn't let us say just "Zurletha." The people she worked for called her "Zurlie." I think that's the only thing she didn't like- "Zurlie" this and "Zurlie" that for forty years. She was always giving us something. Gave Curtis his own radio. Gave William a microscope. My last birthday, last August, she gave me a guitar. You should've heard her play the guitar. We'd come home from Sunday school and hear her singing and stomping her foot. Made us want to dance. If Hosea came home to eat before going back to church, she'd stop. Soon as he left, though, she'd open her door, and we'd all go in, me first.
She had so many beautiful things. Real crystal glasses that she could tap with her fingernail and make sounds like music. There wasn't too much room to walk, so mostly I sat on her big brass bed. And she'd let me play with the silver candlesticks or try on the jewelry and hats. She had such pretty suitcases, too. Since the guitar, though, whenever she came home, she'd show me how to play different chords. We'd practice very quietly.
One time she took us to the beach on the subway. Hosea was in Washington, and Mama had promised us we could go. It was still dark when I heard her in the kitchen. I got up and she let me help her pack this big straw basket with all kinds of food she had brought with her the night before. William and Curtis carried the blankets. She carried the basket. I had Curtis's radio. It was a beautiful day, and we had such a good time, too, even Curtis with his smart-alecky self.
Aunt Zurletha had on a silky blue-and-green bathing suit and some kind of rubber sandals that had lots of straps and curved heels with big holes through them and her pretty red hair was tied in a ponytail and, as always, she had on her jewelry.
William and Curtis were whispering behind her back and making fun, saying she looked like a cow-pig. I think she must have heard them talking about her bunion sticking out of her strappy sandals, even though she was laughing and shaking her shoulders to the music on Curtis's radio as she set up the umbrella and opened the blankets. Later, when me and Curtis and William came out of the water, she had the lunch all set out and was stretched out reading True Love magazine. The sun was bouncing off her bracelet as I reached over and started twisting it around her arm. She took it off and said, "Here, you can wear it for a while." I put it on my arm and ran out from under the umbrella and started pretending I was a rich lady. William said, "You think you something, huh? She probably stole it." This time I know she heard because just before we started to eat, she took the bracelet off my arm.
"You always have such pretty things, Aunt Zurletha," I said.
And she said, "Ought to. I've been working mighty hard for a lotta years. Then, too, my people < buy men or give men a lot of stuff. Especially when the children were small. We traveled all over then." "They must be some rich people, man," Curtis said.
"Rich? They got money's mama," Aunt Zurletha
"What does money's mama look like, and who's the daddy?" William asked.
Zurletha laughed and took a dainty little bite of one of the sandwiches.
"They probably stole all that money," William said. "Hosea says that rich folks are thieves."
"Not my people," said Zurletha. "My people are just plain smart. And white, too, you know?"
I thought William sounded jealous, and mean, too.
"And how come they didn't give you some of that money instead of all that other junk?"
Aunt Zurletha didn't even seem mad.
"It's not junk, William. They give me expensive things. Years ago, too, when I wanted to bake pies to sell, they were going to set me up a place."
"What happened, Aunt Zurletha?" I asked.
Then she told us how her lady got pregnant again and didn't want her to leave, and how they kept promising to set up the pie place but never did, what with all the traveling and more babies coming; then, being in charge of opening all the different houses; and with her people getting sick and dying one right after the other; and how the children not wanting her to leave, she just finally got out of the notion of a pie place.
"Why you never got married, Aunt Zurletha?" Curtis asked.
"One time I was gonna get married-- this was before you children were even thought of. But again, something came up with my people, and we stayed in Europe. I should say we stayed all over Europe for a year. And when I came back, lo and behold, he had married somebody else. Never will forget. Said it came to him that I was already married-- married to a damn job, was the way he put it."
Sometimes I could just ball up my fist and hit William in the mouth.
"O-o-o, you should have quit that job, Aunt Zurletha, and married what's-his-name."
"Frank. His name was Frank." Aunt Zurletha looked sad for a second. Then she leaned over and started cutting the cake. "Then I wouldn't have you for my kids," she said.
Curtis nudged William and pointed at the kinky gray hair sticking out from under the red wig. Aunt Zurletha must have eyes all around her head, just like Mama. She fixed the wig, so the gray didn't show. And I thought it was strange- just at that moment that song "Darling I Am Growing Old" came on the radio. Then Aunt Zurletha started singing, and doing a little dance on her tiptoes, as she passed out the cake.
I wish I could remember more about Aunt Zurletha, but she was never really home that much. I think often about her last summer with us, though. Our for-real aunt, Marie, was a nurse, and she had arranged for us to go to a summer camp for two weeks. Hosea and Mama just had to get our clothes ready- that's all. We didn't even think about Aunt Zurletha, we were having such a good time. And Mama and Hosea didn't tell us in their letter that she had been in the hospital. We didn't find out until they picked us up at the bus terminal on the way home. I was so ashamed that we hadn't thought about her. I could have drawn her a funny get-well card.
After camp, first thing, I knocked on her door and went in before she said come in. All her beautiful stuff was packed in boxes and piled on top of the radiator, and beside the window, under the bed- everywhere. It looked like she was planning to move. Everything looked gray, except for the afternoon sun against the window shade. A sweet-smelling spray mingled with the odor of- something like when Hosea found a dead mouse that had gotten caught in the little space between the stove and the sink.
I had never seen Aunt Zurletha without the wig and without the red lipstick and the beautiful earrings. Her black, black face was lying on the white, white pillow. It looked smooth like wax. Her hair was cornrowed, ending in two thin braids, and almost gone in the front and on the sides where the wig use to be. It seemed like she stayed that way for the rest of the summer.
She didn't want us children to come into her room, so I would sit on the little rug outside her door and play some of the things she had showed me on the guitar. Mama would bring food. Hosea used to say, "It's a shame. Why didn't she tell somebody she was so sick?"
Mama said, "Guess she didn't want to worry us. She complained one or two times, but she told me she just didn't have the time to go sit in some doctor's office."
That fall, they took her away to the hospital again. And one day while I was in school, Aunt Zurletha died. When I came home, the room was empty. All the boxes, the brass bed, the furs, the lamps, and the glasses, the china ornaments-- everything, gone.
"It just so happened, Baby," Mama said, "the people she sold all her things to came today to pick them up."
A bottle of fingernail polish was on the window-sill. It was hard to open. I don't know why, but I started painting my thumbnail. Then I found myself kneeling on the floor, with my head on the windowsill, crying. Crying like I couldn't stop. And the polish spilled all over my middy blouse. Luckily I didn't spill it all. There was a little left, and I promised myself not to ever use it, because it was all I had to remember Aunt Zurletha by.
"Nail polish? That's not what she left you, Baby," Mama said. "She left us all her cash money. She left a will. Enough for each of you to go one year in college."
"I'm hoping they will get scholarships," Hosea said.
"Well, we can see to that when the time comes." Mama started crying.
"Aw, come on now, Mat, sweetheart," Hosea said. "You know Zurletha wanted to go. See how she planned everything. Too bad, though, she never planned to get with God."
What Hosea said made me scream at him, "Yeah, but she will. And when she does, I hope she'll have on her red wig, and her rouge, and her fingernail polish, with toes to match and all her jewelry, and kiss God with her greasy lipstick on. I bet He'll just hug and kiss her back, and tell her how beautiful she is."
Daddy just looked at me a long time after that. Then he walked across the room and put his arms around me. I couldn't remember the last time he did that. He said, "Come on now. Crying won't bring her back, Baby. If crying would bring her back, maybe I'd cry along with you. Won't find another roomer who--" He went over to Mama, took her by the shoulders, and shook her a little bit before he hugged her and said, "She got to be part of this family, Mat. She really did. We're going to miss her alright. All of us."
That day I felt something that I'd been afraid of all my life tumble down inside my father and he became a gentler man. And from that day, whenever I think about Aunt Zurletha, I hear the music of crystal glasses as they touch tingling around me and I feel happy.
She of middle years who
Hard-hurdled handicaps who
Had attained who
Selected from choice
Flicked specks from
Pearled precise black with
Was seen to
Huge crate of
Stumble, reel, abandon
Move on out
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