I lived in Baltimore during the Depression in an inner-city area of brick houses that had been restored to some degree of their 1800s elegance. Our house, like the others, had its white marble steps, 13 foot ceilings, a basement living area where there had been a kitchen, a dumb-waiter, two set tubs for the laundress, a toilet, and a table in the middle of the big room. In short, a place for the servants. And, most importantly, a big coal bin and furnace.
Even without the plethora of servants of the previous era, in the 30s we still needed a washer woman, and a furnace man to stoke the furnace. And upstairs we had Ruthie who was cook, housekeeper and baby-sitter about whom I have already written.
Our house was on the last street of the city’s "improvement area" so that only one block away the poor black area started. Behind our house there was a little brick paved area that contained the clothes dryer, and beyond that, grass extending to the alley, all enclosed with a solid brick wall with a heavy gate.
Clayton was our African-American furnace-man who came every day, shoveled the coal into the furnace, took out the ashes and scrubbed the marble steps. Clayton had never married and was a devoted church-goer who occasionally needed minor medical attention. My mother would drive him to the free clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital and sit down at the end of the long line with him.
So I grew up, married, moved to Pittsfield and eventually had a baby. When Peter was a couple of months old, I took him to Baltimore to visit his grandparents. While they were ohing and ahing over him, Clayton happened to come into the room to ask something. He had never seen a tiny baby before! I asked whether he would like to hold him. "Oh, no’m, I couldn’t," he said, meaning "Oh, yes’m, please!" I sat him down, and laid Peter in his arms. He gazed at the infant as if he were looking at the Baby Jesus. I can never forget it.
Many years later I got a letter from home describing an incident that blew my mind. Clayton had walked home after work as usual (three miles through the slums) but when he got home, he suddenly panicked because he couldn’t remember whether he had locked the big gate behind himself. Of course he didn’t have a phone, so he just got up and walked back. To his relief, he found the gate securely fastened and walked back three miles after dark through the slums to his room.
When my mother told me this story I was flabbergasted. I sat down and wrote a letter to Clayton, addressed in care of my parents, that went something like this:
My mother wrote me yesterday about how you walked six miles in the dark the other day just to make sure you had closed her back gate when you left. As you know, I am living too far from my parents to be able to watch out for them or know how they are doing. So it is a huge relief to me to know that they have a friend who will go to such lengths to take good care of them, even when it causes him a lot of trouble. Thank you very, very much for your kindness.
Signed, Miss Dorry."
I have no answers to the BIG questions, like "Who created the universe?" "God did? -- then, who created God?" "Is there a heaven?" and if so, "What is it like?" "How old is the universe?" "How big?" "Getting bigger?"
But I do know one thing for absolutely sure. IF there is a heaven, Clayton is there. He has been assigned to the nursery where he is helping take care of the babies.
Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.