I live in a house on the land where my grandmother worked as a maid. Frances Lillian Avery Batson spent decades as a domestic for the Jewett family in Upper Nyack. Several years ago, my fiancée and I moved into a cottage on property the Jewetts once owned. We have placed my grandmother’s favorite chair in a place of honor over looking the Hudson River, facing the view I am certain her work ethic never allowed her to enjoy.
Like many prized possessions of families without abundant means, this chair was almost lost forever. Few can afford to maintain or store furniture from previous generations. These items are lucky to be given away or sold. Most often, they are literally dumped on the trash heap of history.
In the constant shuffle of expanding and contracting families, grandma’s chair was sent off to be reupholstered and got abandoned at the antique store. I have MohamedMahmoud of Antique Masters to thank for its salvation. With one broken arm, sagging underneath the weight of threadbare fabric, the weakened chair was no longer suited for seating. So I brought it to Mohammad. I was lured by his sign “Bring me your broken chair, old lamp and your damaged table, and I’ll fix it and save you money.’
I paid for the service, but did not return when the work was completed. We were in a very cramped apartment and could not find room for the precious piece of furniture.
Despite my lack of retrieval of the chair (that I had by that time left behind for two years), it was not discarded or sold-off to cover the cost of storing it. Instead, Mohamed hung on to it for me. He understood the importance of the chair. One day as I walked down Main Street, on the opposite side of his shop in a not so subtle attempt to avoid Mohamed’s gaze, this earnest and honorable man intercepted me and said, “It’s your chair, come and take her back.”
It just so happened that Marisol and I had just moved into the cottage on the Jewett estate. And suddenly, in a bolt of recognition, I realized that the stars had aligned for my grandmother to return to her place of employment. (Thank you, Mohammad. My family is eternally grateful).
Chairs were very important in our household, or any hardworking homestead. Elders got special chairs that no one else could sit in. If you were cheeky enough to rest in one that was spoken for, you had to vacate from your surreptitious squat swiftly, when the rightful chair-heir arrived.
The chair would face the window with the most bucolic vista, or be closest to the fireplace or TV, whichever centerpiece families would gather around. In later years, with the advance in chair technology, the chair of honor would be the one that reclined.
As one aged, one got closer to inheriting the chair. The music of a funeral dirge would elevate you to that seat. I took my dad’s chair when he passed.
My father loved his chair. As a working man, he would rest his Schlitz beer on the TV tray and watch the news. During his slow decline, he would recline and bounce his feet when we’d play the music of his youth. He looked so secure in his seat. He was there for two meals each day and probably too much television watching and many naps. His chair might as well have been at the helm of a ship that sailed seas or flew through space. There, he was master and commander.
As supreme as my family may have felt at home, outside the house in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s things weren’t so sanguine for people of a darker complexion. American custom and culture of racial hierarchy dictated lesser roles. Even though my aunt had her own business, Batson Secretarial services, and my grandmother was a civic leader and a deacon, with as much power as any man or minister in her church, in the world of work, they were given servile parts to play.
But even within confines of the oppressive order that relegated one gender and any non-white person to servitude or second class citizenship, (a state of things that is shockingly still in effect), the Batson family never bent the knee.
My aunt rose close to the apex of public service as the Deputy Village clerk for the Village of Nyack and my grandmother most certainly was a competing matriarch in the homes that she visited dressed as a domestic. For example, in addition to her domestic duties she doubled as a Latin tutor. As a child she would have me recite Cicero’s speech to the Roman Senate given in 63 BC: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra!
On holidays, in the 70s, for as long as she had the strength, my grandmother continued to help her families with large meals. As a teenager, I found the arrangement wholly unacceptable. She would stay up all night before Thanksgiving cooking for us, but then leave the family table on the morning of the holiday to help others find comfort around their hearth.
There must have been some intense compassion that drove her to leave those she loved so much to work so hard for others. She must have found that the money that she received paid more than bills, but allowed her to share her love by deepening the security of her progeny.
The home on Jackson Avenue, where her chair first settled, was bulldozed in the early 1960’s. She was able to take her meager Urban Renewal compensation and with her wages as a maid, buy a home near Central Nyack, no small feat for a mid-century African American woman.
My grandmother’s chair came back to the Jewett estate in a trip that she bought and paid for with a life of service, dispatched without bitterness or contempt.
Her chair now faces the river she never watched as she scrubbed and fussed over some else’s stuff so that her grandchild could sit watching the water.
Rockland County Legislature’s Black History Month Celebration is being held tonight, February 4, 2020 at 6:30 pm sharp. Fellowship of Reconciliation Director, Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, and Officer Reginald Anderson are also being honored. The Rockland County Legislative Chambers is located at 11 New Hempstead Road in New City. Please call (845) 638-5773 if you have any questions.