A Sequence of Servants

When I look buck on the line of servants my mother hired during the years I lived at home, I remember clearly ten or twelve of them (we had about a hundred and sixty-two, all told, but few of them were memorable). There was, among the immortals, Dora Gedd, a quiet, mousy girl of thirty-two who one night shot at a man in her room, throwing our house-hold into an uproar that was equaled perhaps only by the goings-on the night the ghost got in.

Nobody knew how her lover, a morose garage man, got into the house, but everybody for two blocks knew how he got out. Dora had dressed up in a lavender evening gown for the occasion and she wore a mass of jewellery, some of which was my mother’s. She kept shouting something from Shakespeare after the shooting—I forget just what—and pursued the gentleman downstairs from her attic room. When he got to the second floor he rushed into my father’s room. It was this entrance, and not the shot or the shouting, that aroused father, a deep sleeper always.

“Get me out of here!” shouted the victim. This situation rapidly developed, from then on, into one of those bewildering involvements for which my family had, I am afraid, a kind of unhappy genius. When the cops arrived Dora was shooting out the Welsbach gas mantles in the living room, and her gentleman friend had fled. By dawn everything was quiet once more.

There were others. Gertie Straub: big, genial, and ruddy, a collector of pints of rye (we learned after she was gone), who came in after two o’clock one night from a dancing party at Buckeye Lake and awakened us by bumping into and knocking over furniture. “Who’s down there?” called mother from upstairs. “It’s me, dearie,” said Gertie, “Gertie Straub.” “What are you doing?’1” demanded mother. “Dusting,” said Gertie.

Dusting, said Gertie
“Dusting”, said Gertie

Juanemma Kramer was one of my favourites. Her mother loved the name Juanita so dearly that she worked the first part of it into the names of all her daughters—they were (in addi-tion to a Juanita) Juanemma, Juanhelen, and Juangrace. Jua-nemma was a thin, nervous maid who lived in constant dread of being hypnotized. Nor were her fears unfounded, for she was so extremely susceptible to hypnotic suggestion that one evening at B. F. Keith’s theatre when a man on the stage was hypnotized, Juanemma, in the audience, was hypnotized too and floundered out into the aisle making the same cheeping sound that the subject on the stage, who had been told he was a chicken, was making.

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The act was abandoned and some xylophone players were brought on to restore order. One night, when our house was deep in quiet slumber, Juanemma became hypnotized in her sleep. She dreamed that a man “put her under” and then disappeared without “bringing her out.” This was explained when, at last, a police surgeon whom we called in—he was the only doctor we could persuade to come out at three in the morning—slapped her into consciousness.

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It got so finally that any buzzing or whirring sound or any flashing object would put Juanemma under, and we had to let her go. I was reminded of her recently when, at a performance of the movie “Rasputin and the Empress,” there came the scene in which Lionel Barrymore as the unholy priest hypnotized the Czarevitch by spinning before her eyes a glittering watch. If Juanemma sat in any theatre and witnessed that scene she must, I am sure, have gone under instantly. Happily, she seems to have missed the picture, for otherwise Mr. Barrymore might have had to dress up again as Rasputin (which God forbid) and journey across the country to get her out of it— excellent publicity but a great bother.

Before I go on to Vashti, whose last name I forget, I will look in passing at another of our white maids (Vashti was a Negress). Belle Giddin distinguished herself by one gesture which fortunately did not result in the bedlam occasioned by Juanemma’s hypnotic states or Dora Gedd’s shooting spree. Belle burned her finger previously, and purposely, one after-noon in the steam of a boiling kettle so that she could find out whether the pain-killer she had bought one night at a tent-show for fifty cents was any good.

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It was only fair. Vashti turned out, in the end, to be partly legendary. She was a comely and sombre Negress who was always able to find things my mother lost. “I don’t know what’s become of my garnet brooch,” my mother said one day. “Yassum,” said Vashti. In half an hour she had found it. “Where in the world was it?” asked mother. “In de yahd,” said Vashti. “De dog mussa drug it out.”

Vashti was in love with a young Negro chauffeur named Charley, but she was also desired by her stepfather, whom none of us had ever seen but who was, she said, a handsome but messin’ round gentleman from Georgia who had come north and married Vashti’s mother just so he could be near Vashti. Charley, her fiancée, was for killing the stepfather but we counselled flight to another city. Vashti, however, would burst into tears and hymns and vow she’d never leave us; she got a certain pleasure out of bearing her cross. Thus we all lived in jeopardy, for the possibility that Vashti, Charley, and her stepfather might fight it out some night in our kitchen did not, at times, seem remote. Once I went into the kitchen at midnight to make some coffee. Charley was standing at a window looking out into the backyard; Vashti was rolling her eyes.

“Heah he come! Heah he come!” she moaned. The stepfather didn’t show up, however. Charley finally saved up twenty-seven dollars toward tak-ing Vashti away but one day he impulsively bought a .22 revolver with a mother-of-pearl handle and demanded that Vashti tell him where her mother and stepfather lived. “Doan go up dere, doan go up dere!” said Vashti. “Mah mothah is just as rarin’ as he is!” Charley, however, insisted. It came out then that Vashti didn’t have any stepfather; there was no such per-son. Charley threw her over for a yellow gal named Nancy: he never forgave Vashti for the vanishing from his life of a menace that had come to mean more to him than Vashti herself. After-wards, if you asked Vashti about her stepfather or about Charley she would say, proudly, and with a woman-of-the-world air, “Neither one ob ’em is messin’ round me any mo’.”

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Mrs. Doody, a huge, middle-aged woman with a religious taint, came into and went out of our house like a comet. The second night she was there she went berserk while doing the dishes and, under the impression that father was the Anti-christ, pursued him several times up the backstairs and down the front. He had been sitting quietly over his coffee in the living room when she burst in from the kitchen waving a bread knife. My brother Herman finally felled her with a piece of Libby’s cut-glass that had been a wedding present of mother’s. Mother, I remember, was in the attic at that time, trying to find some old things, and, appearing on the scene in the midst of it all, got the quick and mistaken impression that father was chasing Mrs. Doody.

One night while doing the dishes . . .
One night while doing the dishes . . .

Mrs. Robertson, a fat and mumbly old Negro woman, who might have been sixty and who might have been a hun-dred, gave us more than one turn during the many years that she did our washing. She had been a slave down South and she remembered having seen the troops marching—”a mess o’ blue, den a mess o’ gray.” “What,” my mother asked her once, “were they fighting about?” “Dat,” said Mrs. Robertson, “Ah don’t know.” She had a feeling, at all times, that something was going to happen. I can see her now, staggering up from the basement with a basketful of clothes and coming abruptly to a halt in the middle of the kitchen. “Hahk!” she would say, in a deep, guttural voice. We would all hark; there was never anything to be heard. Neither, when she shouted “Look yon-dah!” and pointed a trembling hand at a window, was there ever anything to be seen. Father protested time and again that he couldn’t stand Mrs. Robertson around, but mother always refused to let her go. It seems that she was a jewel.

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Once she walked unbidden, a dishpan full of wrung-out clothes under her arm, into father’s study, where he was engrossed in some figures. Father looked up. She regarded him for a moment in silence. Then—”Look out!” she said, and withdrew. Another time, a murky winter afternoon, she came flubbering up the cellar stairs and bounced, out of breath, into the kitchen. Father was in the kitchen sipping some black coffee; he was in a jittery state of nerves from the effects of having had a tooth out, and had been in bed most of the day. “Dey is a death watch downstaihs!” rumbled the old Negro lady. It developed that she had heard a strange “chipping” noise back of the furnace. “That was a cricket,” said father. “Um-^wz,” said Mrs. Robertson. “Dat was uh death watch!” With that she put on her hat and went home, poising just long enough at the back door to observe darkly to father, “Dey ain’t no way!” It upset him for days.

Mrs. Robertson had only one great hour that I can think of—Jack Johnson’s victory over Mistah Jeffries on the Fourth of July, 1910. She took a prominent part in the Negro parade through the South End that night, playing a Spanish fandango on a banjo. The procession was led by the pastor of her church who, Mrs. Robertson later told us, had ‘splained that the vic-tory of Jack over Mistah Jeffries proved “de ‘speriority ob de race.” “What,” asked my mother, “did he mean by that?” “Dat.” said Mrs. Robertson, “Ah don’t know.”

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Our other servants I don’t remember so clearly, except the one who set the house on fire (her name eludes me), and Edda Millmoss. Edda was always slightly morose but she had gone along for months, all the time she was with us, quietly and efficiently attending to her work, until the night we had Carson Blair and F. R. Gardiner to dinner — both men of importance to my father’s ambitions. Then suddenly, while serving the entrée, Edda dropped everything and, pointing a quivering finger at father, accused him in a long rigmarole of having done her out of her rights to the land on which Trinity Church in New York stands. Mr. Gardiner had one of his “attacks” and the whole evening turned out miserably.


A Sequence of Servants by James Thurber in My Life and Hard Times

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