Old Easter by Ruth McEnery Stuart

Story type: Literature

Nearly everybody in New Orleans knew Old Easter, the candy-woman. She was very black, very wrinkled, and very thin, and she spoke with a wiry, cracked voice that would have been pitiful to hear had it not been so merry and so constantly heard in the funny high laughter that often announced her before she turned a street corner, as she hobbled along by herself with her old candy-basket balanced on her head.

People who had known her for years said that she had carried her basket in this way for so long that she could walk more comfortably with it than without it. Certainly her head and its burden seemed to give her less trouble than her feet, as she picked her way along the uneven banquettes with her stick. But then her feet were tied up in so many rags that even if they had been young and strong it would have been hard for her to walk well with them. Sometimes the rags were worn inside her shoes and sometimes outside, according to the shoes she wore. All of these were begged or picked out of trash heaps, and she was not at all particular about them, just so they were big enough to hold her old rheumatic feet–though she showed a special liking for men’s boots.

When asked why she preferred to wear boots she would always answer, promptly, “Ter keep off snake bites”; and then she would almost certainly, if there were listeners enough, continue in this fashion: “You all young trash forgits dat I dates back ter de snake days in dis town. Why, when I was a li’l’ gal, about so high, I was walkin’ along Canal Street one day, barefeeted, an’ not lookin’ down, an’ terrectly I feel some’h’n’ nip me ‘ snip!‘ in de big toe, an’ lookin’ quick I see a grea’ big rattlesnake–“

As she said “snip,” the street children who were gathered around her would start and look about them, half expecting to see a great snake suddenly appear upon the flag-stones of the pavement.

At this the old woman would scream with laughter as she assured them that there were thousands of serpents there now that they couldn’t see, because they had only “single sight,” and that many times when they thought mosquitoes were biting them they were being “‘tackted by deze heah onvisible snakes.”

It is easy to see why the children would gather about her to listen to her talk.

Nobody knew how old Easter was. Indeed, she did not know herself, and when any one asked her, she would say, “I ‘spec’ I mus’ be ‘long about twenty-fo’,” or, “Don’t you reckon I mus’ be purty nigh on to nineteen?” And then, when she saw from her questioner’s face that she had made a mistake, she would add, quickly: “I means twenty-fo’ hund’ed, honey,” or, “I means a hund’ed an’ nineteen,” which latter amendment no doubt came nearer the truth.

Having arrived at a figure that seemed to be acceptable, she would generally repeat it, in this way:

“Yas, missy; I was twenty-fo’ hund’ed years ole las’ Easter Sunday.”

The old woman had never forgotten that she had been named Easter because she was born on that day, and so she always claimed Easter Sunday as her birthday, and no amount of explanation would convince her that this was not always true.

“What diff’ence do it make ter me ef it comes soon or late, I like ter know?” she would argue. “Ef it comes soon, I gits my birfday presents dat much quicker; an’ ef it comes late, you all got dat much mo’ time ter buy me some mo’. ‘Tain’t fur me ter deny my birfday caze it moves round.”

And then she would add, with a peal of her high, cracked laughter: “Seem ter me, de way I keeps a-livin’ on–an’ a-livin’ on– an’ a-livin’ on –maybe deze heah slip-aroun’ birfdays don’t pin a pusson down ter ole age so close’t as de clock-work reg’lars does.”

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And then, if she were in the mood for it, she would set her basket down, and, without lifting her feet from the ground, go through a number of quick and comical movements, posing with her arms and body in a way that was absurdly like dancing.

Old Easter had been a very clever woman in her day, and many an extra picayune had been dropped into her wrinkled palm–nobody remembered the time when it wasn’t wrinkled–in the old days, just because of some witty answer she had given while she untied the corner of her handkerchief for the coins to make change in selling her candy.

One of the very interesting things about the old woman was her memory. It was really very pleasant to talk with a person who could distinctly recall General Jackson and Governor Claiborne, who would tell blood-curdling tales of Lafitte the pirate and of her own wonderful experiences when as a young girl she had served his table at Barataria.

If, as her memory failed her, the old creature was tempted into making up stories to supply the growing demand, it would not be fair to blame her too severely. Indeed, it is not at all certain that, as the years passed, she herself knew which of the marvellous tales she related were true and which made to order.

“Yas, sir,” she would say, “I ricollec’ when all dis heah town wasn’t nothin’ but a alligator swamp–no houses–no fences–no streets–no gas-postes–no ‘lection lights–no– no riverno nothin’ !”

If she had only stopped before she got to the river, she would have kept the faith of her hearers better, but it wouldn’t have been half so funny.

“There wasn’t anything here then but you and the snakes, I suppose?” So a boy answered her one day, thinking to tease her a little.

“Yas, me an’ de snakes an’ alligators an’ Gineral Jackson an’ my ole marster’s gran’daddy an’–“

“And Adam?” added the mischievous fellow, still determined to worry her if possible.

“Yas, Marse Adam an’ ole Mistus, Mis’ Eve, an’ de great big p’isonous fork-tailed snake wha’ snatch de apple dat Marse Adam an’ Mis’ Eve was squabblin’ over–an’ et it up!”

When she had gotten this far, while the children chuckled, she began reaching for her basket, that she had set down upon the banquette. Lifting it to her head, now, she walled her eyes around mysteriously as she added:

“Yas, an’ you better look out fur dat p’isonous fork-tailed snake, caze he’s agoin’ roun’ hear right now; an’ de favoristest dinner dat he craves ter eat is des sech no-‘count, sassy, questionin’ street-boys like you is.”

And with a toss of her head that set her candy-basket swaying and a peal of saw-teeth laughter, she started off, while her would-be teaser found that the laugh was turned on himself.

It was sometimes hard to know when Easter was serious or when she was amusing herself–when she was sensible or when she wandered in her mind. And to the thoughtless it was always hard to take her seriously.

Only those who, through all her miserable rags and absurdities, saw the very poor and pitiful old, old woman, who seemed always to be companionless and alone, would sometimes wonder about her, and, saying a kind and encouraging word, drop a few coins in her slim, black hand without making her lower her basket. Or they would invite her to “call at the house” for some old worn flannels or odds and ends of cold victuals.

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And there were a few who never forgot her in their Easter offerings, for which, as for all other gifts, she was requested to “call at the back gate.” This seemed, indeed, the only way of reaching the weird old creature, who had for so many years appeared daily upon the streets, nobody seemed to know from where, disappearing with the going down of the sun as mysteriously as the golden disk itself. Of course, if any one had cared to insist upon knowing how she lived or where she stayed at nights, he might have followed her at a distance. But it is sometimes very easy for a very insignificant and needy person to rebuff those who honestly believe themselves eager to help. And so, when Old Easter, the candy-woman, would say, in answer to inquiries about her life, “I sleeps at night ‘way out by de Metarie Ridge Cemetery, an’ gets up in de mornin’ up at de Red Church. I combs my ha’r wid de latanier, an’ washes my face in de Ole Basin,” it was so easy for those who wanted to help her to say to their consciences, “She doesn’t want us to know where she lives,” and, after a few simple kindnesses, to let the matter drop.

The above ready reply to what she would have called their “searchin’ question” proved her a woman of quick wit and fine imagination. Anybody who knows New Orleans at all well knows that Metarie Ridge Cemetery, situated out of town in the direction of the lake shore, and the old Red Church, by the riverside above Carrollton, are several miles apart. People know this as well as they know that the latanier is the palmetto palm of the Southern wood, with its comb-like, many-toothed leaves, and that the Old Basin is a great pool of scum-covered, murky water, lying in a thickly-settled part of the French town, where numbers of small sailboats, coming in through the bayou with their cargoes of lumber from the coast of the Sound, lie against one another as they discharge and receive their freight.

If all the good people who knew her in her grotesque and pitiful street character had been asked suddenly to name the very poorest and most miserable person in New Orleans, they would almost without doubt have immediately replied, “Why, old Aunt Easter, the candy-woman. Who could be poorer than she?”

To be old and black and withered and a beggar, with nothing to recommend her but herself–her poor, insignificant, ragged self–who knew nobody and whom nobody knew–that was to be poor, indeed.

Of course, Old Easter was not a professional beggar, but it was well known that before she disappeared from the streets every evening one end of her long candy-basket was generally pretty well filled with loose paper parcels of cold victuals, which she was always sure to get at certain kitchen doors from kindly people who didn’t care for her poor brown twists. There had been days in the past when Easter peddled light, porous sticks of snow-white taffy, cakes of toothsome sugar-candy filled with fresh orange-blossoms, and pralines of pecans or cocoa-nut. But one cannot do everything.

One cannot be expected to remember General Jackson, spin long, imaginative yarns of forgotten days, and make up-to-date pralines at the same time. If the people who had ears to listen had known the thing to value, this old, old woman could have sold her memories, her wit, and even her imagination better than she had ever sold her old-fashioned sweets.

But the world likes molasses candy. And so Old Easter, whose meagre confections grew poorer as her stories waxed in richness, walked the streets in rags and dirt and absolute obscurity.

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An old lame dog, seeming instinctively to know her as his companion in misery, one day was observed to crouch beside her, and, seeing him, she took down her basket and entertained him from her loose paper parcels.

And once–but this was many years ago, and the incident was quite forgotten now–when a crowd of street fellows began pelting Crazy Jake, a foolish, half-paralyzed black boy, who begged along the streets, Easter had stepped before him, and, after receiving a few of their clods in her face, had struck out into the gang of his tormenters, grabbed two of its principal leaders by the seats of their trousers, spanked them until they begged for mercy, and let them go.

Nobody knew what had become of Crazy Jake after that. Nobody cared. The poor human creature who is not due at any particular place at any particular time can hardly be missed, even when the time comes when he himself misses the here and the there where he has been wont to spend his miserable days, even when he, perhaps having no one else, it is possible that he misses his tormenters.

It was a little school-girl who saw the old woman lower her basket to share her scraps with the street dog. It seemed to her a pretty act, and so she told it when she went home. And she told it again at the next meeting of the particular “ten” of the King’s Daughters of which she was a member.

And this was how the name of Easter, the old black candy-woman, came to be written upon their little book as their chosen object of charity for the coming year.

The name was not written, however, without some opposition, some discussion, and considerable argument. There were several of the ten who could not easily consent to give up the idea of sending their little moneys to an Indian or a Chinaman–or to a naked black fellow in his native Africa.

There is something attractive in the savage who sticks bright feathers in his hair, carries a tomahawk, and wears moccasins upon his nimble feet. Most young people take readily to the idea of educating a picturesque savage and teaching him that the cast-off clothes they send him are better than his beads and feathers. The picturesque quality is very winning, find it where we may.

People at a distance may see how very much more interesting and picturesque the old black woman, Easter, was than any of these, but she did not seem so to the ten good little maidens who finally agreed to adopt her for their own–to find her out in her home life, and to help her.

With them it was an act of simple pity–an act so pure in its motive that it became in itself beautiful.

Perhaps the idea gained a little following from the fact that Easter Sunday was approaching, and there was a pleasing fitness in the old woman’s name when it was proposed as an object for their Easter offerings. But this is a slight consideration.

Certainly when three certain very pious little maidens started out on the following Saturday morning to find the old woman, Easter, they were full of interest in their new object, and chattered like magpies, all three together, about the beautiful things they were going to do for her.

Somehow, it never occurred to them that they might not find her either at the Jackson Street and St. Charles Avenue corner, or down near Lee Circle, or at the door of the Southern Athletic Club, at the corner of Washington and Prytania streets.

But they found her at none of the familiar haunts; they did not discover any trace of her all that day, or for quite a week afterward. They had inquired of the grocery-man at the corner where she often rested–of the portresses of several schools where she sometimes peddled her candy at recess-time, and at the bakery where she occasionally bought a loaf of yesterday’s bread. But nobody remembered having seen her recently.

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Several people knew and were pleased to tell how she always started out in the direction of the swamp every evening when the gas was lit in the city, and that she turned out over the bridge along Melpomene Street, stopping to collect stray bits of cabbage leaves and refuse vegetables where the bridgeway leads through Dryades Market. Some said that she had a friend there, who hid such things for her to find, under one of the stalls, but this may not have been true.

It was on the Saturday morning after their first search that three little “Daughters of the King” started out a second time, determined if possible to trace Old Easter to her hiding-place.

It was a shabby, ugly, and crowded part of town in which, following the bridged road, and inquiring as they went, they soon found themselves.

For a long time it seemed a fruitless search, and they were almost discouraged when across a field, limping along before a half-shabby, fallen gate, they saw an old, lame, yellow dog.

It was the story of her sharing her dinner with the dog on the street that had won these eager friends for the old woman, and so, perhaps, from an association of ideas, they crossed the field, timidly, half afraid of the poor miserable beast that at once attracted and repelled them.

But they need not have feared. As soon as he knew they were visitors, the social fellow began wagging his little stump of a tail, and with a sort of coaxing half-bark asked them to come in and make themselves at home.

Not so cordial, however, was the shy and reluctant greeting of the old woman, Easter, who, after trying in vain to rise from her chair as they entered her little room, motioned to them to be seated on her bed. There was no other seat vacant, the second chair of the house being in use by a crippled black man, who sat out upon the back porch, nodding.

As they took their seats, the yellow dog, who had acted as usher, squatted serenely in their midst, with what seemed a broad grin upon his face, and then it was that the little maid who had seen the incident recognized him as the poor old street dog who had shared old Easter’s dinner.

Two other dogs, poor, ugly, common fellows, had strolled out as they came in, and there were several cats lying huddled together in the sun beside the chair of the sleeping figure on the back porch.

It was a poor little home–as poor as any imagination could picture it. There were holes in the floor–holes in the roof–cracks everywhere. It was, indeed, not considered, to use a technical word, “tenable,” and there was no rent to pay for living in it.

But, considering things, it was pretty clean. And when its mistress presently recovered from her surprise at her unexpected visitors, she began to explain that “ef she’d ‘a’ knowed dey was comin’ to call, she would ‘a’ scoured up a little.”

Her chief apologies, however, were for the house itself and its location, “away outside o’ quality neighborhoods in de swampy fields.”

“I des camps out here, missy,” she finally explained, “bec’ase dey’s mo’ room an’ space fur my family.” And here she laughed–a high, cracked peal of laughter–as she waved her hand in the direction of the back porch.

“Dey ain’t nobody ter pleg Crazy Jake out here, an’ him an’ me, wid deze here lame an’ crippled cats an’ dogs–why, we sets out yonder an’ talks together in de evenin’s after de ‘lection lights is lit in de tower market and de moon is lit in de sky. An’ Crazy Jake–why, when de moon’s on de full, Crazy Jake he can talk knowledge good ez you kin. I fetched him out here about a million years ago, time dey was puttin’ him in de streets, caze dey was gwine hurt him. An’ he knows mighty smart, git him ter talkin’ right time o’ de moon! But mos’ gin’ally he forgits.

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“Ef I hadn’t ‘a’ fell an’ sprained my leg las’ week, de bread it wouldn’t ‘a’ ‘mos’ give out, like it is, but I done melt down de insides o’ some ole condense’-milk cans, an’ soak de dry bread in it for him, an’ to-morrer I’m gwine out ag’in. Yas, to-morrer I’m bleeged to go, caze you know to-morrer dats my birfday, an’ all my family dey looks for a party on my birfday–don’t you, you yaller, stub-tail feller you! Ef e warn’t sort o’ hongry, I’d make him talk fur yer; but I ‘ain’t learnt him much yit. He’s my new-comer!”

This last was addressed to the yellow dog.

“I had blin’ Pete out here till ‘istiddy. I done ‘dopted him las’ year, but he struck out ag’in beggin’, ‘caze he say he can’t stand dis heah soaked victuals. But Pete, he ain’t rale blin’, nohow. He’s des got a sinkin’ sperit, an’ he can’t work, an’ I keeps him caze a sinkin’ sperit what ain’t got no git-up to it hit’s a heap wuss ‘n blin’ness. He’s got deze heah yaller-whited eyes, an’ when he draps his leds over ’em an’ trimbles ’em, you’d swear he was stone-blin’, an’ dat stuff wha’ he rubs on ’em it’s inju’ious to de sight, so I keeps him and takes keer of him now so I won’t have a blin’ man on my hands–an’ to save him f’om sin, too.

“Ma’am? What you say, missy? De cats? Why, honey, dey welcome to come an’ go. I des picked ’em up here an’ dar ‘caze dey was whinin’. Any breathin’ thing dat I sees dat’s poorer ‘n what I is, why, I fetches ’em out once-t, an’ dey mos’ gin’ally stays.

“But if you yo’ng ladies ‘ll come out d’reckly after Easter Sunday, when I got my pervisions in, why I’ll show you how de ladies intertain dey company in de old days when Gin’ral Jackson used ter po’ de wine.”

Needless to say, there was such a birthday party as had never before been known in the little shanty on the Easter following the visit of the three little maids of the King’s Daughters.

When Old Easter had finished her duties as hostess, sharing her good things equally with those who sat at her little table and those who squatted in an outer circle on the floor, she remarked that it carried her away back to old times when she stood behind the governor’s chair “while he h’isted his wineglass an’ drink ter de ladies’ side curls.” And Crazy Jake said yes, he remembered, too. And then he began to nod, while blind Pete remarked, “To my eyes de purtiest thing about de whole birfday party is de bo’quet o’ Easter lilies in de middle o’ de table.”

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